My mom was 5 feet tall. In December, 1993, she was 56 years old and struggling with her grief over my dad’s death the prior year. She worked in the library at Wauwatosa West High School. She was one of the last people to speak to Vice Principal Dale Breitlow before he stepped out of the library and was murdered in the hallway by a former student.
I was in school out of state at the time and oblivious to the tragedy that struck my community until my mom called me that night to tell me she was fine. Close family friends had insisted she stay with them that night as she processed the ordeal. She had herded the students in the library into her office where she locked the door and huddled with them. This was before social media and cell phones, and my mom and the students had no idea what was going on or what had happened as they waited to be released.
When the killer was captured, my mom said it was no surprise to anyone at the school. My mom described the former student as an odd kid, who appeared to be mentally ill and was often in trouble. But she was mystified as to why he would attack Mr. Breitlow, who she said did everything he could for the kid and was always kind to him. In her grief over my dad’s death, my mom had adopted a “woe is me” attitude and lost some of her empathy, but her heart went out to the Breitlow family. She bemoaned the fact that his wife was suddenly widowed and his young sons without their dad.
As school shootings became mass school shootings, each one reminded me of Dale Breitlow’s death and its effect on my mom. She was horrified with the rest of the nation with the Columbine shootings, but it was also a personal horror that reminded her of her trauma. She died in 2000 so has not had to relive her experience with each successive school shooting, a small blessing.
Oddly, throughout all of this, it took until now, the Parkland shooting, for me to connect the dots. Mr. Breitlow’s killer used a revolver, not an assault weapon. His ability to gun down innocent people was limited. I have no doubt that if that tragedy occurred today, my mom and those students in the library likely would have become physical, and not just psychological, victims. It would have been an easy few steps from the hallway to the library, a thought that makes me sick.
So now let’s get to the proposal of arming teachers and school workers. Are you fucking kidding me? My mom loved books and technology. She was so opposed to violence and guns that when my brother asked for a GI Joe doll, she got him a “Big Jim” doll instead. (Look it up, it’s a real thing.) She had terrible eyesight. She was already traumatized by a shooting. Do you really think the answer to Mr. Breitlow’s shooting would have been to arm her, someone who probably would have quit instead of carrying a weapon? And what about when she continued working after her Parkinson’s diagnosis? Does it make sense to arm someone who doesn’t have full motor control? Would she have lost her job because carrying a gun would have been viewed as an essential job function of a school employee?
It’s time for America to get its head out of its ass and solve this problem. Not with platitudes and prayers or ridiculous ideas like arming teachers, but with real action. Resources to address mental illnesses and gun control legislation. Matt and I get asked how we can feel safe living in Mexico City. Matt is an elementary school principal – how can we feel safe living in the United States?
YES!!!! The other day I was thinking about how grateful I am to not have kids (that I have to send to school on a daily basis) when I realized that my teacher husband is just as likely to be a victim. It’s time for compromise and action. Fuck thoughts and prayers.
I hate to say it, but more likely as our husbands will protect the kids in their care. Ridiculous to fear for our educator spouses!
Thank you so much for putting to words your story and your thoughts. Well said. *I remember that time period when you Dad passed and how your Mom lost a little of that spark/twinkle in her spirit.
Thanks, Tammy. Until you said that, I forgot that my mom met you first!
Your poor little mother. You have articulately illustrated the utter vacuity and cravenness of people who are just plain wrong. The sheer stupidity of most of our public discourse is both astonishing and exhausting.
I remember Matt having us do lock down drills. And had us keep our classroom doors locked. It was scary. I cannot even imagine carrying a gun let alone shooting one. Never.
He mentioned how bad he felt doing them because he would have to rattle the doorknobs and freak everyone out. Terrible that our schools have come to this point.
I’m just coming back to your blog after getting caught up in other stuff for awhile. I didn’t realize you had gone back to posting again. It’s hard to believe that your dad died 25 years ago. Cute pic of you and Mom.
This partisan-driven, NRA-backed refusal by the powers that be to deal with the issues of gun control and mental health care (especially for children) are some of the reasons, although fairly far down the list, for my retirement. I can’t imagine having to carry a gun while dealing with kids. The special needs kids I dealt with couldn’t keep their hands off the walkie-talkie, ID badge, earrings, zippers, and buttons on my person and the telephone, laptop, scissors, pens, and staplers on/in my desk; I shudder to think what they would do to try to get their hands on a gun stowed in either location or one drawn in an emergency.
On a happier note, I remember Big Jim quite well. I seem to recall he did have an ax, ostensibly to chop down trees. When I think back on it, he was a creeper — living in his wilderness van camper and spying on Mick’s and my Barbies. They used to tease Big Jim about his “rubber pants.” (It was the dolls, not us!) It was great to see you and Matt again at the art museum party.