Making weeds into flowers

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Cheryl Was Shot

The announcement came to me, and my 1969 junior high classmates, that Cheryl had been shot. She was walking down her street, towards her own home, when a young man—a neighbor, randomly, ruthlessly, and without provocation shot her. She had survived. Cards, flowers, gifts, and well wishes of every sort could be sent to her home address.

Our community’s sensibilities were shaken by the news. We were shocked, curious, stunned—but not numbed. I had never before heard of someone being shot for no reason. I had never thought much about anyone being shot. I don't know what kind of gun the shooter had or what happened to him. I know it was just a handgun, not a semi-automatic, or anything close to what’s used in today’s now prolific shootings.

My mom helped me select and send a card and small gift. I don’t remember what the gift was or what we decided was appropriate to say on the card. I do remember receiving a thank you note a few weeks later from Cheryl. It said, “Thank you for your kindness during my illness.” I was struck by her reference to her “illness” but, at the time, couldn’t think of a better way for her to say it.

I had a lot of trouble reconciling why this would happen to her in particular. She was a sweet natured, diligently unobtrusive girl who tried her best to blend in with the utilitarian beige desks, and modular walls. But she couldn’t blend; because she was also, what today would be termed, morbidly obese. She was easily the most overweight girl in the school, but would likely be one of several if she were attending middle school in our current millennium.

She sat behind me in Social Studies, and although I was shy, her demeanor in comparison made me look like a convivial queen of popularity. She dressed nicely, had pretty blonde hair, and a pleasant smile. We always said hi to each other and exchanged small talk, very small talk; and that was about it. When Cheryl returned, post-convalescence, our interaction resumed as if rehearsed.

In the decades since, our communities have been bombarded by images of violence—graphic depictions that appear in movies, television shows, video games, and the news. We hear and see reports of multiple shootings per week, leaving us numbed but no longer stunned.

I think about Cheryl and what she must make of all that’s currently happening in our schools, businesses, and neighborhoods. How does her unique perspective color her reactions and opinions? What must it be like to have been one of the first? It didn’t make the news; there were no copycats; just an informative announcement to update the school families—a desk left empty for several weeks in Social Studies—a polite thank you note—and an unrecognized beginning.

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