Life after a school shooting; R. Alan Brooks looks back
December 14, 1992 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was a classic New England winter day. Snow padded the ground, and breath materialized as ghostly white puffs. Students at Simon's Rock College of Bard were finishing up finals and preparing for winter break.
Teresa Beavers, a 40-year-old Simon’s Rock security guard, was chatting on the phone with her husband a little after 10:00 a.m., when she told him to hang on, because there was a kid outside with a gun.
"I heard her say, ‘Oh my God, no!'” Teresa’s husband told The New York Times. "Then I heard a crash, an explosion, and I heard her screaming." She had been shot by 18-year-old Wayne Lo, who would go on to wound three more and kill a professor and another student before surrendering to police the same night.
The event took place years before school shootings amassed into the sickening trend the U.S. has become accustomed to. The same trend that most recently engulfed Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida this past February — an event that, interestingly, pushed the Parkland teens to begat the new and opposing phenomenon, demanding gun reform so fervently that it built to a national movement.
Because of the latest students’ efforts, the stagnant conversation on gun control shifted with alarming speed through their experiences as victims and survivors, to their role as activists. (Subsequently, they’ve been the target of right-wing ire, conspiracy theories, mockery, and unbelievably, death threats.)
Lest we all — even perhaps the survivors themselves — forget, these are children who’ve suffered a shocking trauma. Children who will one day grow into adults like acclaimed writer and cultural fixture R. Alan Brooks, who has lived the majority of his life now as a survivor himself.
Though the violent episode he endured at Simon's Rock was different from the Parkland teens in some ways, unification still underscores their experience.
Can you tell us about the night of the shooting?
"We had a meeting scheduled for the whole dormitory. But because it was exam week, pretty much everyone blew it off. So it was just me, the other RAs, and the two RDs, and then no students.
But then Wayne walked in (the shooter), and I was like ‘Wayne! Representin’ my hall!’ I fist bumped him, he laughed and everything, it was cool. So we had the meeting, it was business as usual, but as we came to the end, Wayne was having a very mild disagreement with the RD.
They were disagreeing about some small rule, but for me it was over and I left them arguing. I went back to my dorm room and I hear my phone ringing. I answer it and it’s my friend who was acting in a play across campus. So [a friend and I] hightail it across campus.
And then we’re sitting and waiting for the play to start, and it doesn’t start. We’re just waiting for a while, it gets to be about 45 minutes, and the people who were in the play come out and sit with us in the audience because they don’t know what’s happening. And then we finally get an announcement that somebody’s shooting. And it turns out that it was Wayne. After that meeting, he went to his room, shaved his head, walked out in the snow with socks, and an assault rifle that he had purchased with armor-piercing bullets, and he was just firing on whoever came in his path."
What was it like for you in the immediate aftermath?
"Growing up in Atlanta, which was a murder capital for some years — although I was fortunate enough to not be directly involved or close to somebody being killed — I knew people who got killed. So although I was never around a shooting up to that point, it was a present reality for me.
So it wasn’t as world-shaking for me as it was for a lot of that kids that were there. For me it was just kind of like, here we go again. But I did feel numb and in shock that it was somebody that I had just been sitting with an hour before."
How has that all evolved over time, what stays with you?
"The resonance of it. I sometimes wonder if I should be more affected by it, or if I’m in some kind of denial about it. Because a lot of my classmates, on the anniversary of it every year, they black out their Facebook pages and put up a remembrance. I’m not always even aware of the date.
But I know some of my classmates have panic attacks when people set off fireworks, one shared a story about kids setting of fireworks in his neighborhood, and he ran outside and tried to find where they were, tried to chase the kids, and they called the police and later they realized it was an overreaction, but it was just the trauma.
And I don’t think I’m stronger than anybody — I didn’t hear any gun shots, I didn’t see anybody shot, I just was aware that it happened. So I was preserved from that in a lot of ways, but a lot of people were right there. Some people talk about bullets coming past their head, and stuff like that. And I just happened to not be there in that moment, which I’m thankful for."
You mentioned it didn’t affect you in quite the way it affected other students, because in Atlanta, you didn’t grow up sheltered from gun violence as they had. It’s been pointed out lately, that there are communities of color that’ve historically been subjected to frequent gun violence, but only when it effects a community of largely white kids like Parkland, does the country react with empathy.
"It’s not surprising, because I see it repeated over and over again. I really admire the Parkland kids, because they acknowledge that, which is incredible. I was 17 when it happened to me, so I was the same age as them, but I don’t think we could’ve done what they’re doing. Not only because the Internet wasn’t around, but they seem to be really well-trained and internet savvy. In terms of how they appear in public and a unified front and choosing who speaks on which thing … I really admire how well they do that. And if they’re getting help? Whatever, that’s great. It doesn’t take away from the power of what they’re doing.
They obviously aren’t the first kids to be effected by this. I just think whatever their education is, being from a relevantly affluent neighborhood, they had some kind of social media training, they were equipped. And they were equipped to use whatever privilege they have, and go for it."
When this happened at Simon’s Rock, there wasn’t much of a precedent for that kind of violence. What has it been like for you to watch it become an increasing national trend?
"To see it repeat and proliferate as it has, it sometimes makes me hopeless. I wouldn’t have thought at 17 that two-and-a-half decades later, this would be repeating, especially as often as it has. It’s ridiculous and it’s not happening in other countries.
I watched this Vox video last night about the NRA presenting itself as an organization that represents gun owners, and the distinction that this video was making is that they’re not. They’re an organization that represents gun companies. Because that’s where they get most of their money from. So basically, what they have to say in a discussion about gun control, isn’t really relevant because they’re not representing gun owners. But we all respond to what they say and it sidetracks the conversation.
And one of the Parkland teens had debated an NRA representative, and they’re like, ‘we’re not doing that anymore, because they just talk in circles, they’re not looking for a solution.’ So even for them at that age to be able to identify that, that’s really beautiful in the midst of something so terrible."
Do you feel like your experience has informed your opinion on gun control?
"Yeah, I guess so. Because Wayne even admits … the way he got his gun was that Massachusetts had a law that said whatever state of residence you’re from, that state’s laws apply to you. So because he was from Missouri, he could get [the gun].
He even says, if he had to wait 2 more weeks before he got his gun, he probably wouldn’t have done what he did. Now, we don’t know that for sure. But we know that it was too easy for him to get it. I think things like waiting periods, previous domestic violence records, all of the things people are suggesting, are reasonable. We should at least have the same amount of regulation for people getting guns as we do for people getting cars. I don’t know why people act like that’s such an impediment to justice."
As a long-standing survivor yourself, do you have any specific concerns or advice for younger/more recent victims?
"I don’t really have any advice, but I think one of the things I’m worried about for the Parkland kids, is maybe them not being prepared for how mean people can be. I mean they’ve seen it already, but I don’t think they could’ve imagined that just weeks after they survived a shooting, people would be creating fake memes about them, attacking them, and saying they’re government puppets or the shooting didn’t really happen.
Some of the people who spoke to the press from Simon’s Rock, some regretted it. Because they said something in the midst of being emotional, and being 16 and 17, that they wouldn’t have otherwise said. But these kids seem to be really deliberate about what they say, and I just hope that they can have a life outside of all this. I hope they’re putting things in place for themselves, and that their families and communities will help them with that."
R. Alan Brooks is the author of "The Burning Metronome and The Adventures Of Captain Colorado," as well as the host of Mother F**ker In A Cape podcast. He gives a detailed account of the Simon’s Rock shooting on the RISK! podcast.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.