Tear-stains track along my dusty face and crack open my dry lips. My mascara is crusted into the corners of my eyes. As I walk to the emptying parking lot, the brittle grass crackles under the weight of my body. I step onto the sidewalk, which over the years has folded and given way to the whims of the weather. Today, the dried leaves on the ground add a more somber, earthy tone in contrast to the brilliant blue sky. The street passing by my place of work moans under the weight of dump trucks, commuter cars, and mini-vans.
Unlocking my car door, I toss my bag into the backseat. I slam the door shut, open the front door, and flop into the driver’s seat, too spent from my exertion from the previous moment. The white noise from the nearby traffic, the heat inside my car and its gray upholstery bid me to physically stay still, but my mind is still thinking about today’s terrorism and the passenger jets crashing into the World Trade Center in New York City. All of this happened before I left for work. Then, sitting in front of my old radio in my classroom with 25 eerily silent teenagers, all of us shared a moment too surreal to grasp. The reports of flames, ashes, and falling bodies were enough to erode our sense of security, and we all felt the pea-green painted walls with their mildewy, water-stained creases closing in on us. The marred and jagged hardwood floors appeared to eat up the creaky wooden desks, and the desire to escape the harsh reality was strong.
During passing periods, we teachers and students alike had to walk outside to get to our next classroom across campus. The fresh air acted like a balm to us. It brought us back to life momentarily and gave us a sense of normalcy before walking back into our classrooms and huddling around our TVs or small radios to sit vigil and feeling that our daily lives were trivial compared to the tragedy and heroism unfolding halfway across our nation.
Now, in my car, I start up the engine and wonder what these students have been feeling all day, their youth interrupted by a devastating and bizarre event. Backing out of the parking lot, I remember that this too is a generation of kids who have witnessed school shootings at Columbine and other states surrounding us. Students witness to so much violence and hatred. What fear they must have at times going to school. Sometimes, that fear creeps into me and I can feel it floating in the ether of space and being pulled into my 4-walled classroom at the click of the intercom and the principal’s metallic voice announcing an intruder drill. At those times, the shuffling of papers is unnerving. At those times, students abandon their notebooks, pens, and pencils. They squat under their desks while I and other teachers lock our doors, pull the shades, and tape dark paper to the glass windows of our wooden doors. At those times, when the lights are turned out, stillness hangs over us, and the movement of the police and campus patrol officers is the only sound being made in the hallways.
Intruder drills and their sense of doom are nothing new. My parents once compared this type of fear and anxiety to their youth in the 50s when they had to do drills for atomic bombs in preparation of the Communist invasion that could happen at any moment. They too had to hide under rickety desks. My dad once told me that during the atomic bomb drills, he used to look up at the ceiling and wonder if it was strong enough to protect him from the explosion or if it would cave in on him; and then he wondered, if it did cave in on him, how would it feel to die? Would it hurt? Would he experience any pain? His little seven-year-old brain couldn’t comprehend the fact that someone wanted him and his classmates dead. He would see the teacher’s feet walking past him and hear her say, “Keep your heads down. Stay under your desks until I say it’s OK.” He would realize that it was just a drill and that his death would not be coming to him on that day. Yet, he wondered when it would happen, and constantly worried about an attack until he was nine years old and the school-wide drills weren’t as frequent.
My mother’s accounts of the school-wide drills were similar in that, she too, worried about death. “No one really knew what a Communist was,” she told me one day while we were eating breakfast and discussing her Cold War childhood days. When she asked her mother what a Communist was, her mother had merely told her it was someone who “is a bad person.” I guess she really couldn’t describe a Communist anymore than the next mother, father, teacher, mailman, grocer, druggist, or neighbor down the street. When my mother would go to the movies, the media reel’s Public Service Announcement would come on, warning kids to keep an eye out for Communists. It was burned into her brain that anyone, anywhere, could be a Communist in disguise, like the man on the newsreel who was wearing a nice suit and tie, a fedora, and carrying a briefcase as he was walking to work. “Your neighbor might be a Communist,” the announcer’s dramatic voice stated at the Soviet Union flag flashed onto the screen. My mother would crouch down in her seat. Later, she would look around to see if she recognized anyone in the movie theater, and if they had any telling signs indicating they were Communists, and if so, would they harm her?
Nowadays, someone’s suicidal child can build a bomb from directions on the internet, and load up on guns and take their fellow classmates hostage. Nowadays, terrorists from undetermined nations can sneak into the country, take flight lessons and use box cutters as deadly weapons. Not that the 50s was an all over idyllic time, McCarthyism was in full swing, atomic bomb drills were rehearsed and paranoia was just as prevalent then as it is now, but the chaos seemed more contained and disassociated with daily life. Nowadays, an intruder drill at a school could easily turn into the 6:00 news, and a car bomb could explode at the downtown hotel and though tragic, we chalk it up to the new “normal”.
When Columbine occurred, I was teaching at a junior high school in Normal, Illinois. The same sense of loss, fear, and confusion washed over me then as it does now on this tragic September day. The children at that school proved to be more resilient than us adults, however. One boy organized an effort in his Language Arts class for the entire student body to make one thousand origami cranes and mail them to Columbine High School as a symbol of loyalty and peace. According to Japanese lore, cranes are majestic birds that mate for life and are a symbol of fidelity. Legend has it one who makes a thousand origami cranes as an expression of his love and loyalty will bring peace to those around him.
Seeing as our students were acting as one, the wish was for hope and peace to be restored to the city of Columbine. The students wrote their messages on the small slips of paper and precisely folded them as previously instructed. The librarians hung the paper birds with fishing line and paper clips from the drop-out ceiling tiles in the library. The birds were made of various colored paper: turquoise and red, yellow and green, white and gold, pink and lavender. With the glow from the ceiling’s halogen lights illuminating the backdrop of the pale yellow walls, the origami birds gently fluttered and spun. A few of the origami papers were scattered on the center of long wooden tables, making them look like abstract art. The ones hanging had loosened in the creases and looked like the snow geese that took flight from the winter fields I saw every day on my drive to work. Boxes were stacked along the walls, waiting for teachers and parent volunteers to fill them and take them to the post office.
Back in the present, sitting in my Nissan Sentra with its windows rolled down, I hear someone honk his horn behind me. I realize I need to stop thinking about this now infamous day and not reflect so much. I make a right turn onto Main Street and begin to head home. I notice now that the sun is out. It is brilliant in its glow and my somberness has momentarily passed. I don’t fully acknowledge it as a sign of hope or optimism, but instead I take it as a call to action. The sun has kept its promise to shine and move the day forward, and I too must move along with my day. I drive home, noticing now the buildings and houses of the town. Made of wood and solid brick, or finished off with vinyl siding, the buildings are meant to shelter and protect us. How fragile these structures suddenly seem to me. How fragile all of us are, really. Our lives can become bent and creased and shaped in any direction by small twists of fate. They can unfold, crinkle, and rip like delicate paper. Yet, they also can be transformed into something beautiful, peaceful, and graceful like paper origami cranes. If given a purpose.
“…don’t think your life didn’t matter.” -Basho