We measure our distance from the center of a trauma, as if the miles could protect us.

by Colleen Feeney


               News stories flash across my computer screen as I sign out of my email. It’s late, and I’m not paying attention; these stories make me wary, they are either heartbreaking or petty. Then I see a headline, a school shooting far away. And I stop. I close my eyes and remember two years ago, a school shooting in a town not that far from my own. I remember holding hands, and turning off the news, and not knowing if I was okay. I remember that children can die.
               I click on the story, and when the details are too much for me to handle, I jot down the facts in my notebook, save it for another day, thinking it could be a strong piece. It seems I have learned to use others’ suffering to my advantage. I push the thoughts of the story away to focus on college essays and a future I never doubted I’d have. Soon I am doodling in the margins and the shooting is a whisper.
               The next day, my brother mentions it in the car. “Awful,” I tell him, and don’t know what else to say, my throat is closing. I don’t want to talk about it. We ride home in silence.
                I try to find the article again, but MSN has already moved on, now reporting things like “The Most Expensive Homes in America.” I search the internet: “Taliban assault on Pakistan school leaves 141 dead”; “Death ‘All Around Me’: Victims Relive Pakistan School Massacre”; “In Pakistan school attack, Taliban terrorists kill 145, mostly children”. By final counts 145 people were killed, 132 children and teens. I try to wrap my head around that number. I can’t. It is more than my graduating class, more than the number of people at my parent’s wedding, more than my marching band. 145 people with mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. 132 kids just going to school. Most of the victims are between twelve and sixteen. I think of my thirteen-year-old brother. I think of myself at twelve, at sixteen. “My son was in a school uniform this morning. He is in a casket now.” I turn off my computer.
               I try to talk about it at school. “Did you hear about the school shooting?” I ask at lunch. “Yes,” one of my friends answers. Then we say nothing. Is it too hard to face or too easy to ignore?
               Aren’t there issues closer to my life I could write about? At first I was angered by the story, but even as I sit here typing this, that anger is dripping out of me, drop by drop. Soon, I will have completely forgotten the story I never really remembered. Soon, 145 Pakistani people will be as unimportant to me in death as they were in life.
               “We had a lockdown drill today.” I’m at my uncle’s house; we’ve all eaten, and now we’re sprawled out across the many couches and chairs, comfortable. Lockdown drills are hardly news, but my mother, a paraeducator, is at a new school so she talks about unfamiliar policy. Lockdown drills. The first I remember is sixth grade. I dropped my book in the hallway and didn’t have time to pick it up before rushing to a classroom. More annoyed than scared, I muttered about lockdown drills being pointless, unnecessary, stupid.
               A couple weeks ago when lockdown was announced over the intercom, my teacher paused and laughed, telling us she didn’t actually know what to do. I sighed, andwalked over to the corner of the room while chatting with my friend. I hoped the door was locked, not because I was afraid, but because I was worried about being yelled at by an administrator.
               We aren’t always this flippant. Not when it hits close to home. I remember our first lockdown drill after Sandy Hook. Two classes crowded into one classroom. We hid under desks silently, inches from each other, there was not enough room. Though we knew it was a drill, and we at least were safe, we were still scared to breathe.
               I drift back to my uncle’s living room and we talk about the horrors drills are ultimately trying to protect us from, and that fact we have known and ignored our whole lives: schools aren’t always safe. “Usually they go for the first three classrooms,”someone says, and we all try to picture if we would be safe, and at what time of day. The first three classrooms. Where do you hide? My mother talks about a backroom no one would find. My cousin and I complain about all of the glass in our schools, making it too easy to find us, too easy to get through. The first three classrooms. Who would die?

               “In Pakistan…” I start.

               “Yeah, well that’s Pakistan.” My uncle cuts in.

               “But in Pakistan, it wasn’t the first three classrooms, it was their auditorium. They were taking a test, that’s why so many people died.”

               Everyone shrugs and moves on, back to our own fears, our own classrooms. It is unthinkable to imagine what happened there could happen here.
               In January, details of the Paris attacks flash across news screens. Another awful story. And the world stops. Twelve people killed at work, four killed in a grocery store. I try to take it all in; I try to make sense of it. News report after news report, there’s a headline on every television, there’s a link on every website. I try to imagine being shot for what I wrote or drew; try to imagine being held hostage while picking up groceries. At school, the classrooms and lunch lines are abuzz with word of the story. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a stake, everyone wants to talk about the terror in Paris.
               Amidst it all, I have a knot in my stomach and a voice in my head that asks why we talk about the terror in Paris, but not the terror in Pakistan.
               The same week people were killed in Paris, countless were killed in Baga, Nigeria, and many forced from their homes. The world was willing to stop for Paris, world leaders were willing to link arms, but no one stopped for Baga. I read every article I could get my hands on, but couldn’t imagine the terror of fleeing the only home I had ever known. One man says he can’t remember letting go of his son’s hand, but when he looked up he was gone. How can I picture that? How can pretend to know what it feels like?
               When I ask why no one talks about Baga, my teachers say, “It’s Africa.” When I ask how can we forget about the children in Pakistan, my friends say, “It sucks, but it’s Pakistan.” What does that mean? What do I know about Pakistan? I couldn’t find it on a map. It is one of those middle eastern countries with groups of “radical Muslims” and long histories no one has ever asked me to learn. What do I know about Nigeria? I couldn’t tell you what language they speak, or one thing about their culture. For that matter, what do I know about France? Much more than I know about Nigeria or Pakistan, but not much past the movies and the postcard images. I know nothing about these countries, nothing about these people, but a couple of glaring headlines.
               What is a life worth in Africa? What is a life worth? In Pakistan, in France, in the United States? What is an education worth? Your life? Should I be afraid? Should I mourn for faraway people? I don’t know how to deal with massacres spray painted in the headlines. I don’t know how to deal with deaths told only in whispers. Should I be angry? Should I stay silent?
                From halfway across the world, I start to read the story of how 145 people were killed in Pakistan, 132 children. Children, forgive me if I close my eyes. It is hard to see.

 

Author Biography: Colleen Feeney is a senior at Greater Hartford Academy
of the Arts, where she studies Creative Writing. Next year, she will be attending
Connecticut College, where she hopes to major in English and Studio Art. In
2014, she was a winner of the Fresh Voices Poetry Competition. Besides
writing, she likes making “weird art”, reading, and petting her cat.

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