I cried most of the day Friday after I heard the news. It was unbearable to watch the special news reports on the television that hammered so relentlessly about the tragedy of children — babies for the Lord’s sake — being brutally murdered.
It took me to almost late evening Saturday before I realized why I was so out-of-proportion upset. It was because, I finally realized, in a very small way, I had faced a similar incident more than a decade ago at San Bernardino Valley College in southern California where I was president.
I never cried at that time — but I wept this weekend for the current loss and that of the past. Both incidents are about not only a loss of life, but also a loss of innocence, at any age.
It was Sept. 3, early in the morning, my son’s birthday and we had plans for the evening that included his first trip to Benihana, a Japanese restaurant that was more show than food. I was rushing to my office from the parking lot trying to figure out how to get my day’s work done early, when a motorcycle policeman drove past me at an incredibly high speed, barely missing me, crossing the green lawn which separated a quad of classroom buildings.
The vice president rushed up to me before I had a chance to even catch my breath and told me there had been a shooting in the information technology offices and that the supervisor had been killed and the assailant had wounded himself. He said the police were on their way and that he would go to the building to provide crowd control and keep everyone away from the scene in order to give me time to deal with the campus. The California law allows for college campus police to be armed, and ours were, and they assisted in setting up the yellow caution tape around the quad, provided crowd control in the 17,000-student campus, and assisted me in alerting offices to the tragedy. Media from all over southern California descended upon the campus; they even attended the all-campus meeting held to bring students and staff up to date on what had occurred and what we were planning to do to ensure everyone’s safety.
During that meeting we received news that the assailant, a disgruntled employee who had been fired the week before by the district office, had died during surgery at the local hospital.
The loss of life is a tragic thing. The mark this event left on the campus may never be erased.
I remember when I applied for the job, members of the staff who worked at this downtown, urban college in a poverty pocket of the community were very clear that the college was a “sanctuary” in the community. I heard that repeatedly from not only staff but community members as well. They pointed to the fact that even in this poor setting, there was no graffiti on the walls, there was not any vandalism, and with no gates or protective walls, there was never a homeless person who wandered onto campus and there was very little theft.
The respect the community, the whole community, showed for this college was amazing. Even skateboarders tended to stay away from the allure of the rolling sidewalks on the picturesque campus. Sanctuary was truly what this place of higher education was all about — a place of hope, a place of peace, but more importantly, a place of safety. Now it was all gone and the innocent belief in invulnerability was gone as well.
People whom I least expected fell apart that day, and others equally unexpectedly stepped forward to provide a comfort and strength to the fragile. I had to send administrators home and give custodians and secretaries very important tasks. Students, who just missed five bullets that tore through the victim and the walls of his office were stoic, and after a brief time returned to class, shaken but understanding this was a single incident, by a single person. At the time a popular saying was that someone had gone “postal.” They understood the situation in that way.
I didn’t cry then. I was busy trying to keep everyone and everything together. The shooting affected people in the most unusual ways — a faculty member who had his wife threaten him with a gun the week before had to be rushed to the hospital with a breakdown; a dean whose brother had been killed in a knifing in New Orleans that summer collapsed and had to be driven home; a secretary who had witnessed the killing had to be hospitalized from the trauma. The stories just stacked up and stacked up. Things we would not have known about each other were brought forcefully to the surface in wrenching ways.
These were vivid and dramatic reminders that we are all so very fragile and our conditions can change so dramatically in a few brief seconds.
As the year wore on, I noticed that the campus took on a veneer of returning to normal, but it was far from that. A child appeared at the football stands with a toy gun and I was called within seconds and the police were there immediately. More people called campus police for evening escorts to their cars. The fun of pranks, jokes, and collegiality was gone or subdued.
The college, which had been joyful and playful, was subdued as well. And, the community was subdued as well, as they mourned for us. Every time a shooting occurred, or campus violence was in the news elsewhere, our story was repeated. We lived it over and over.
The loss and destruction of that peaceful Connecticut community last week has more far-reaching effects than we will ever know or understand. Innocence can never be reclaimed, nor the loss of a human being.
For Lord’s sake, they were just babies.
Sharon Caballero is executive director for advancement at the New Mexico Highlands University Foundation Inc. She may be reached at 505-454-3198 or email@example.com.