"As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.” -- Andrew Carnegie
The first news bulletins from Littleton, Colorado on the car radio were sketchy at best on April 20, 1999. My husband and I were driving toward the Twin Cities to visit the historic Titanic Exhibition. In a bizarre twist the two events, 87 years and six days apart, were to become indelibly connected in my mind.
It was after 9 p.m. that evening before we finally tuned into CNN from our hotel room. Commentators attempting to make some sense out of the shooting and bombing at Columbine High School switched back and forth between Colorado and the refugee crisis in war torn Kosovo, another tragedy suddenly relegated to second place in the infotainment food chain. The images of stunned people living half a world apart in places numb from unimaginable calamity wrought by modern weaponry were almost interchangeable.
Among those interviewed was Marion Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund. She stated that in most communities it was easier for a teenager to get a hold of a gun than a library book. I thought about the parental permission forms required to obtain a library card under the age of 18 and supposed she could be right.
Twelve hours later saw us stepping back in time to the last hours of the doomed Titanic. We managed to cover about half the exhibit before several classes of fourth graders poured in. Carrying some sort of worksheet, the girls and boys darted in between display cases and the few adults in the gallery like minnows schooling around pier pilings.
Remembering the Rhinelander District Library’s chapter of Junior Historians, I was initially excited at the prospect of observing these youngsters reacting to their surroundings. Sadly, the majority of them didn't seem to be connecting at all. The paper they clutched was a checklist designed to make sure they "saw" everything, but their visit quickly become a frenzied scavenger hunt focused on filling in the blanks to earn access to the gift shop.
After the wall of 2,226 passenger names, the last thing the kids passed before entering souvenir land was the visitors comment book. Many of their reactions were surprisingly thoughtful considering the frantic atmosphere. However, the first page I flipped to contained these words in childish scrawl:
"It was pure crap. No guns."
I wondered then, as now, how the personal reality of the child writing those six words in the Titanic Exhibition guest book would someday be translated into the pages of time. By my reckoning that 1999 grade-schooler was only a couple years older than Adam Lanza of Newtown, Connecticut.
Flash forward twelve and a half years to another story unfolding on the car radio as I drove home to Rhinelander from the WVLS office on a December evening. Another massacre in another school in another quiet, above average income community. Only this time it was elementary school children and teachers. I gripped the steering wheel, remembering all the bright, eager gap-toothed smiles I’d seen during twenty-seven years as a children’s librarian, and felt physically ill.
Over the weekend that followed, we learned their names and faces.
Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Allison.
Rachel. Dawn. Ann Marie. Lauren. Mary. Victoria.
As an anxious public reaches for answers that may never be known, Adam Lanza has been described as autistic, possibly challenged by Asperger’s syndrome, and home schooled. ABC News even reported that geneticists have been asked to study his DNA for “abnormalities and mutations.”
Caught up in the furious media driven stew that has mixed the voracious debate over guns, massacres and mental illness, it’s vital that we don’t create additional stereotypes for struggling children who are every bit as bright and loving and deserving of our nurture as those who died in the first grade classrooms of Sandy Hook Elementary.
Isolation and misunderstanding, hubris and blame create invisible wounds. We are passengers all together on this journey.
There are striking similarities between our world of 2012 and the gilded age of a century ago that launched the Titanic, a veritable calamity of human failing. Captains of industry still plot a full throttle course under cover of darkness without binoculars in the crow’s nest, paying more attention to the dictates of marketing than to warnings of potential submerged danger. Life boats for all simply aren’t a priority. Those not berthed in first class are expendable.
Icy water and bullets are equally unimpressed by social strata. Terror cuts across all boundaries of race and place. Thousands of Americans are slaughtered annually in less picturesque communities than Newtown but their loss doesn’t capture public notice.
May our lifeboat libraries welcome all children, making it easier to obtain a library card than a gun. May librarians overcome fear with knowledge, providing answers to tough questions while recognizing all points of view. May we continue to address poverty of the mind, enfold lonely spirits and give support to those who grieve.