It is at times, I confess, surreal—a nightmare by any definition. Until the recent capture of two suspects, ordinary life had, in a sense, ceased to exist. Since several of the murders occurred at gas stations, filling one’s tank took courage, planning. When does one go? Is it safer at night? In the early morning? Perhaps in the middle of the day? And where? What gas station would be safest? My sister is a naval reservist and decided—with a long line of other weekend warriors—to fill up the family car while on a local military base. Those of us without this option searched for small, poorly lit gas stations, far away from an interstate. But we knew that behind all this strategizing was an illusion: “If I just do the right thing, I will be safe.”
My Jesuit school is blessed with a 90-acre campus, but for the last three weeks that blessing has fed our fear—too many trees, too much space, too much cover. Easy places for a shooter to take aim and fire. The school buses were parked end-to-end on the perimeter of the student parking lot, acting as a barrier between boys getting into cars and a now sinister grove of trees. Police helicopters frequently crisscrossed the campus. The other sight, clearly visible in the bright autumn sky, were surveillance drones, on loan from the Defense Department. On the day the middle school student was shot, two helicopters hovered over Prep’s chapel, making a deafening roar, just as I was attempting to “cover the matter”: the fall of the angels. Trust me, I do spend more time with the Trinity than with the heavenly choirs, but the seraphic can catch a teenager’s attention. A moot point that afternoon. Boredom had fled. The theology of evil had taken flesh, framed in our own fear.
A new, life-size statue of St. Ignatius Loyola kneels in our quadrangle, leaning on his pilgrim staff. The boys have taken to touching his discarded helmet and sword as they board buses for away games, but most of these have been cancelled. Fall sports, if not at a standstill, are surely stalled.
Ignatius has been spending a lot of his days alone. Usually the benches around him are filled with students chatting, reading, reveling in Washington’s glorious Indian summer weather. But we’ve been in lock-down: no one allowed outside except to change classes. The campus, strangely silent, has been patrolled by our non-teaching staff—everyone from maintenance to admissions to advancement to the headmaster. Adults have been wearing those faces we don when we are trying to be calm, trying to be confident, trying to convey that everything is under control. Among ourselves we confessed the lie.
And the boys knew it. But, as they did on Sept. 11, they rose to the occasion, their courage painful to watch. They followed our directions, they did what we asked. Occasionally, the experienced ear could hear a slightly hysterical edge to their “messing around” before class began. But no sign of macho bravado, no posturing; just a determination to act as if all this upheaval, all this fear, was normal. Or if not normal, bearable. But their faces tensed as the classroom television brought them to yet another crime scene. Moving down a stairwell in the crush between classes, I heard a slightly breathless voice behind me ask, “Has someone else been shot, Ms. Collins?” Over a little more than 12 months, our students have learned an excruciating truth, up close and personal: the world is not a safe place, and human life is not dependable, ordinary, sane.
As a teacher, I feel terrible about this. I want my students to grapple with the “real” world, but not like this. It is too raw, too scary—and yes, they are too young. But I am also ashamed. I know well that the world is full of people who live surrounded by violence more cruel than this, more constant.
As a teacher, I have to ask: “What have I learned? What do I know now that I did not know on Sept. 10, 2001?” I know that helping young people deal with vulnerability might be even more important than protecting them. I know that teaching them the reality of evil—and their obligation to combat it—is more important than ever. And I know that God is heartbroken by this outrage and all the other nightmares that one human being can visit on another. I want to protect them. But the call, as it always has been, is to teach them—and listen, very carefully, to what they teach me.