So this is Christmas
We live in the Age of Answers. Articles have been written, papers have been presented, TED talks have been given on this subject, most of them fussing about potential decline in our critical thinking. It might be too easy, they suggest, to find what we seek.
This has been a joke in my family for a while now. Pose a question about an event, a movie, a book, a historical occurrence, and the game is afoot. Everyone reaches for their phone, or we race to the computer, to Google, to check IMDB, to find the answer. It’s usually right there, too.
Not today, though. There are no answers today. Or jokes, either. Sorry.
I did manage to find something I was searching for, last week, as the wave of sadness swept over our country. Locating archives of old newspapers can be frustrating, even with the Internet, but I managed to dig up a couple, enough to give me the date I was looking for.
It was Friday, May 28, 1976. It was a slow news day, as far as I can tell, so maybe this is why the national media picked up an otherwise small, local event.
A teenager at a Phoenix, Arizona, high school, apparently upset because he wasn’t going to graduate, tossed a teargas canister into a trash can, located in a busy hallway at Maryvale High School, in between classes.
Plumes of gas floated through the campus, which was quickly evacuated. There was the expected chaos and panic. Ambulances and news trucks arrived at about the same time. There were rumors, and rumors of rumors. People had died, explosions had taken place, etc. It was the last day for graduating seniors, but after an hour or so everybody was just sent home.
Nobody died. A few were sent to local hospitals. Tear gas is not fun, but not necessarily lethal, and that probably wasn’t the intent anyway. It rose a couple of levels above a prank, and it was serious enough to get the attention of somber faces on the nightly news -- not to mention a quick arrest of the suspect by Phoenix police – but there was no grieving or wringing of hands. One angry teenager with a weapon of mass disruption, that was all.
But it was my high school, and my last day, so obviously I remember. And I can’t help but think of it every time someone picks up a weapon and aims it inside of a school.
My memory is a constant question, but I don’t recall any of us imagining that this kid, angry or not, might have instead brought a firearm into the hallway. There were plenty of guns at the time; my father had one. They were in the news mostly when a crime was committed or a tragedy occurred, a child playing with something that turned out not to be a toy.
The threat of firearm terror on campus, though, was not a consideration, any more than hordes of zombies disrupting second-period Spanish class. And now we are here.
Here, where my faint memories of duck-and-cover drills, residual from Cold War fears, have transformed into serious skills for contemporary students and teachers. How to hide from a gunman, and so on.
In the wake of the massacre at Newtown, there is a triangle of roughly equal points at which to point our fingers, which we seem to be doing for no reason other than we can’t think of anything else to do. These would be gun laws, the media, and mental health, the usual suspects.
This is a natural inclination, of course, in the face of helplessness. They were children.
I find no answers there, either. I find thoughtfulness, sometimes, and then more craziness, more rancor, more anger and talking past each other, also the usual suspects.
Ownership of firearms is a genie that has left the bottle in an undisclosed location, not to be found again. Could we tweak the existing system to make it more difficult for disturbed people to gain access to serious firepower? Possibly, I suppose.
Could we buff up our current broken healthcare system to make mental health more accessible? Surely, although good luck with that, and there are always cracks in a society based on personal freedom.
Are the varied forms of media in this country perpetuating horrific behavior by publicizing this? This might be a good time for news organizations to review their practices, I guess, and consider whether interviewing third-graders is such a good idea, but the First Amendment exists for a very good reason, and the causation-correlation puzzle will always be thorny, an issue for smarter people than I.
I’m left, then, with the feeling that Christmas is more somber this year, and there’s nothing I can do about it. We will mark it, of course, as we do in this family, offer a few more prayers for families we don’t know but think about. We will be thankful for each other, and for our moments of grace in a troubled world.
And we’ll continue to ask questions, even knowing that the answers are elusive, and not likely to be found with our phones.