Being the Target

This is about a 1965 school shooting—a shooting that never happened. If it had, I might not be here to tell the story.

My first full-time job after college was teaching seventh- and ninth-grade English at a combined junior-senior high school in upstate New York. I’d turned 21 only a month before the first day of school, so there were lots of students who were only three or four years younger than I was. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the seniors, and maybe some juniors, were even closer to my age. (That’s probably why, within a month after school began, there were songs being dedicated to me and another young male first-year teacher—on WPTR, the Top-40 station in Albany.)

The school district was mostly rural, so most of the kids—and pretty close to all of the boys—had grown up with guns. Mostly rifles. Mostly .22 caliber. And on one of the first warm days in the spring, one of those boys brought his gun to school.

I found out about it later, after the situation had been handled—by Sal, the principal, and Bill, the boys’ gym teacher. It was Bill who told me about it.

“Did you hear that Vincent came to school with his hunting rifle this morning?” he said. (I think the kid’s name was Vincent. Maybe Victor. I don’t remember his surname.) I said no, I hadn’t heard that.

“Yeah,” Bill said. “He was looking for you.”

“For me?” I didn’t have Vincent in class. I didn’t know Vincent. I’d never encountered him in the hallways. I wasn’t even sure which of the hundreds of kids he was. I had no idea why he’d have been looking for me.

“Yeah, it’s probably a good thing Sal and I found him before he found you.”

I left that school at the end of the year, and I still don’t know why Vincent was looking for me. I’ve wondered whether maybe his girlfriend was behind those dedications on WPTR, and he was jealous. But I don’t know whether he even had a girlfriend; he could have been a classic mass-shooter loner. Nor do I know what ultimately became of him—whether he wound up spending time in jail, or getting killed in Vietnam, or maybe being elected to the school board.

But I think my memory of this incident is part of what’s shaping my response to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High—and the unconscionable number of school shootings that preceded it.

My near-encounter took place in the Sixties, so I’m aware not only of the potential dangers that are part of being a teacher, but also that those dangers have existed for a long time—maybe forever. On the other hand, I’m also aware of the technological innovations and interest-group lobbying that have altered the parameters of comparable situations today.

So I’m glad Vincent had only a bolt-action .22, not an AR-15. I’m glad Sal and Bill weren’t armed with anything more than commanding presences and the art of persuasion.

And I’m especially glad that neither Sal nor Bill nor I was ever put in the position of having to draw a weapon in an attempt to kill a student.

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