My new roommate owns a gun and has a concealed weapons permit. I have no idea what kind of gun, but I know it's small enough to fit in the front of his jacket while he works at his job outdoors. He's told me that when he stands outside, at a non-security job, sometimes people try to start fights with him, and he reaches his hand inside his the front pocket of his jacket. He tells them he's not the one to fuck with.
He was living in Eugene, going to school at the notoriously peace-love-and-understanding University of Oregon, and riding his bike through town when he got jumped and almost lost his eye in the attack. It's one of the reasons I decided to go to Canada instead of Eugene for university, when the time came for me to choose—I know of a lot of girls who "have friends" who've been attacked and raped while walking late at night around town. What I didn't know was better than what I knew for sure.
My roommate, who is an avid bike rider and an Obama supporter, went and got his concealed weapons permit after the attack. He says it's for protection, but my guess is it's to gain some sense of control over what happened when he was attacked. I guess I can't fault him for that. I'm still searching for that myself.
I've seen the bullets for his gun. He's shown them to me; they're pink and a percentage of the proceeds from their sale go to a breast-cancer research charity.
It was still cold out, February 1995, with a patch or two of snow around from an earlier snowfall in the week. I was in the fifth grade at Powell Valley Elementary School, in Gresham, Oregon, and my mother ran the after-school childcare on-site at my school, in an extra classroom. Gresham is a suburb of Portland and at the time it had about 75,000 people. The community out there has been ravaged now by the economic crisis and meth, but this was 1995. It was idyllic—farmland everywhere, and two years before, the field next to our school had been a farm; home to horses and strawberries. By 1995, it became a gated community with McMansions.
In some ways, I enjoyed my time there at the after-school program, but I also hated the feeling of sharing my mother with as many as thirty other children, five days a week. On this particular day, I'd had enough of these younger little snots. They were dumb, they were concerned with meaningless crap like Magic cards, and they had tiny, shrill voices that I could not handle much more of. I had called my house a couple of times to see if my grandfather could pick me up—rescue me from the chaotic hell of playing house with first graders, and Connect Four with kids who just didn't understand the rules. He didn't answer.
This meant I was stuck there until we'd drop below "ratio." It feels like the State of Oregon's childcare ratio laws defined a good amount of my childhood. The laws then said that for every 20 children attending the after-school program, there had to be one adult to watch them. My mother worked late often, staying compliant with the numbers. This day, she had her 19-year-old male assistant, Dave, on staff working with her, but there were more than 20 children, too many for just one adult.
I'd been making my feelings known since the second that school had ended—I wanted to go home. So now with the phone not being picked up at home and with my anger and annoyance rising, my mom was getting fed up.
"We drop below ratio and I'll drive you home before I send Dave home for the day. You're not happy here? Then I don't want you here," she snapped.
With my belongings gathered by my feet, I stood against the wall of the classroom that was right next to the silver-colored, heavy fire door, which led out into the parking lot. I was so antsy to leave, I moved and stood directly in front of the door and rotated the handle back and forth in my hand. Then I started opening and closing the door a few inches, just to pass the time. I looked to my left and saw one of the first graders, Nicholas, on the reading rug area, which was flanked by a floor-to-ceiling plate-glass window that faced out into the parking lot.
Nicholas was playing with some sort of figurines—toy soldiers maybe—making that obnoxious machine-gun noise that seems to widen the gender divide in elementary school. That machine-gun noise that boys learn early on was causing me to lightly bounce my head off the heavy, metal fire door, in a dramatic gesture of frustration. God, he was annoying. I would have given anything right then for him to just shut the hell up. I wished I could grab one of the pillows off the reading rug, hold it over his mouth and relish that moment when the staccato gun sounds would stop for good.
With every parent that walked through the door I felt myself getting antsier, but also more annoyed. Why couldn't all of their parents come, and allow all of us to go home, so I could have my mom to myself?
A parent walked in, to pick up two kids. With them gone, we'd go from 21 to 19, one below ratio. I remember saying goodbye to them, ever so politely, ecstatic that I could now leave. I re-counted the remaining children as the family with two kids drove off, then walked up to my mom and gave her a death glare.
"Nineteen," I said.
"Oh my God ... FINE. Just let me get my coat and purse."
With my coat and backpack actually on now, I walked back over to the door and began twisting the door handle. I remember my mom saying, "Dave, I gotta take her home. I'll be back in five minutes."
Then it started.
About three loud booms and the sound of glass breaking had to happen before my mom realized what it was. I heard a weird plink noise down near the bottom of the door and looked towards my feet, trying to figure out what that was.
My mother started screaming, "Get down! Get down! Away from the window!"
I ducked, steadied myself against the fire door, but looked over at the reading rug. Nicholas, the first grader, was standing looking out the window as the bangs continued. He stood frozen, nearly expressionless.
"Nicholas, get down!" my mother screamed.
Ducking further down I advanced towards Nicholas. As I reached toward him, I looked to the left, out the window, to see what he was seeing; a tan Ford truck, a few hooded figures inside, with one leaning his right arm and head out the window. There was a quick flash, then another boom. When the flash disappeared I could actually see it now—a black gun in the guy's hand.
It looked so big in his small hand.
I felt frozen into the floor like Nicholas, but then I heard my mom's hysterical screams again, and I looked towards her. She was on the phone now; it was attached to the wall with an extra-long cord. She dialed 9-1-1 with one hand, crouched low, face twisted, flapping her other hand. I could see her mouth making the shape of words.
Her desperate expression brought me back. Gripping hard onto Nicholas' jeans, I yanked on them, so he stumbled and hit the floor.
The shots had only just stopped but Dave came over and rushed Nicholas and me away from the window.
My mother and Dave had us crawl out low, near the floor, out into the hall, and had us sit as quietly as possible on the cold tile, our backs against the wall. My mother was still on the phone, giving details, while stretching the extra-long cord halfway out into the hall. Our principal, Mrs. Black, had joined us now, sprinting from her office when she heard the shots. She was checking us over for cuts and bruises. And then there was Dave. Dave tried to keep us quiet but was on the verge of tears. All that shattered glass was from his truck … his baby. The primary target of the shooting had been his prized possession.
"So messed up, man. So messed up," he said as he paced back and forth before sliding down on to his knees, on to the tile below.
Nicholas was tight in his sister's arms now. His stepsister, who was my age, was one of the only kids who cried. In retrospect, we were very quiet. You'd expect more crying. My mother claims it's one of her proudest moments-staying so calm and keeping the kids relatively quiet as well.
I looked down at my left hand and realized it was twitching and shaking a little. When I reached across with my right hand to steady the left, I realized they were both shaking now, so I balled up my fists and shoved them in my pockets.
"What kind of gun?! I work at a childcare! How would I know that?!" my mom chastised the 9-1-1 dispatcher. She was about to turn to Dave to ask him—he was in the Army reserves at that time—but we all turned towards the little voice down the other end of the hall.
"It was a nine millimeter, semi-automatic," Nicholas said, while his older sister still hugged onto his shoulder.
Everyone stayed silent. This was before the GTA series, Halo, or Call of Duty. The major players in first-person shooter video games included Doom and a year later, Quake, but everyone at our school was playing Sonic the Hedgehog.
"He's right," Dave said.
All of us in that hallway had the same question cross our mind, but my mother actually asked it.
"Nicholas, how do you know that?"
Nicholas' sister wrapped her other arm around him, bear hugging him into her chest and said, "Our dad takes him shooting all the time."
The Oregonian newspaper article about the shooting fills in a lot of the gaps my mom doesn't or that my memory can't. The article claims there were five bullets, but there had to have been more. Three hit the building—a drainpipe, a part of the brick wall and the fire door that I had been playing with just before the shots rang out. The plink noise I'd heard was one denting the metal and chipping the red paint on the outside right off. At least four more hit Dave's truck.
There is a motive laid out in the article; the shooter, who was black, had been attacked by a group of whites a few weeks earlier at a fast-food restaurant. He filed a police report, but nothing came of it. As he drove by my elementary school he saw Dave's truck, and mistook it for the truck of the person who had attacked him at the fast-food restaurant. He called some friends, picked them up, and came back to our school.
It does reveal something that maybe I'd known, but I must have forgotten about it. Maybe we were intentionally not told. Mrs. Black, the principal, had confronted a group of "five or six" at the front door of the school shortly before the shooting. They said they were looking for their friend, who owned the blue Toyota truck in the parking lot. They wanted to know if he was in the building. She told them she didn't know and turned them away.
As she walked to another part of the building, she saw them enter through a propped door on the east side of the school. She told them they were mistaken in their search and needed to leave again. They thanked her for all her help and left, and she walked back to her office.
The article does restate one thing I already knew: the boys in the truck were 16 and 17 years old.
Three days later another article appeared in the Oregonian, chalking the whole thing up to the rising presence of gangs in the idyllic suburban neighborhood—a not-so-subtle shorthand for minorities moving into our town. No one publicly questioned why these kids had a gun in their possession. No one publicly questioned why they felt so disenfranchised that they needed to shoot up a car in an elementary school parking lot—-a car that wasn't even the right one. People didn't question; they just passed blame for the community's recent issues on the influx of racial minorities to the area. In fact, no one questioned a lot of things going on in Gresham ever while I lived there. It's part of the reason that eighteen years later it's now considered one of the worst places to live in the state, and a punch-line to a lot of local flavor jokes.
I've spent most of the last eight years living in Canada. Moving back home turned out to be an even bigger shock to the system than I was expecting. It's part of the reason I stay home alone a lot, with the TV off and access to only the media on my computer that I choose to engage with. At this point, it's self-preservation.
I moved to North Portland the same week the Newtown shooting happened in Connecticut—the day I arrived was the day of the Clackamas Town Center shooting, in the mall where I'd worked at a now-defunct store for four months. I'm living in a part of town that used to be known as Columbia Villa, or The Villa. Essentially, The Villa was the projects. The first drive-by in Portland happened here, and from that moment forward gangs and the drug-trade ran this neighborhood for almost 20 years.
They leveled all the housing here around 2002, because it had become so dangerous, and rebuilt the area to be a mix—affordable housing, apartments, public housling, senior housing, and market homes. They put in a market, many parks, play areas, a community center, social services, a bike shop; they formed a neighborhood association and generally have turned this area around. They rebranded it "New Columbia".
I work with kids who live in this area. Things may not be as openly violent and volatile as they were here in the '90s, but sometimes when I sit in class you'll see one of these kids walk in. Their eyes will be darting, their hands in their coats, their shoulders slumped and back rounded. They are on guard and look like hell. They sit back and try to be quiet, hoping that no one in the world will notice them; that no one in the world will fuck with them anymore.
The familiar nature of these shootings taking place at my old place of work and at an elementary school awakens something in me. It's something that takes a lot to shake out of me, but it has happened before. It happened after Columbine, when I was in the ninth grade.
I'm OK walking around during the day, but as soon as dusk comes, I'm checking over my shoulder. I wear my ear buds in my ears, but don't play music, so I can hear suspicious noises that never pan out. When I am on the bus, feeling like slightly less of a target, I play the David Bowie and Trent Reznor song "I'm Afraid of Americans" over and over again. Even when I tell myself to change the song, listen to something soothing, I find myself hitting the repeat button. It's like a reflex.
A few weeks ago, I bought a three-in-one pepper-spray from the sporting goods section of a store. The clerk gave me a rehearsed speech about how I had to be over 18 for it, and after I'd produced ID, as she rang up my purchase, she remarked that she wished this particular store was like Wal-Mart and sold guns. I chose this particular model, the black canister, over the oh-so-adorable pink breast-cancer awareness one, because it isn't just mace. It has some teargas and an ultraviolet spray in it. Also, with all the black I wear, it's much easier to conceal than the oh-so-adorable pink breast-cancer awareness one.
But in the days after both spree-shootings, I find myself carrying it in my hand openly as I walk around the neighborhood at night. At one point, when the lights get knocked out after a storm, and I'm alone in the pitch-black locked up house, I find myself carrying it in the front pocket of my hoodie. Waiting.
When I got the job working with these kids in my neighborhood I remember thinking that maybe now if I had this job and was really lovely and a positive person in these kid's lives, maybe their fathers, or their step-dads, or their uncles, or their older brothers wouldn't pull a gun on me while I came home from the grocery store. I remember thinking maybe if I am good to them, these kids—now my students—won't pull a gun on me.
In 2009 I was diagnosed with some form of PTSD, along with some other co-occuring diagnoses. The psychiatrist met with me for about an hour and declared that I had this, but gave me very little insight into why. I guess I gave him a list of events he considered indicative of a traumatic past and the shooting at Powell Valley was one of them. I'm not sure if one or all of those events triggered the PTSD. I'm not even sure it matters which one on the list got me to this point—the point where when a box full of my books tumbled off a table in the kitchen when I was unpacking at my new place, I found myself paralyzed, hyperventilating, and collapsed on the floor behind a couch in the other room.
I do know that I had been through some things before the shooting at my school, and I've been through some things since. By the age of eight, with an alcoholic for a dad, I knew that "home" could feel like a war zone; his departure when I was nine was in many ways a welcome relief. But the shooting became a defining time. I never had a freakout, was never scared to go back to school. I had always relished going to school, and while I still enjoyed it, at age 10, I was now painfully aware that it wasn't a magical bubble where nothing awful could ever happen. Nowhere was safe for me anymore.
Around this time, I remember permanently taking up residence inside my own head.
I was drinking with another American writer one night in Canada, someone who had only met me the day before, and the shooting came up in conversation. The reveal was rather nonchalant, a combination of over-drinking and over-sharing. But when I told him about it, I saw his face turn from stoic to horrified.
"That explains it," he said.
"Why you seem so haunted."
A whole group of us writers had been drinking, and after we ran out, we all went for food at the 24-hour pho place in Vancouver. Then we decided to call it a night. A couple people split cabs, and one person lived three blocks away. My place was about 20 blocks away.
I started to walk home, with a pretty fantastic buzz going, and the other American writer stopped me.
"Let me call you a cab. I don't want you walking home at four in the morning."
"I'll be fine. I'm an amazing drunk navigator in this city."
He moved in closer and lowered his voice. "Is this city safe for a 20 block walk in the dark?" He had reason to be protective. His partner had brutally attacked while walking at night when she was younger.
"Sure," I said. My mind instantly flashed to and then foolishly pushed out the dozens of women who had picked off these streets in the '90s and early 2000s, and killed by a pig farmer on his property. I faked a smile.
"No one fucks with me like that, dude. Ever. Besides, this is Canada. No one's going to pull a gun on me here," I said, generalizing and oversimplifying the whole situation.
And I walked for 20 blocks with the blackest sky above me, feeling every other emotion in the world but paralyzing fear.
The medical community and the legal system consider me to be mentally ill, much like many of these spree-shooters have been. While I'm on the lesser end of the scale—I have been labeled "high-functioning", and have no history of violence—under some of the speculation and posturing going on amongst politicians in light of these shootings, I should be barred from gun ownership. My grandfather died a year ago and surprised my mother and me by leaving behind a cache of old shotguns for us.
I joked about how awesome it would be to have one of them, just for the fun of making ridiculous Facebook profile pictures, and my mother immediately barred me from receiving them. They were turned in to a police station in my grandfather's home state of Iowa instead.
I am 28, a woman with a past history of mental illness, yet considered non-violent. And my mommy took my guns away. Guess what? I'm grateful for it. Nothing makes me happier in the world to know I have family who love, care, and are concerned about my well-being, so they stood up and said "No." I wish everyone with similar issues, or those on the extreme end of the mental-illness scale, had the same. It's like they're saying you have to get past this and you can't use the weapons that scared you to scare others.
Sometimes in these classrooms I work in, the teachers will make the kids debate gun control, and invariably someone makes some essentialist statement: "We should lock up all the crazy people so they can't hurt us." So far, not a single teacher I've worked with has challenged that statement. Sadly, neither have I.
In a perfect world I'd tell them my story. I'd tell him that in the mental health care system here there are two classes of people—those in crisis and those who have money. The rest of us get lost in the middle until we become a big enough problem. The reality is there is this thing called stigma and it still very much exists.
My insurance company did send me a letter recently announcing how they're increasing their mental health coverage in preparation for the new Obama healthcare laws. The letter announces proudly that they're excited to offer all of us one free night in the psych-ward every 12 months.
In the meantime the pundits keep shouting on cable news channels and the gun-advocates keep lobbying the government with the one thing that always works—money. There was a report here on the news that assault riffles sold out across Oregon for Christmas.
Meanwhile, I walk the two blocks home from the bus stop. A home invasion happened in New Columbia during Super Bowl weekend, two blocks from my bus stop and across the street from the elementary school. A few weeks ago the man who runs the convenience store where I buy my beer, had a gun pulled on him while his infant child sat nearby. My finger is hooked through a little silver hoop at the bottom of the canister, buried in my coat pocket and I wait. I'm not sure what I'm waiting for, but for a long time now I've been sure it's coming.
Emily Walker has spent half of her life living outside of the U.S., but now lives back in Portland, Oregon. Her nonfiction and fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Review, The Tyee, This Magazine, Little Fiction and the Vancouver Observer. Her work was shortlisted for the 2012 Event Magazine nonfiction contest.
Image by Jim Cooke.