• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Changes, and Not

Mass killings and normalcy.

 

January 2, 2018
 
 

We went to a party hosted by some family friends for New Year’s. Most of the adults were our age, give or take, and most of the kids were around our kids’ ages. At one point, the hosting Dad started to do karaoke.

He had to put on his reading glasses to see the lyrics.

We laughed, mostly out of recognition. Some changes sneak up on you like that. 

At the exact same time, in the nearby town of Long Branch, a sixteen-year-old boy killed his parents, Linda and Steven Kologi; his sister, Brittany Kologi; and a family friend, Mary Schultz, with a semiautomatic rifle kept in the house.  

Linda, Steven, and Brittany were Brookdale alums.

Stories of mass killings used to be so shocking that they’d dominate the news for days at a time. Now they’re so frequent that if it isn’t local, they sort of blend into each other. Reading stories from a few months ago, in which locations are given as shorthand, I have to remind myself which mass killing was which.  

That change snuck up on me, too.  It’s worth remembering that things were not always this way.

The community of Long Branch, and of Brookdale, will hurt from this crime for a long time. The country will move on quickly to the next one, as if semiautomatic weapons among civilians were an inevitable fact of nature about which nothing could be done.

I’m old enough to remember when mass killings of teenagers only happened through car accidents. One happened in my senior year of high school: four students were killed while driving to some sort of sports meet. I knew two of them a little, and the others by association. We weren’t close, but the shock was still palpable. The next day in school, the hallways were absolutely quiet. The teachers showed human sides they didn’t usually show. Most of us didn’t speak much, because we had no idea what to say. My history teacher just threw in the towel, announcing that there wasn’t any point to teaching that day. Maybe in confirmation of his point, I remember that moment far more clearly than anything he ever actually taught. 

The gym coach, who was always confident and often blustery, looked like a shell of himself. He was ashen. Someone later told me he was drunk. I still remember the look on his face as he walked, silently and slowly, out of class, leaving us sitting on the bleachers.

The school acknowledged the loss -- it had to -- but I don’t remember it going much beyond that. Car accidents can be devastating, but they’re accidents. The sense of loss isn’t compounded with a sense of betrayal or rage that such things are allowed to happen.  In this case, it will be. It should be.

My kids don’t remember a time when mass killings were unusual. The Boy had his first lockdown drill in kindergarten. They learned how to stay away from windows and hide in corners. He was five. He accepted it as normal. When the Newtown killings happened, The Girl was eight. The news photos of the kids forming a human chain in the parking lot hit me hard, because she was almost the same age they were.

But it isn’t normal. This isn’t middle-aged vision softening, an annoying fact of life to which we just have to adapt. It’s a choice. It’s a set of choices, ratified over and over again in law and culture.  It’s a set of choices that we could choose to make differently.

I don’t usually do New Year posts, but this deserves one. My wish for the new year for the people of Long Branch, and of Brookdale, is for peace and healing. My wish for the new year for the country is memory of what happened, knowledge that it doesn’t have to happen, and resolve to stop it.  

Age can be frustrating, but it brings the gift of historical memory. I remember when mass killings weren’t normal. They don’t have to be. They shouldn’t be. This year, I resolve to stop pretending that it’s okay or inevitable. It isn’t and it isn’t, and it never will be.

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