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?