Reflections on Newtown, Connecticut

REFLECTIONS ON NEWTOWN, CONNECTICUT

Like everyone who has heard this news, I am shocked (yet again), horrified, and deeply saddened by the murders of 20 children, 6 teachers, and the shooter’s mother — as well as his own suicide.  One wonders if he felt any remorse, or if this was just another aspect of the carnage, over-powering rage, and desperation.  We can empathize with everyone who lost a family member — especially the parents who lost their children in this random and cruel way — without even being there to comfort and hold the children as they died, but it is almost impossible to really imagine what that would be like.  I was touched by President Obama’s compassion, and by his determination to do “something” about these mass shootings, even if laws and safeguards cannot do “everything.”  We cannot keep our children entirely safe, as he said, but we can take necessary and sensible steps to keep them SAFER.  Better gun control. As someone said on CBC radio today, “I hope the people who love their guns love their children more.”  And better mental-health systems to diagnose and treat complex situations before they boil over.  (The young man clearly did not have a simple diagnosis of “this” or “that.” And we know that most people with mental-health issues are treatable, and do not become violent in this way).   The school itself seems to have been better prepared than many schools to face an emergency, with lock-down drills in place and teachers aware of what to do — but, sadly, this could not completely prevent the tragedy.  I am moved by the way the people in the community are supporting each other in their grief.

I am reminded of a poem I wrote in March 1998, one year before Columbine, when there was a shooting at a school in Arkansas, by two 12-year-olds who had stolen their parents’ guns.  That took me back to a discussion about guns in a creative-writing class I taught to teenagers in the summer of 1966, in Massachusetts when I was just out of college — as I mention in the poem, John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas in 1963, and that summer a man named Charles Joseph Whitman killed 13 people and wounded 32 others in and around the Tower of the University of Texas in Austin; he had already shot his wife and mother, also in Austin. Whitman himself was killed by a police officer during the incident.  One of my students, the only one in the class from Texas, wrote about killing a deer in the woods, his first hunting experience — and the other students were aghast at this use of a gun; at the time, he did not associate hunting animals with violence toward people.  I would like to cite the poem here.  Please note that I am not condoning his use of a gun, even for shooting deer, and I certainly advocate greater control in the U.S.  I was just writing about the different uses of guns, the growing impact of violence in the U.S. (and the world), and wondering if the process of writing and discussion helped this student become more aware. (I did find a way to contact him, about 10 years after writing the poem, and he is alive and well, remembered the incident, liked the poem, and has not turned to a life of violence).

In peace. 

OPEN LETTER ON BOYS WITH GUNS – for Chip

Where are you now, 32 years after that creative writing class,

I taught, just out of college. Then we were teacher and student,

now that seven-year gap is closing.

We might be friends, even lovers, if we met.

I hadn’t met anyone like you: the only southerner,

Texan, blond and blue-eyed, barely sixteen

raised in the company of men – ranchers, oil-drillers, hunters.

Vietnam was beginning to burn, and that summer

someone named Whitman climbed to the top of a Texas tower,

shot bullets down like bombs on civilians below.

Vengeance or madness, we asked.

We were still reeling from JFK’s murder in Texas,

three years before, followed by Malcolm X’s in New York.

Soon we’d witness the shooting of John’s brother Robert,

and Martin Luther King killed on Good Friday.

Yet you wrote about shooting a deer, your first hunt.

Dawn turned the woods from shadow to gold to green

as you stalked the warm breath, the soft hide. Then the shot,

joining you together in a heartbeat.

The other students gasped, condemned you for holding a rifle,

killing an animal. You couldn’t link that to murder, assassination,

warfare, or mindless violence.

It brought you closer to your father, you said,

to nature, and mysteries you’d only dreamed of.

And you wrote about it, wondering even then what road you’d take.

I think of you now, hearing about boys in Arkansas,

younger than you were, who steal their father’s guns,

shoot other children more casually, more carelessly,

than ever you shot that deer.

I wonder if you joined the army or politics, turned oil-baron like J.R.
Ewing,

became a serial-killer, or grew up to be a writer,

seeing through the eyes of the deer as well as your own.

Are you even still alive, after all this time?

Chip, do you remember that class, your uncertain teachers,

and the girl from Washington State who’d seen too much already

and accused you, wordless, with her doe-like eyes?

Ellen S. Jaffe, published in Water Children (Hamilton: Mini Mocho Press,
2002).

I

About Ellen

I am a member of The Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, and CANSCAIP. I have received grants from the Ontario Arts Council for both writing and teaching. I currently work with Learning Through the Arts and Living through the Arts, programmes run by the Royal Conservatory of Music that enable artists to work in schools and community organizations. I have also taught in many other school and community programs, and have been a judge for various writing contests for both young people and adults.
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