2018-03-05 / Opinion

An American Story


I was 12 years old the first time I went to a funeral. Jay was a handsome blue-eyed blonde boy who had been out hunting with his friend Bobby during Christmas vacation week. Bobby had just received a new gun as a present. It is unimaginable to know what Bobby felt when he accidentally shot and killed his best friend. Both boys were in the class ahead of me, so I didn’t know them well. But I remember sitting numbly through a church service with people crying all around me as the austere minister droned on meaninglessly.

My family lived in a small, rural community where most people knew each other. But we didn’t know what went on behind closed doors. One time something went horribly wrong at a neighboring farm. Something snapped that day; a farmer chased his wife through a cornfield until he caught her and shot her dead. Three children heard the screaming, and managed to escape. Alas, their father shot himself as well. The children were raised by their grandparents.

My first year of teaching English in New England presented me with a motley assortment of high school courses. One class consisted of a small group of students who needed help with the basics, including confidence. I decided to have the students write an autobiographical chapter book about themselves. They could use suggested topics or come up with their own. After revising and editing, the stories were handwritten on sturdy paper stock and hand sewn together by the students. We laminated the covers for posterity, and most students were very proud of their accomplishment. Unfortunately one young man never finished his autobiography. I don’t remember the circumstances of his death, other than a gun was the culprit. But I do remember his empty seat in the classroom.

For many years we lived in Waltham, Massachusetts, a densely populated suburb west of Boston. Going to the grocery store was a cultural experience, as one could hear a variety of languages and purchase all different types of exotic foods. There were folks from South America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe in Waltham. One family lived just down the hill in the low income projects a half mile from us. We never knew them, but yellow police tape declared that things had gone awry. The nightly news reported a homicide that day, enabled by another gun.

Transitioning to Westport was an exciting time. We looked forward to the solitude of Island life, with the forest and river as our backdrop. Before moving full-time, we subscribed to the local newspaper to learn more about the place we eventually would call home. One thing we learned is that lonely, desperate people live everywhere. An elderly couple on the Island used a gun on themselves, apparently to carry out a suicide pact.

There is good and bad everywhere. People will always find ways to hurt each other and sometimes themselves, and accidents will happen. But why is it so easy to do? People might just need more time to think or to talk to someone. If firearms were not so easily accessible, lives could be saved. I applaud the brave students who are standing up and calling BS to all the counterarguments. I join with them in crying out “Never again!”

Pat Smith lives in Westport Island

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