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The Things They Carried

When it happened again, I was teaching a creative writing workshop at the New England Young Writers’ Conference at the Bread Loaf campus in Ripton, Vermont — Baby Bread Loaf, as some of us older writers like to say. The conference is often life-changing for the high school kids who participate; it’s a place where they can openly admit their writing persuasions and find their tribe — other sensitive souls whose perceptions of the world compel them to do creative things with their words.

Before the conference, I had been thinking that I should write another blog entry — my last having been an enraged criticism of our violent gun culture in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. I had been thinking that I should write another entry because it had been a while, and because I didn’t want my students to google my work and find ‘school shooting’ to be the last topic that I had written about.

I didn’t want the heaviness of that topic to cast a shadow over our time together.

But I didn’t get to it in time, and on May 18th, while we sat in the dewey grass journaling our thoughts before gathering into the yellow buildings to review each others’ manuscripts, a 17-year-old student of Santa Fe High School in Texas walked into the art room of his school with two loaded weapons and gunned his classmates down, killing 10 and injuring 10 more.

Two months is a long time between blog posts.

Two months is not a long time between mass school shootings.


This past Monday was Memorial Day and because of what happened in Santa Fe, the flag was being flown at half-mast. Just like the last mass shooting, and the mass shooting before that.

As I looked at all the American flags the local Rotary Club had placed around town to honor our fallen soldiers, I thought of a statistic that has been circulating around the Internet: So far, 2018 has been deadlier for American school children than it has been for American soldiers engaged in military combat.

This is not one of those deceptive falsehoods concocted to enrage the political left. It is an accurate statement that has been analyzed and verified, although PolitiFact included a hair-splitting footnote which read, “It is important to know, however, the likelihood of being killed in a combat zone is still vastly higher than it is in school.”

A detail which, in fact, underscores the absurdity of this conversation.


My generation was born during the tail-end of the Vietnam War, so ours is not defined by that conflict. But our parents’ generation was.  My husband had an uncle who saw combat in Vietnam and never spoke of it when he returned. I had an acquaintance in college whose father was a Vietnam veteran. He suffered from PTSD and was physically abusive to his family as a result. She told me she once woke to her father ripping her out of bed and holding her against the wall by her neck. He had dissociated from reality. She told me what really fucked him up was witnessing the involvement of children in combat. The blurring of innocence and evil.

Of course, hers is an extreme example, but my point is that ripple effects occur.


Is surviving a mass school shooting considered an exposure to extreme violence?  I mean, it does involve death and carnage on a military scale.

What if the supposed “good guy with a gun” kills the “bad guy with a gun” and instead of 10 dead it’s only 5? Is that less violent? Less likely to inflict a surviving student with PTSD?

Or am I splitting hairs?


I have tried and failed to write about this thing so many times. I lose sleep over the threat of violence in our schools. I worry about what lockdown drills have done to the imaginations of our youth, how school shootings have defined their generation. I dread the urgent news alert like the parents of a prior generation dreaded the arrival of a draft card. Somebody’s going to die. It may or may not be your child.


I recently pulled out my copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to see if his timbered words could inspire me to string some sentences together. O’Brien writes about the Vietnam experience with haunting precision, his detached narrative voice guiding us through the violence of war, but juxtaposed against the humanity of combat soldiers who find themselves in inhumane conditions. The book begins:

“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rugsack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.”

I want to write about the kids in this way — by which I mean I want to write lovingly about young adults and teachers who have somehow, unwittingly, turned into foot soldiers at their own schools.

“The things they carried were largely determined by necessity,” O’Brien writes. “Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.”

I attempt to mimic O’Brien’s rhythm, filling in the blanks with the belongings of our own child-soldiers: The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were backpacks, text books, tabbed notebooks, ballpoint pens, no. 2 pencils, college-ruled notebook paper, iPhones and other electronic devices, phone chargers, gym shorts, chewing gum, candy, makeup, tampons, ibuprofen, money, and Hydroflask water bottles.

“Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavendar, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April… Mitchell Sanders, the RTO, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books.”

Kyle M. carried a tennis racket and the lines to his favorite movies. Angelique R. carried the love of her youth ministry and a fluorescent head of hair. Ms. Tisdale carried the oppressive worry about her husband, who was terminally ill. Kimberly V. carried a shyish grin. Sabika S. carried novels. She dreamed of becoming a diplomat to her native Pakistan, until a classmate shot her dead on a Friday morning in their school. Chris S. carried a football, and was especially fond of anything that made the wind blow through his hair: parasailing, jet skiing, ziplining through the trees. Jared S. carried his birthday wishes. Shana S., who had just turned 16, carried the nervous excitement of her forthcoming time behind the wheel. Christian G. carried the lyrics of Toby Keith songs in his head. Ms. Perkins carried the affection of her students. 

Dimitrious P., who was angry, carried a loaded .38 caliber handgun and a sawed off shotgun he had taken from his father. Later, after he’d been detained, police found explosive devices on the school campus, including a Molotov cocktail. Paige C. carried the expectation that this would eventually happen in her school.


At the final student reading on the last morning of the young writers’ conference, a young man read a poem he had written about being involved in the theater and protesting gun violence at his school. One of his teachers, a conservative, had mocked kids like him — this teacher had uttered words like libtard and Goddamn snowflakes, and had said to the quiet student who was now reading his poem, “You look like you could be a shooter.”

No one spoke out in protest, the young man said. Not one word.


Photo Credit: Newsok.com (The Oklahoman)








About Mary Heather

I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.


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