Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Abraham Joshua Heschel High School, New York, NY
Educator: Austin Davis
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
This is a true story. In my eighth grade year, and most of the previous years leading up to my eighth grade year, I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia. You probably know the name. It’s a town that became quite well known among Americans on August 12, 2017, for reasons unrelated to the story I am going to tell you. In this story, I am in eighth grade at a school called Tandem. It’s really called Tandem Friends School, but most people just call the United States of America “America”, and likewise, most people just call it Tandem. The school I attend is a Quaker one. However, it is not religious, and they do not care about my difference in religion. It is a “hippie” school, where the seniors smoke weed and gossip in the backwoods behind the sprawling campus, and the teachers are called by their first names.
One year before the story I’m going to tell you happens, in my seventh grade Latin class, we learned about a word. Numen. It translates to divine presence. One year later, in my eighth grade year, we heard about a man. Most of us had heard of the man by word of mouth. Some students and teachers had learned from their cell phones. We learned that at around 10:00 in the morning, Eastern time, a young man had shot someone on the Main Street, or as pretty much everyone in Charlottesville called it, the Downtown Mall.
“The mall?!” I said. “Where on the mall?”
“Right next to Marco and Luca’s,” said my friend Julian.
“Fuck off,” I said. “Lemme see the phone.” He showed me the headline: Gunman Injures Woman On Downtown Mall, Police Chase Underway “Shit. And they’re still chasing him?” I asked.
“No updates yet,” he sighed.
And then, for a moment, we are silent. We pick up our school stuff, and walk to 3rd period art class, dragging the silence behind us. When we arrive, we pick up our previous art projects from the drying rack and sit down. I sit next to my longtime friend Olivia, and we begin to paint. Our teacher, Drew, is missing, which is not uncommon. He was always a flaky guy.
“What are you painting?” she asks me. I didn’t have time to answer, because we are too busy ducking under the tables. We are hiding from the gunman. Julia, an adult, and a teacher, enters the room and says: LOCKDOWN. We’re having a lockdown.
Tandem is in lockdown. Its first ever lockdown. The word echoes through my mind as we all curl up beneath the old wooden art tables. Lockdown. After all the drills we did, we still were not ready. Olivia is already crying. My first thought is, “There are so many windows in this room, we’re clear targets. We’re probably gonna fucking die.” Olivia is sobbing now. Julian is surprisingly calm. We look at each other. He shrugs. Olivia is weeping. I take her hands in mine, and pull her close. But I have no words for her. We are not allowed to speak. I can only silently reassure her with my presence. If we die, we die together. Now keep in mind, at this moment, there is no guarantee that this is the same gunman as the one we’d read about from the news, and the rumors among students. But Tandem is about a fifteen minute drive from the Downtown mall, and roughly ten minutes had passed since our learning of the shooting. The gunman had not yet been apprehended, so it seemed like there was no other explanation.
Olivia is broken in my arms. She may be attempting to pray, I’m not sure. I start to become more worried about her than I am about the stream of bullets that we all expect to be fired through the low windows into the light filled art room. Days pass in the span of seconds. With each intake of oxygen, we breathe our last. Time slows to a complete stop, as heartbeats rise to the ceiling. This is it. This is the way we die. Kids, adults, students, teachers, who cares. In a moment, an instant, we will all be corpses. We are dead.
Looking back, I honestly have no idea how long passed.
Five minutes or an hour, to us, it was a year, it was ten years. It was our entire lives, Everything we ever did, everyone we ever loved, all our mistakes. It was everything at once. That’s how we felt. We felt the end, and we waited for it.
As the eternity or dreadful anticipation draws to a close, I look out the window, and see two legs walking across the lawn. Two legs in blue pants. I can’t see anything above the legs because the window is so low. And then I see the thing that the world has come to fear and respect. The metal contraption that has brought death to the world since the 1500’s. I see the second amendment. I see the barrel of a shotgun. I blink. The heat leaves my face, like my body is preparing for its imminent death. We all watch the legs march across the lawn, while the shotgun hovers above them. The legs disappear. Years pass. The fear boils our skin, and we wait. Seconds pass. We hear a door open in the hallway. The legs are in the hallway. The shotgun has entered the building. Seconds pass. Olivia is sobbing, holding my hands so tight they turned to paper. We wait. A knock at the door. Seconds pass. We expect gunfire. We wait for death. Instead, we hear a voice.
Julia, an adult, opens the door. The legs enter the room, the shotgun is held high. Behind it is a golden badge. And under that is a silver name tag. Newman.
“Are you all ok?” he asks. A few of us nod silently. Time begins to return to its normal speed. After a moment, we stand up. Olivia wipes a mixture of sweat and tears from her face. Julia, the adult, asks Officer Newman what happened.
“The assailant ditched his car and fled into the backwoods behind the school. We’re looking for him now.”
The Backwoods. The gunman fled through the same backwoods where the seniors smoke weed and gossip. The backwoods where I would run for cross country practice. The gunman didn’t come here for us. He is here for the backwoods. He’s probably there now, trudging through the same cross country trails that I have familiarized myself with. He was here, but we are still alive.
For a long time after that day, it was hard to understand exactly what had taken place, what it all meant, if anything. Two hours ago I remembered the word “Numen.” And two hours ago I understood.