The sharp bang momentarily stunned everyone sitting in the portable classroom, the sound slicing through its thin walls and breaking into a discussion of American history.
It was not long after April 20, 1999, when that unknown noise — a car backfiring, a door slamming shut in the spring wind — stoked the fears of every high school student in the trailer. We were more than 1,500 miles from Columbine, Colo., learning history in the shadow of Maryland’s western mountains, but for a second we wondered if our planned fates — of graduation, of college, of parties and girls and boys and dream jobs — were now going to be drastically altered or ended.
Everyone has a story of an event that first brought the world to bear on them, be it John F. Kennedy’s assassination or the Challenger explosion. Luckily, for most of us, we grapple with the larger meaning of tremendous national or international tragedy as secondhand spectators. Our suffering as an audience pales to those directly involved and is a background tapestry to our more personal sorrows.
But they leave a mark. And they shape our understanding — or lack of understanding — of the world. For many of my peers, 9/11 would probably be that ultimate occurrence. For me, however, it was growing up during a spate of school shootings and being in high school contemporaneously with Columbine.
The awful miracle of human beings is their resilience. As time went on from Columbine, I didn’t continue to perk up at each strange schoolroom noise or sit in a constant state of readiness, much like I boarded an airplane only a few weeks after 9/11. Those events showed me there are forces beyond my control that may wish me random harm. By taking that as the lesson, I really had no other choice but to continue living my life focusing on what I could control and not what darkness may be behind each corner.
But in the past week, I have often come back to note that I learned that lesson as a high schooler — not as a child in elementary school. And I wonder how those sorts of conclusions will impact each of the children who survived the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. What tools are mentally available to a child who witnesses such unbounded ferocity? Or to the children of the same age around the country?
I, thankfully, have no direct comparison in my own life. The closest might be a car accident I was in around the same age, a moment of extraordinary mechanical energy where injuries were not life-threatening but my family’s minivan was crushed to the size of a station wagon after being merged into by an RV. To this day, I sometimes flinch — just a little bit — when a truck or other large vehicle pulls alongside my car on the highway. Surely, something as severe as the Sandy Hook shootings will manifest in more than a shrugged off twitch on I-80.
One of my favorite Christmas films is Joyeux Noel, a 2005 movie based on the Christmas Truce of World War I. Although hardly a masterpiece, its power rests in the reminder that even in the worst moments of history, acts of great humanity are possible, however fleeting they may turn out to be. At the end, German soldiers who participated in the spontaneous cessation of violence are shut aboard a train and sent to near certain death on the Eastern Front. As the train pulls away, they hum a melody taught to them by Scottish adversaries, evidence that even if we don’t control our fates, we do control how we react to what molds our lives.
Our souls are the greatest beneficiaries of self-determination because our natural state is fighting against life’s inherent absurdity, that of fighting for control of our destiny when so much of it is outside of our hands.
In writing about the mythical character Sisyphus, Albert Camus says such a condition should not be interpreted as one of futility. Rather, when the rock he is eternally rolling up a hill always falls back to the bottom, Sisyphus chooses each time to go back down and get it — his dignity lies in persevering in the face of the inevitable defeat.
“Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world,” Camus says. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
It is a lesson someone could spend a lifetime coming to grips with. And one of the saddest parts of Sandy Hook’s aftermath is that each child will have so much time to try.
Liam Farrell is the alumni editor of this magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.