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Barbarians or Buffoons at the Gate
Elizabeth Ross


It was a quiet afternoon, sitting in the shade under a tree near a public pool, waiting for my youngest son’s father to come back and beg me to take our son in the water to give him a break. I knew they had wandered off near the entry gate, to visit the restrooms. It was shortly after the Fourth of July, so when the popping sound started, I figured that some kids had set off some firecrackers near the gate.

A whole crowd of people ran from the sound – more than what would be expected if it were just a group of mischievous kids playing with fireworks. The news moved quickly through the crowd – it wasn’t firecrackers, but gunfire. I was terrified, not that I could end up getting shot, but that my son and his father may already be lying on the ground with bullets in them. Franticly I scanned the people scattering to gather their belongings and leave the pool area. I’ve rolled my eyes many times when I’ve heard people claim that time crawls in such situations, but there is no other way for me to explain what it was like to endure the five minutes I stood watching the crowd, waiting for my family to return.

My son’s father finally appeared, and our son, completely oblivious to what just happened, started begging to go back in the pool. Still nervous about the situation, I didn’t want to let anyone go even 10 feet away from me, but I finally said it would be fine to play on the playground equipment about 30 feet away. I stayed with our belongings, and watched my son play with a few other children, his father hovering nearby. Unfortunately I couldn’t drown out the sound of some children not much older than my five-year-old who were asking their parents excitedly if they had heard the shots, or better yet, seen them. They weren’t afraid, and I still can’t wrap my mind around the concept of children living in an environment where gunfire is obviously a fairly common occurrence – doubly unsettling since this pool was under five miles from my mother’s home, and approximately 15 miles from my own.

The P.A. system came on, and a male voice announced that the pool was closing, and that everyone should leave. Lifeguards filtered through the crowd, repeating that announcement, and asking if anyone had seen a little boy who was apparently lost. I thought for a split second about how terrified that boy’s mother had to be, but quickly shoved the concept from my mind. It was time to get my own family out of harm’s way. As we were walking toward the gate, a man was talking loudly about his opinion on the incident. He thought it couldn’t have been gunfire, because they wouldn’t be letting anyone leave – we would be kept there under a “lock-down” while police searched and questioned everyone. I knew that was wrong, by instinct or by past vicarious experience with police officers in my family. Obviously the shooters had either been apprehended, or had never gained entrance to the pool area in the first place. I would find out later on the local news that the latter was the case, and that no one had been injured.

As we moved beyond the opinionated man, my fear and sadness subsided, replaced by anger, bordering on rage. For the first time in many months I despised my work – thought it was futile. There was no purpose in promoting education and literacy in low-income areas. The statistics couldn’t be turned around, and those little children who weren’t afraid of gunfire were merely the next generation of gun-toting delinquents. No matter how many books or literacy programs I would put in the communities, 85% of all juvenile offenders would still have difficulties reading, and half of the inmates in adult prisons would still be incapable of reading and writing. I could hear my grandmother saying “God helps those who help themselves,” and fought the urge to scream in frustration, knowing that the people who ran around with guns and sold drugs on the streets would never take the opportunity to help themselves.

By the time I got home the anger and frustration had subsided a little, but I was still highly annoyed with the situation, and the fact that a place I had enjoyed in childhood was no longer safe. I sat down at my desk and stared blankly at my laptop’s screen, and skimmed the notes in my inbox. For whatever reason, my gaze was drawn to the Scholastic catalog sitting on my worktable. I sighed, spun my chair to face the table, and started leafing through the catalog. An hour later I had a short list started for a book order that would be delivered to the local juvenile detention center that would eventually house the shooters from the pool.

*Statistics provided by FirstBook.org.