Whenever tragedy strikes, there is always someone who says, "Things like this don't happen here." It gets said so often, it's cliché. It's also a lie.
I know it's a lie because a tragedy happened here. It happened in my hometown, in the middle school I went to as a young girl, the same school that is next door to the public library where I work now.
On November 7, 1994 Keith Ledeger, a paranoid schizophrenic, entered the middle school with a 12 gauge shotgun. A former student at the school during the 1970s, Mr. Ledeger returned to the school full of rage and alcohol. He asked for the vice-principal, shooting him in the back as the administrator most likely turned to flee. The principal was in his locked office, hiding under his desk with the school secretaries, dialing 911.
The gunman then headed down the hallway to the back office and was seen by Peter Christopher Jr., the custodian, who then hurried to usher children out of the office and into the hall. He was shouting at the children to "Get away, get out!" when the gunman spotted him and fired, hitting him directly and fatally in the chest.
The gunman continued his rampage through the school, wounding a police officer and a teacher before being stopped by a policeman's bullets. The patrolman fired 14 rounds and hit the gunman, who survived, only twice.
All of this took approximately 5 minutes.
I haven't written about this before today for a number of reasons. First, I knew Pete. He was the janitor at the school when I attended and I was in the church choir with him a few years later. I have very clear memories of him and thinking about him in this context is hard. Second, the shooting happened very near to where I work now. In fact, during the shooting, students were herded out the school's side door, across a small parking lot and into the library for safety. Except, the library is not safe. I think about this every day I go to work and pass this sign on the library door. Even when I get my CCW, I will not able to protect myself at work. As you might imagine, thinking about this whole matter is difficult for me.
I remember Pete so vividly, always in his blue coveralls, always there with his smiling, calm presence ready to fix whatever needed fixing at the school. Born on the 4th of July, Pete Christopher was a quiet man who loved his family, his church and his job. He was president of the public school employee's union, a member of the Knights of Columbus, and volunteered for the Special Olympics. He sang beautifully in the church choir, was an avid golfer, loved technology and helped plan, wire, and install many of the school's computer systems.
I went to the school today, to see if I could find a picture of Pete, and was immediately remembered by Mrs. Sparaino, the school's secretary. She let me take photos and look at a folder she has kept in her desk drawer all these years. (thank you, Mrs. Sparaino!) She collected newspaper clippings, police reports, letters, photos, funeral cards, a pressed yellow rose...all memories of a horrible event and the loss of a wonderful man. She was there the day it happened. "Not much to tell," she said. I couldn't get her to say more.
She smiled when she spoke of Pete. We talked about how there was a scholarship fund and a technology lab named in his honor. She said to me, "I'll never forget how easily Pete would blush...about anything." I told her that I remembered that about him too. We laughed a moment and both agreed that he was such a sweet man, who was very much missed.
It pains me to think of his last moments. Unable to defend himself, he still put himself between the muzzle of a shotgun and the schoolchildren. Some might say that he died a hero, but I still hate that he died at all.
In the news recently, there was a story about a teacher who has demanded that she be able to carry a gun to work to protect herself from a violent ex-husband. This makes people panic. They think, "Guns in school? No! What if the teacher gets angry at her students, snaps, and shoots them? What if a student is able to get the gun?"
I think, "What if just one qualified, trained school administrator never allowed the gunman to get past the front office? Would Pete still be here?" I don't know if allowing guns in schools is the answer in situations like these, but I do know that no man should die because he was unable to protect himself from someone who meant him harm. But, sadly, sadly, they do. Even here.