As is the case with most teachers, I have a stash of tricks that I teach my students to help them learn certain concepts that appear in my lectures. From the “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” of algebra to “Soh, cah, toa” of trigonometry to smiling, positive faces and frowning, negative faces to help calculus students remember the relationship between concavity and second derivatives, these techniques help difficult concepts become imprinted in the minds of students. In a similar way, music can become associated with events in our lives, and hearing certain songs can easily bring us back to the emotions of another time. For example, the song “American Pie” will always be my memory of my days as a child in the early 1970s, and “From a Distance” will always remind me of the first Gulf War. I found myself thinking of this over the past week, as the song “Lean on me” appeared in several vigils and memorial services, both secular and sacred, held for the slain children of our neighboring town of Chardon. I suspect that my daughter will always associate that song with the sense of vulnerability and shock that we all felt these past two weeks.
The shootings of last week profoundly changed the mood of the suburban Ohio where I live, and I soon found myself trying to explain death to a child who had been generally sheltered from that reality. The magnitude of what happened when a fellow student pulled out a gun and began shooting other students has not been fully grasped by my daughter or by many other children, no matter what their age. One boy in fifth grade told his mother that he thought the shooter was probably going to have to stay for detention “for two whole weeks”, while one little girl commented on the shooter’s name of T.J. “I remember meeting someone named P.J. once; he was mean, too.” Meanwhile, I assured my daughter that she was safe, as the shooter was now in jail.
It is interesting that, in the midst of a political campaign in which candidates fight to appear more religious than their competition, it seemed that the language of faith provided the only way to express the deep horror that everyone felt. Signs like “we are praying for you, Chardon” showed up on billboards outside of grocery stores and restaurants as well as local churches. Strangers cried together, and tears flowed at the most unexpected times. The newspaper spoke of getting to a “new normal”, but I have to wonder if and when that will happen.
The school colors of the Chardon High School are red and black, and the public soon began wearing red and black ribbons, similar to the pink ribbons of breast cancer. When I read at church this past weekend, I looked out at the congregation to see a sea of red shirts and sweaters. This was particularly moving, as I was reading what is commonly called the story of Abraham and Isaac. I have always thought that the missing character in that story was Sarah, the wife of Abraham, who almost lost her only child from the incident. I could not help but think of what the mothers of those children were thinking as they did the unthinkable- burry their children.
The teenagers have now returned to high school, even as they attend in overflow crowds the funerals of their friends. Returning must have been difficult, and the day was made slightly easier as they were escorted by groups of parents who lined the sidewalks and clapped for them as they forced themselves to face the scene from which they had recently fled.
My daughter seems to be ok, although the awareness of how vulnerable her seemingly safe life really is has changed all of our outlooks in profound ways. As I try to assure her that she is safe with us, I find myself quoting parts of the song that we downloaded for her. It is a promise that all parents try to make to their children, in all environments, “Lean on me … I’ll help you carry on.”
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