When J.B. was in 4th grade, he used to have dreams, nightmares, that he was at school and kids were getting shot all around him, his best friends, and he was crawling in the middle of the field beside his school, trying to get away and scared to death. It absolutely broke my heart, as his father, that the world he was growing up in was so much less safe than the world I grew up in, that he would have such unsettling dreams.
This was right around the time of the Columbine shootings, and several other school shootings that occurred in the late 90’s. The wall-to-wall coverage these events were given assured that they remained imprinted on the psyche for a long time to come. It seems that no matter what you do, you can’t get away from it. I hate that when these things happen, it’s like the whole world stops and it’s all we see and hear for days on end.
I came across a journal entry from that time where I said I wished there was some way I could just take those fears away from him, that I could make the craziness in the world stop. But, I couldn’t. We talked to him about it. We assured him that we would always be there for him. But still, it broke my heart.
And this was before the craziest year we had here in the DC area, beginning September 11, 2001, and ending on October 22nd, 2002. This incredibly unsettling year began with the plane crashing into the Pentagon, killing something like 192 people, including parents of some of J.B.’s classmates, followed shortly by the Anthrax attacks in the Brentwood Post Office nearby and in Congress, then the absolute worst terrorism I’ve ever lived through, the DC snipers in the Fall of 2002.
The first victims of the snipers were gunned down in the shopping center right outside Leisure World, where J.B.’s grandmother lived. The last victim was gunned down right across the street from a gas station where I was filling my tank up the day before that shooting. It was right there, all around us, and it went on for weeks. Initially, I defiantly continued to ride my bike on the W & OD Trail, deciding that I would not alter my lifestyle to accommodate terrorists. I eventually gave the bike-riding a rest. The hardest to take was when they gunned down a 13 year-old right in front of his school, for no apparent reason. J.B. was just about 13, himself. That’s when it really became personal.
At the end of that school year, J.B.’s class put on a little play, as was the custom, that depicted the events of their year. It was a play without words, but to watch these 6th graders acting out the horrific scenes that had marred their year, and invaded their youthful innocence – the impact of 9/11 on them, the victims of anthrax attacks and the sniper, was beyond heartbreaking. I still choke up whenever I talk about that play, and writing about it now still brings me to tears.
In high school, J.B. became very involved in theater. That was where he found his niche. Each year, the theater department put on two major productions, one in the Fall and one in the Spring. In the winter, they put on a series of one act plays, all student produced and directed. In his junior year, J.B. had wanted to direct a play during the one acts, but there were too many seniors who had plays they wanted to do. He had to wait until his senior year. He still wanted to do the same play in his senior year, and he got to do it. That was the year of the Virginia Tech shootings.
The play was called, “Bang-Bang, You’re Dead”, and was about a school shooting where the kid who’d gunned down a number of his fellow students, killing 5 of them, was in his jail cell afterwards, and the ghosts of those he’d killed came to haunt him in the cell. It brought the reality of what he had done home to him, and illustrated the full impact of his senseless actions. It was a most compelling play, one that really brought a lot of the issues to light surrounding such shootings. It was a most difficult play to direct, as the dialogue came rapid-fire at times, and the timing of the dialogue was critical to the success of the play. It was a story that J.B. really felt needed to be told.
The night before the play would debut, there was a power outage at the school, so they weren’t able to do the final dress rehearsal then. They would have to do it after school on the day in which the play would be done that evening. That day, there was a shooting at a college in the midwest, a number of students and teachers were slain and many more injured. Kathy called J.B. after school to see if they had heard anything about the day’s shootings. They hadn’t.
There had been a few of his actors who were struggling with their lines, and J.B. had been working diligently to help them get there. Prior to their final dress rehearsal, shortly after hearing about what had happened that day, he sat down with his cast and said, “Look, folks – this is real. This is what happened today. I need you to really show up tonight.”
Before the show began, he came on stage and told the audience that the play they were about to see was about a school shooting, and that in light of the day’s events, it would be dedicated to the victims of that day’s shootings. The cast totally nailed it, and it brought me to tears. I was never prouder of my son than I was in that moment.