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Class Notes
Living under the shadow of violence
(Published October 21, 2002)

By H. WELLS WULSIN

It's 8:35 a.m., and for one of the first times in the year, you actually feel a chill in the crisp autumn air. Stepping into the warm school lobby on a Monday morning, you unzip your jacket and relax, thinking that being back at school isn't quite so painful as you anticipated when you woke up.

In front of you are a couple dozen students, roughly divided into two lines. Bookbags and purses go on the X-ray belt; students step through the metal detectors and then spread their arms for a quick pat-down.

The mood is light, as you chat with your friends about the cookout on Saturday, yesterday's long church service, an upcoming surprise birthday party. You've got plenty of time to get to first period physics, so you comfortably walk through this daily routine.

But in an instant, your calm is shattered. Suddenly, you glimpse the X-ray monitor, where in unmistakable outline is the 5-inch blade of a Super Gut Hook folding knife. The sequence of events replays all at once in your mind - the invitation to a party from a friend, the look of dismay on your elder brother's face, the coolness of the metal in your hand and its heaviness in your pocket, his advice that you won't need it, but to "take it just in case." And now you're standing beneath a sign that reads "Mandatory Explusion for Possession of Weapons," with two stern security guards and an angry principal staring you in the face, as you try to explain how you forgot to take that knife out of your purse after a Saturday night party.

***

Over the past two weeks, the Washington metropolitan area has been assaulted by a series of single-shot sniper murders. The ruthlessness of this killer has sent waves of trepidation throughout our region. The victims have been male and female, black and white, young and old - everyday citizens caught in the midst of everyday activities. Despite our best precautions, no one can be guaranteed protection against the capricious fatal shots of this senseless killer.

Here in Northeast Washington, this sniper's brand of brutality may be peculiar, but the menace of bloodshed is nothing new. Walking the halls of our school, or waiting at the bus stop, it is not uncommon to see students wearing a T-shirt printed with a color photograph of a lost friend or relative, titled by "Rest in Peace, ____". In other communities, premature deaths are rare exceptions, but here few graduate from high school without having experienced the sorrow of an untimely loss.

A longtime veteran teacher told me that on average one student per year from our school is tragically killed. Last year, one of our students lost an older brother in a shooting. That student eventually missed so many days that she did not advance to the next grade level and had to transfer schools.

This year, again, a student has lost an older brother - this time in a murder to which she was an eyewitness. Is this a pattern that we ought to expect - and accept - as an annual occurrence? Are the youth of our community slowly and randomly being picked off, extinguished in the prime of their lives?

The opening vignette is an account of how one student (with an impeccable discipline record) was suspended for two weeks for accidentally bringing a knife to school. That honor roll students need to defend themselves with lethal weapons to go to a party is an indication of the general lack of security in this sector of society. When safety and protection cannot be assured by authority figures, individuals take self-defense into their own hands.

A student from one of my classes last year was mugged a month ago just a few blocks from school. Although he could have identified and prosecuted the assailant, to do so might have brought retribution from the attacker's friends, or "crew." Reporting information to the police is imprudent if gang retaliation cannot be prevented.

The District's annual murder rate has dropped since its highest levels in the early '90s, but at 240 per year, it still gives this city one of America's highest per capita murder rates. This death toll is more rapid than even the sniper's swift shootings have been, and yet these inner city casualties attract nowhere near the media or justice attention as the current terror in the suburbs.

Our society has become conditioned to accept urban violence as just an unfortunate reality of an imperfect world. In the sniper manhunt, multiple districts have committed entire police forces and Pentagon spy planes plan 24-hour surveillance, while poor and black neighborhoods in this city and many others see no such attention.

As author Geoffrey Canada points out in Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, children do not want to fight, but to pull them off the streets, they need opportunities to become involved in productive activities. If we commit ourselves to developing after-school juvenile centers, subsidized recreational athletics and community watch programs, then the plight of urban violence need no longer be a permanent fixture in the Metro sections of our nation's newspapers.

Inner city hostilities are usually geographically contained, so that avoiding contact with those areas can virtually guarantee insulation from their associated hazards. Living far from the locus of danger, most can feel safe and comfortable - until an anomaly like the sniper brings malicious bloodshed outside of the urban limits.

But for those in safe neighborhoods, an accidental encounter with the other side of the city usually results in nothing more than a story told at cocktail parties: "I was on my way out to the mall, when I took a wrong turn off the highway and ended up lost in Southeast! You can imagine what a fright that put me in - thank heavens I found my way out of there in the daylight!"

Sadly, for most of our children growing up here in the inner city, there is no easy way out, and this is the place they have grown to call their home. Alas, it is a home which is too often overshadowed by fear and pocked by the scars of souls stolen before their time was due.

***

Wulsin is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Finance and Business. Please send stories, comments, or questions to wulsin@gwu.edu.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator