Yesterday, a couple of old friends and I drove up to Great Barrington, MA for the 20th anniversary of a shooting at our college campus that claimed two lives and touched countless others. We got the news from Sandy Hook in bits and pieces throughout the day, before and after our own memorial. We felt shock and horror and also cruel irony– this bizarre terror was unfolding again, today, on the very day of the 20th anniversary of a much smaller, much less horrifying horror that we were still trying to get over, twenty years later?
I took shit for talking about gun control on December 15th, 1992 and I’ll take more shit on that subject today, 20 years later. Evil has existed as long as humanity has existed. Bad, senseless things happened long before a sensationalist media made celebrities and sex symbols out of murderers, long before violent movies and video games, long before guns existed, long before the Bible existed. I don’t understand killing strangers and children and I can’t imagine that I will ever be able to understand it. I don’t think that we have to understand it. But we do have to understand that evil exists and do what we can to prevent it and to limit its destruction.
You may not know that yesterday, not one but two schools of small children were attacked. In Sandy Hook, 28 people died, including 20 small children. In Chengping, 22 children were injured. No one died. Nine children were admitted to the hospital. Only two of them had serious injuries. In China, the disturbed man had a knife. In Sandy Hook, the disturbed man had an arsenal. I can’t think of a simpler or more obvious argument for gun control.
Below is what I read at Simon’s Rock yesterday. Re-reading it, it seems woefully inadequate to deal with the sadness and grief we all feel about Sandy Hook. Words– that’s what we’re left with? But that’s all I have to contribute. I can only hope they bring some small measure of comfort:
We’re here because, twenty years ago, something happened here, something that touched us and left its mark on us and we’re here because, twenty years later, we still haven’t been able to understand it. Yes, we are here to celebrate and mourn the lives of Galen and Nacunan. We are here to cherish the lives of Tom and Matt and Josh and Theresa, respect the hardships their injuries brought on them and give thanks that their lives were spared. Our grief may have dulled but there is lasting, vexing puzzlement. For all our precocious smarts, we’re perplexed, even now, twenty years later. It doesn’t make sense and we don’t understand and we can’t make it make sense that we don’t understand.
When I was invited to say something at this memorial, I felt both honored and grossly unqualified. I didn’t know Nacunan at all. Though Galen and I both lived in Kendrick, I didn’t know Galen well and I’m fairly sure he didn’t think much of me. At fifteen, I was kind of a lout and Galen had a low tolerance for bullshit. I recall one night when I came home drunk and was locked out, he showed me how to pop the lock on my door with my student ID so I could get in, a skill that has proved useful over the years. Another time, he helped me with a physics question. God, I was totally hopeless in Physics. I remember him taking a minute to help me when I was studying in the Kendrick kitchen even though we weren’t in Physics together, didn’t live on the same hall, didn’t hang out, really had no connection. I remember my surprise that he was helping me and I remember the ease with which he grasped the nature of the problem and I remember my surprise when he explained it so I could understand it. But, of course, I can’t remember what the problem was. I really, really wish that I could.
The semester after the shooting, I asked my roommate about Galen, because I felt like I hadn’t known him at all and I wanted to. My roommate told me that Galen was smart, which further intimidated me as I was already wondering how and why I had slipped through the administration’s careful screening process and made it in despite being about as smart as a pair of ice skates. January of ’93 was a great time to question everything: why had we come to Simon’s Rock in the first place? Why did Simon’s Rock exist? Did Simon’s Rock deserve to continue to exist? My roommate shared with me a gem of theoretical physics that Galen had explained to him, the concept of a supersphere.
Close your eyes. No, seriously, close your eyes. You are sitting in a dark room. It is January of 1993 and you are fifteen years old, sitting in a cheap plastic chair in the northwestern-most room on the second floor of Kendrick dormitory. You are sitting in the dark, looking at the crack between your door and its frame where they join each other on a vertical axis. A hollow, illuminated circle passes slowly from left to right on the other side of the closed door. What do you see through the crack? Well, it’s a hollow circle so you would see one point of light that becomes two points of light that evenly diverge, rapidly at first, then slower, then they appear to hesitate for a split second at the apogee of their arcs before slowly and then rapidly returning to their place of origin, becoming one again, and then disappearing. So that’s a circle: two moving points. Keep your eyes closed.
Now an illuminated sphere is going to pass by the crack in your door. What will you see? You will see a point that evenly extends itself both up and down, rapidly at first, then slower. The line hesitates at its full extension before slowly and then rapidly shrinking to a single point and then disappearing. Still with me? Keep your eyes closed.
When an illuminated circle passed by the door of your Simon’s Rock dorm room in the nadir of the winter in January of ‘93, you saw two moving points. The crack between your door and the doorframe reduced the circle to two points. When a sphere passed by your Simon’s Rock dorm room door, you saw a line that grew and then receded. The crack reduced the sphere to a line. I hope you can see where I am going with this.
Now, if an illuminated supersphere were to pass by your Simon’s Rock dorm room door while you happened to be there, sitting, watching, waiting with the lights out… you would see a point become a line and then a circle and then, magically, a three dimensional sphere. Imagine it, hovering there in the darkness of your room, shivering with Brownian motion and looking very much alive. Let’s leave it there for a second. Open your eyes.
I don’t think about the shooting every day. Far from it. I’ve moved on, as have we all. Very occasionally, I think about Nacunan, someone I know only as a photograph, a face smiling brightly in black and white, just a concept of a human being and I wonder what the world lost, what I lost by never knowing him. I think of Theresa and Thom and Matt and Josh, all of whom I knew but none of whom I was particularly close to, and I wonder how they are getting on with their lives, my classmates all grown up now, as I am. Yes, occasionally, I think about Wayne Lo, mostly with pity and disgust and a little morbid curiosity but nothing remotely approaching fear, like a piece of roadkill. As threatening as he appeared twenty years ago, he’s now just a small man with a bad haircut, mentally and physically divorced from the world and its living, moving reality, harmless and irrelevant and only becoming more so each day.
I think about Galen the least of all because, twenty years later, I still can’t bear to. When people die, their absence at first seems unreal, as present as they are in your mind. You literally cannot believe they are gone. As time wears on, that last image you have of them clouds a little, like a Polaroid fading with age. My friend Jacob was 28 when he died and I was 24. He has stayed 28 in my mind and I have grown past him; now some of his seriousness and some of his concerns feel dated, even petty compared to my own 35 year old concerns, very much those of a 28 year old. Of the people I’ve lost, Galen alone appears to have aged with me. Whenever I cannot prevent myself from thinking about him, he always seems a little older than me, a little more experienced, a little smarter and definitely a bit of a wiseass for it. I can see him helping me with something, his eyes twinkling, a kind smile on his face but really only a hair away from rolling his eyes at my hopelessness.
Yes, I am here because the shooting still bothers me and it bothers me that it bothers me. Once I left Simon’s Rock, I had the good fortune to meet people who had survived far worse tragedies, or a comparable tragedy at a younger age, or a series of worse tragedies at a younger age and still make it through as whole, good people. It compelled me get on with my life and it also made me feel bad for feeling so bad each December.
Then this summer, I was visiting Jay Sauerbrei in London, a trip I had been promising to make for seventeen years. He looked exactly the same as he had twenty years ago when I first met him, wearing a baseball hat and driving a little red Ford Escort, sneaking us in to the gym for middle of the night murderball games, the coolest RA—he used his hall money to throw a big drunken party for the kids he was “supervising.” While I was in London, we both read Sarah Tomlinson’s piece about the shooting, to my mind the first piece published about the shooting by a Simon’s Rocker. I confessed to Jay that I felt guilty about still feeling sad about the shooting.
Jay grinned at me. “Mishka,” he said, “I was supposed to go on a road trip with Galen that winter break. A couple of days after the shooting, I was in touch with Galen’s parents. With their permission, Galen’s friend Justin and I went into Galen’s room. Justin took a Swiss Army knife that had belonged to Galen. I took a T-shirt. I still have it.”
“Jesus, you still have it?” I said.
“I wear it a couple times a year,” Jay said. “It still fits me perfectly.”
The illuminated supersphere is still hovering in the hallway outside a Simon’s Rock dorm room in that darkest winter of 1993. A young man and a boy smile forever in black and white photographs, forever a teacher and a student. A T-shirt still fits a young man perfectly, as it fit his dead friend perfectly twenty years ago. The events of December 14th, 1992 are as resolutely perplexing now as they were then, an unsolvable equation. The meaning of that loss we endured is the supersphere on the other side of the door. We are unable to parse it directly because it is too powerful, too strange. To glimpse just the slightest aspect of it—anger, fear, sadness, rage, love, regret, pain—uses up all the powers of perception we have.
Wish though we might, that night can’t be undone. Its unknowability has persisted for twenty years and will go on, dwindling in importance only minutely each year as the cycle completes each December, like the half-life of a radioactive particle. I take a weird kind of comfort in the fact that something still stumps me, still grieves me this much, twenty years in. If you think about it, there is something deeply valuable in knowing that we will not be able to comprehend everything in this universe with our intellects or these measly five senses that we’ve been given. It means that the universe is still full of mystery and of magic.
And that, in a nutshell, is why we came to Simon’s Rock in the first place, and Simon’s Rock needs to continue existing, why the goofy, oversmart misfit kids need to keep coming here. We came here for the supersphere, for Kendrick, for midnight games of murderball in the gym, to make friends that will last a lifetime, to learn how to break in to your dorm room, to break the fucking rules, man, and usually get away with it, to read a book or two, to learn that you can read every single book in the library, mine the brains of every brilliant academic on staff and that there will still be some shit you just cannot figure out.
I choose to frame the existence of the unknowable– that meaning we know exists but are unable to observe directly– as a net positive. I like to think that the people we lost twenty years ago tonight, Galen Gibson and Nacunan Saez, the student and the teacher, as they will each be forever frozen in time, could get behind this vision: a universe that, even now, overflows with mystery and with magic. To wonder why is a state of grace. It means we’re alive and it’s why we are here.