PAST NOT PRESENT

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BY JOELLEN COLLINS

JoEllen Collins—a longtime resident of the Wood River Valley—is a teacher, writer, fabric artist, choir member and unabashedly proud grandma known as “Bibi Jo.”

As I write, just before Memorial Day, I am overwhelmed by painful awareness of the recent school shootings in Texas and thus compelled to share a couple of stories about my experience with violence when I was a teacher.

My first shock occurred during my second year at Santa Monica High School. As my last class emptied, a girl approached me and said she was afraid of her boyfriend, who had threatened to kill her; maybe he was waiting outside. I told her to hide behind my desk. Before mobile phones existed, and in a new building awaiting connected landlines, I ran into the hallway, shouting “Help!” Two math teachers immediately sped to my room and were able to confront the hidden boy, high on ‘bennies.” I was grateful that they could restrain him until police arrived and relieved that he didn’t have a gun.

My next fear wasn’t actuated, but I observed some student behaviors dealing with a violent personality. My 10th-grade class was reading A Tale of Two Cities and working on a research paper about an aspect of the book. One boy, clad every day in camouflage outfits, had spent most of the time in the back row, slumped in his seat, book turned upside down and his eyes glaring or rolling at me above the book’s binding. Previously, I had quietly and privately talked with him about that behavior, but nothing changed. The paper he submitted was focused entirely on the guillotine. His specific details highlighted the construction and sharpness of the blade, the anguish of the potentially beheaded, and the crowd’s cheers of vengeful pleasure.

Even though my students were able to choose their subjects, I went to his counselor and asked her what I should do (other than grade the paper fairly). I worried for him. She refused to call his parents. Quite new to the profession, I cooperated, even after I mentioned that now fellow students were bullying him, and he seemed more withdrawn than usual. She told me just to know the adolescent brain better and not to worry. Two years later, as I watched his class graduate, I saw him arise, sans graduation robe, still wearing camouflage, and march towards the principal, arm raised in the Nazi salute, saying “Heil, Hitler!” Again, thank God he didn’t carry a weapon.

Sometime later, on Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Whitman killed his mother and wife and then went to the University of Texas at Austin. There he began indiscriminately shooting people with multiple firearms from a campus tower, resulting in many deaths, including his. I imagined my former student copycatting the same violence.

I am haunted by those incidents and the increasing possibility of this kind of rage being directed at innocent children and adults in schools. Assault rifles and easy access to weapons have, sadly, also made places of worship and now even more public places locations to fear. I would hate to be told I needed to carry a gun with my corrected papers if I taught in today’s America.

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