After a School Shooting

by Dr. Edward Mooney, May 2022

This week we are sharing the correspondence between TRF CEO, Licia Sky and Dr. Edward Mooney, author of “Teaching after Witnessing a School Shooting: Echoes of Gunfire”

Hi Ed,

You’ve been on my mind. Your book and work have been on my mind. I’m hovering above the recent horrific events not able to touch down in any way that feels direct or adequate. Unable to fully push past the numbing barriers to grief. 

And I wonder how you are doing, how you are dealing, or not dealing. 

Each time a shooting happens, it’s so horrible beyond my capacity to imagine, that part of me keeps saying it cannot happen again. I privately feel as though I should make a statement via the TRF blog and newsletter, and then my impulse pauses because I want to offer more than frustration and outrage at the callousness of politicians and the devastating violence of damaged people with guns. 

You have the insight of direct experience, and I wonder if you have something you want to say to our community about healing and agency in a time like now. I’m thinking of how to have conversations- thoughtful, constructive, open hearted conversations about how we, as individuals, and as community address this. I’d love your thoughts. 

Peace and kindness,

Licia


(Edited for space from a larger work)

How do I communicate the horror of school shootings to those who have not been through one? I relive my own trauma, from years ago, as do many others who have witnessed a shooting. I was leading an online seminar on trauma hours after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. I could not get out of the commitment, and I struggled to get through it. My voice was difficult to control.

Think about that. We’ve seen the charts and graphs tabulating the deaths of young people. They make me feel cold and distant. So many times, I first hear about a shooting because a media channel contacts me asking about my thoughts. This is a human tragedy, not a statistical exercise. We have to remember that the people murdered in these shootings are like any of us. We like baseball, hero sandwiches, and fun movies – just like they did.

We can understand school shootings, as much as it is humanly possible, in the sounds from those who experienced the shootings. The teachers, parents and children of Uvalde, Texas, understand what I mean. The echoes of gunfire and screaming will remain in their heads for years. This is true for survivors from shootings years ago. They will understand the sounds I’ve heard.

Almost three years ago, the sound of my daughter crying over the phone because my grandson was at a school where there was a shooting spoke volumes; her sobs made me feel helpless and compassionate. She was no longer an adult, but that little girl who needed me after she broke her arm in middle school. These shootings make us feel so vulnerable.

While doing my doctoral research, the struggling sound of a teacher describing how he and a colleague hid behind a desk during a shooting spoke another volume. The words are hazy years later, but not the trembling in his voice, and the pauses as he took time to calm himself. After the shooting stopped, he nudged the woman lying on the floor next to him. She did not respond. He struggled to speak as he described her blood on his hand – and not being able to attend her funeral. These shootings make us feel unable to participate in the events of life.

Also, during that research, a teacher’s soft voice describing how he stepped into a corridor to confront a student shooting people at school added to the volumes. I heard the trembling in his voice as he retold the story, moment by moment. A couple of minutes seemed like hours as he talked the boy into giving him the gun, not knowing if these were his last moments of life. These shootings push us away from other people, and make us lonelier.

Another voice in my research, the words of a whispering teacher describing how a colleague held a mortally wounded boy, with blood flowing down his arm, echo in my heart like loud bangs in a concrete and steel room. That man left the school and never returned. These shootings rob us of our passion for working with young people, and of our friendships.

The stilted voice of a teacher who had stopped a gunman, but not until after the man had shot two kids, remains with me. He fought back sobs as he felt guilt about not moving faster to hit the gunman earlier. These shootings leave us with guilt that will not leave easily.

The crying of a young teacher echoes in my head. Once a loving and very outgoing woman, she will not return to teaching because she does not know how to feel safe anymore. These shootings rob of us of innocence – and the kindness kids need

The sounds of anguish and re-living old shootings remains in my ears. Teachers carry a burden years later; I have kept in contact with many of the teachers I interviewed years ago, and it breaks my heart to hear how they still struggle, even after professional medical treatment. Some call me after each shooting – still. These shootings rob us of our future. We’re stuck in the echoes of gunfire.

The scared voices of students, when I was a high school teacher, stay with me. Too many are scared of drunk fathers, or abusive mothers. Too many are scared of the “odd kid” who might bring a gun someday. Children are being robbed of their childhood.

I’ve heard the discouraged voices of teachers, ladened with packed classrooms, who don’t have the time to reach loner kids, bullied kids, and kids who feel unloved at home – the ones who might come in shooting one day. We’re robbed of relationships when classes are too crowded.

Finally, the sounds of gunfire and bullets hitting a tree, just above my head, echo even after 32 years. The boy was a bad shot, but the sounds of me throwing two kids behind a planter and jumping aside myself stay with me. I remember calling my wife, and the sound of her anguish when she heard what had happened. I almost left my career after only a year and a half, but it was no longer easy to walk onto campus.

I had an abusive alcoholic father when I was a teen. I wonder why our society turns so willingly to violence and weapons, but that is another topic, for another time.  But I think there is a connection here.

It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless, but I urge all of us, those who have been hurt, to band together to pressure everyone who will listen to change gun laws and school safety procedures. Let us model non-violence for settling differences, and not glorify weapons and destruction.

But, to the people of Uvalde, and other communities, know that many of us care, and want to stop this. You are not alone. Find love with others who have felt this pain. Reach out, even if it hurts. Give yourself the time and space to mourn, and allow others to care for you. Surround yourself with love, and know you are feeling normal feelings because of a horrific event.

This is the opening of a broader dialog with our community, and we welcome thoughtful voices to write in and share with us. Please email the Trauma Research Foundation at [email protected] to contribute to this conversation.

Photo Credit: Photo by Rubén Rodriguez on Unsplash

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