Joseph Pazar, Sparks Middle School Survivor
Malcom Gladwell explains the concept of a near-miss and remote-miss in his book David and Goliath. A near-miss leaves someone devastated both physically and emotionally while a remote-miss leads to a path of growth and increased strength. My story is one of anxiously trying to turn my situation into a remote-miss, an epiphany about my efforts, and my new outlook on life.
October 21st, 2013 a 12-year-old student came to school with a 9mm handgun he retrieved from a cabinet above the family fridge along with two loaded clips. After arriving at school he walked to the back field and basketball courts. Withoutwarning he began shooting students. Michael Landsberry, a mathematics teacher, marine, and Afghanistan war veteran, heroically tried to stop the shooter but was fatally shot before he could reach him. In themean time, while inside the building I heard screams. For about 5 to 30 seconds (I really can’t be sure – things went into slow motion) I stood in my classroom. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, my body began to tense, and I remained still. My brain screamed that it was just kids playing tag, they always yelled before school began. Something deep within me didn’t agree – the tone was off, so I headed down the hall. I met two other teachers at an exterior door where we let in frightened students who had just experienced a gun in the face and watching a teacher get shot. It wasn’t until later that we learned from police that while we were letting those students in, the shooter was just around the corner changing clips, and then tried to get in the same door. Thankfully we were already hidden by that time. We quickly made our way into the nearest lockable room. One amazing teacher kept the kids calm while I called 911, the other secured the door, and we then waited it out. I watched the door for what felt like hours, thinking about what I would do if someone tried to get in. We took all the phones from the students to control noise. I’ll never forgethaving about five phones in my pockets, and having almost all of them begin to ring (vibrate because we had them silenced) at the same time. The news had broken, parents feared the worst but we couldn’t answer. It would make too much noise.
In the end, we lost Mr. Landsberry, two students were critically wounded, and many more teachers and students had bumps and bruises from jumping over fences, diving behind corners, and hiding behind anything in site. The shooter wasn’t used to firing such a weapon and was reported to have pretty bad aim. This one fact along with the interference of Mr. Landsberry saved countless lives. Teachers checked their clothes after hearing and feeling bullets pass but not actually getting shot. It was that close for a number of people. The police report would later reveal that the troubled shooter had played a Columbine video game, researched that horrific event extensively, and left a haunting note. Ultimately he took his own life and left a large hole in ours.
As you can imagine, everyone had a different experience during those horrifying minutes. There are moments that continue to bother me; the “What ifs?” My initial response was one of numbness, no tears, no feeling, no pain, just a slow recovery from adrenaline and shock. That morning I was busy getting ready for the day in my own math classroom and a shooting was the furthest thing from my mind. As a teacher, I couldn’t help but experience moments of guilt. Did I do enough? What could I have done differently? Worst of all – why didn’t I realize what was going on sooner? You have to realize that even a single minute feels like forever when your senses are heightened and you realize life-threatening danger is present. Would this be a near-miss or a remote-miss? These are all questions that kept me up late into the night, caused me to drink just a little too much, and threatened to propel me into a state of depression. Ultimately, it is my hope that sharing some details of my own journey will assist another going through a similar situation.
In the weeks immediately following the event, things followed a somewhat predictable course. The brotherhood felt among teachers was stronger than I ever thought possible; we mourned together, drank together, ate together, even traveled together. The first time I really lost it emotionally was after the last day of school and our “last supper.” I called a crisis hotline drunk – it wasn’t pretty, but they were really helpful! People were beginning to go their own ways, moving to other schools, beginning anew, and we all knew things would be different. It literally tore my heart out. You see, a teacher has to be strong. We had to show up, teach, and be there for students. While I was far from perfect, this responsibility took its toll. The last day of school was different. The reality of what happened hit, there was no longer a need for so much strength, and while the bonds formed among our group will never be broken, I knew our relationships were about to change. We were beginning to move on.
In the months following the last day of school, I became almost obsessive about making this a remote-miss. You see, a remote-miss gives people a sense of invincibility. I survived that horrible day so I can definitely handle this thing called life, right? A near-miss is so traumatic that the feeling of invincibility and strength never come, just pain and trauma. I was losing interest in everything I cared about, even my favorite TV shows. However, I forced myself to pretend and participate as much as I could. Over time things improved, life got a little easier, and I had hope. But the pressure of making this a remote-miss was still as strong as ever. Every news report of another shooting, especially the school ones, set me back. It was frustrating. However, there was a pivotal moment when things began to change.
I finally decided to talk with a therapist regarding the whole event (I’m a very stubborn person). With heart pounding and voice trembling, I scheduled a session with an office on the list we were given by the district. I drove downtown, searched for parking, and finally made it to the door just on time. The building was black and door locked. I waited for fifteen minutes, called the number with no answer, and proceeded home. About a day later the office called completely horrified that they forgot to put me on their calendar. I wasn’t mad but there was no way I was going back! For some elusive reason, after that phone conversation it hit me. I had been making a grave mistake by oversimplifying the near-miss and remote-miss idea into thinking that one path would lead me to a happy existence while the other would ultimately leave me with perpetual pain; a gross over-simplification indeed! In that moment, I promised myself to stop trying to completely control my feelings and recovery. If I ever wanted to try seeing a therapist again, I would. I began embracing good days to the fullest, and I stopped fighting the bad moments. Every time I was startled at school while teaching, I would take a “bathroom break” and just breath for a moment instead of pretending it didn’t happen. At some deep level, certain student sounds remind me of the screams on that day. The screams I thought were just kids playing tag. That is okay… take a moment. Every time someone mentions a 9mm, it’s alright to feel disgusted. I absolutely hate that gun! It may be irrational, but I don’t care. I’d like to melt every one of those guns and send the material into space never to been seen again. That’s alright.
The epiphany that my feelings and the way I was handling the situation were adequate, as simple as it sounds, has changed my life. If there are any teachers out there still feeling guilty for not doing x, y, or z, or if anyone affected by violence and trauma feels badly about the way you are reacting, take a deep breath and realize that we cannot control everything. I have found that being okay with who I am, how I reacted on that day, and how I feel day-to-day is perhaps the single most important part of my journey thus far. I still have sad moments and truly panic if I forget my school keys at home (keys save lives). I remember telling the school secretary after I realized my keys were at home that if she didn’t give me a spare, I was leaving immediately. Thankfully, she got me a key! There may come a day when I’m around a large number of people and don’t immediately formulate my “What if there is a shooting plan,” but until then, I will plan away and be ready because that is what makes me feel safe. I encourage you to embrace your journey, realize that progress can and likely will be slow, and keep striving for peace. We don’t have to “recover” within anyone’s timeframe. We can have symptoms and struggles and still be resilient and successful people. We can feel weak and still be strong. We can be both near and remote-misses.