I’ve been in a real funk since the news of Friday’s tragedy.
I’ve mentioned to at least one friend that I didn’t feel as if I have been able to really grieve. I’ve stayed off Facebook because I didn’t want to hear from those who so casually and flippantly continue to defend the ubiquitous presence of guns in our society, as well as those who think that because teachers don’t lead students in prayer meetings, schools no longer house God’s presence.
But in a flash a few days ago, I suddenly realized why I have been emotionally distant from the Sandy Hook shooting.
Because I lived through a similar episode of school violence.
In the fall of 2005, all three of our children attended the American School of Yaounde (ASOY), located in the capital city of Cameroon in central Africa.
One morning, Leah received the phone call that every parent dreads: “Come quickly and pick up your kids — something’s happened.”
No explanation, no details. Not a word about the safety of our children. When she called back, the line was busy. Everyone we knew at the school had a busy line.
In the absence of an all-present media, we had nothing to go on. We sped through the streets of Yaounde in a state of panic, but those twenty minutes were the longest of my life.
What had happened? What would we see? Were our children in danger? It was hard enough to live in a foreign country where I still didn’t know the primary language well enough to speak to a stranger. A cold dread climbed up my spine and enveloped my heart as we made our way across town.
Soldiers and police blocked the main entrance, so we made our way around to the back. To our relief, we saw Mallory our first-grader immediately, then Chloe, the fourth-grader. Finally, Rachel, the seventh-grader made her way to us.
We hugged each other tightly, even though the girls still had very little clue what had happened.
The details slowly leaked out: a Cameroonian eleventh-grader named Franck had walked up to his classmate, the son of a diplomat from Burundi, at the start of a class on the second floor of the ASOY building, pulled out a butcher knife, and plunged it into the young man’s chest twice. Then slowly, as if in a trance, Franck turned and left the class, walked down the hall and down the stairs, the knife hanging limply by his side, dripping drops of blood. He made it as far as the front gate before security guards disarmed him and took him into custody.
Jean-Alex died quickly on the floor of the classroom, as a teacher held him and tried to stanch the bleeding.
He was the only victim, but he was killed in the classroom immediately above the room where Chloe was sitting at the time. To this day, she vividly remembers the colors, smells, and sights of that morning.
When we talked about the murder yesterday, she told me that she remembered the order in which the juniors came flying down the steps, fleeing the room above. The stairs to the ground floor went right by her room. She saw the kids running as fast as they could. The older brother of one her friends came down so fast that it looked like he jumped, she said.
Chloe’s teacher, shaken by the rapid-fire order of events, told the children that it was “probably just a snake.” Then the school counselor entered the room, turned quickly, and locked the door behind her. She was laughing nervously, Chloe remembers.
A little later, the kids were ushered out of the room to the tennis courts back of the school. And not long after that, frazzled parents began arriving to collect their children.
All the emotions, fears, thoughts, concerns and doubts came rushing back once I made the connection between Sandy Hook and that morning at ASOY. It’s an experience I don’t wish on my worst enemies.
I remember thinking to myself at the time that I’d actually thought my kids were safer at school in Cameroon than in the US, because those kinds of things “only happen in America.” Then I remembered that this is what everybody always says, no matter where they are.
One of the things I learned through the months that followed was that healing is hard. I served as a pastoral counselor afterwards, and spent time with some of the classes as they worked through their emotions. I ate lunch in the school cafeteria as often as I could. But the teachers and students struggled to finish the school year. Midway through the spring semester, the principal and counselor resigned. And though we finished the school year at ASOY, we chose to homeschool Chloe and Mallory the next two years.
I don’t know if any of us have fully healed from the experience. We simply lived through it, and moved on. Now we’re seven years and half a world away from Jean-Alex’s death.
Chloe is a healthy, fun-loving junior herself now. She seems fairly well-adjusted for having a crazy father like me. But I sometimes wonder what she carries stuffed deep down inside her because of that morning. I wonder if she really fears random violence, unexpected bursts of terror. There’s nothing I can do to change that about her. I can’t alleviate that kind of fear. But it may always be there.
The young man who killed Jean-Alex was clearly emotionally disturbed. After the fact, we learned that Franck struggled with depression, mood swings, and erratic behavior. Even though teachers at ASOY understood that the young man was clearly struggling, they didn’t have the resources to treat him competently. And Cameroon is not the sort of place that has developed a medical community that can treat people with mental, developmental, or intellectual disabilities. Too often, Cameroonians simply ascribe erratic behavior to witchcraft or evil spirits.
As it turned out, Franck’s father, a famous Cameroonian footballer, Theophile Abega, came to his son’s defense, and told him to tell the media and police that the crime was an act of “self-defense” because Jean-Alex had made homosexual advances toward him. In Cameroon, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death; and Franck’s story, though untrue, created a tide of public favor on his behalf. To this day, Franck has not been convicted of any crime, though he is confined to a mental institution.
Violence at school, then, can happen anywhere and anytime. The infinite number of variables make it impossible to predict. People are deeply wounded, and those who are most in pain often lash out and hurt others.
I hurt because I know what it is like to live through a crisis of school violence. The events at Sandy Hook hit a little too close to home.
But there is a big difference between what transpired in Connecticut last week and what happened in Cameroon: Adam Lanza had access to guns, Frank didn’t.
Cameroon’s gun laws are restrictive; the right to private gun ownership is not guaranteed, and is only permitted with “genuine reason.” As a result, guns are very expensive, especially for a population that lives on the edge of extreme poverty.
Guns are such a luxury in Cameroon, that even some members of the military go without. Even if they do get their hands on a weapon, they might not have ammunition. The cost of a gun would have been simply prohibitive.
Frank still was able to carry out an act of violence. But if he’d had a gun in his hand, there would likely have been many more victims.
One of them might have been my daughter.
Thank God, Frank didn’t have a gun.
Oh God, if only Adam hadn’t.