The deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother brought back memories of the Eddie Fisher-Elizabeth Taylor-Debbie Reynolds love triangle that played itself out in the press in the late 50’s. I was recalling other childhood news stories, when I heard about the shooting at West Liberty-Salem and realized that the world had intruded…
In grade school I was not consistently aware of current events. We read a child’s version of them at school in the Weekly Reader; otherwise, I spent my time being a kid.
Eventually I read the UDC every day, just as my parents did. We also watched the evening news with Walter Cronkite on CBS. By the way, Cronkite remains for me the gold standard of newsmen.
During the summer after second grade I closely followed the CBS coverage of an ocean liner tragedy. When the Andrea Doria sank after a collision with the Stockholm, I became fascinated by watching the passengers – wet, cold, and dazed – being helped to safety.
Hollywood scandal made headlines then as regularly as now. There were scads of movie star marriages and divorces as well as the drama of Cheryl Crane, Lana Turner’s daughter, who stabbed Johnny Stompanato, Turner’s abusive gangster boyfriend. It was pretty racy stuff at the time.
My awareness of national and world events naturally increased with my age. By junior high I was convinced the Russians would bomb America any day, and my high school years were dominated by the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination.
It was a local event that made the most lasting impression on my young mind. During 4-H camp a nasty knee injury during a fall on the blacktop sent me to the nurse, who changed my dressing daily – and knew all the right things to say to a socially-awkward 11-year-old away from home for the first time. And her name was Shirley!
Horribly, this wonderful young woman and her brother were murdered by their father six months later, on Thanksgiving morning. I read every word of UDC coverage. Up to that point, I knew only one person who had died – my Grandfather Maurice. No one I knew had ever been killed. She was my nurse. And her name was Shirley…
As I began to draw some conclusions about how news affected me as a child, an uneventful Friday at West Liberty-Salem School suddenly turned tragic. The term “active shooter” became real. What parents fear, what school employees guard against but plan for, the unthinkable – it came to pass.
It was surreal to watch the media descend upon the school just up the road and to follow developing events on Facebook – even as the community wrapped its collective arms around everyone’s children and held tight.
I am not sure things are any more or less frightening for young people currently than back in the day. Sadly, there will always be murders and scandals. The threat of nuclear attack loomed then every bit as large as the threat of terrorism does now.
There is, however, stark contrast between the access I had to scary news compared to youngsters today. When I was a kid, the evening news lasted just fifteen minutes until Walter Cronkite became the first newscaster to anchor a half hour program.
Now kids can watch the news 24/7 on any number of stations – often on their own televisions in their own rooms. Newspaper articles and TV kept me up-to-date, but kids in this century also find information online and through social media – frequently without parental supervision or knowledge.
I did not discuss the news with my parents, although I suppose I could have. They might have been surprised by what I understood and what concerned me. I guess my rock-solid home life helped me learn to keep disturbing events in perspective.
I worry more about kids now. With so much information so available in so many forms, it is incumbent upon adults to be aware of what children are experiencing – although admittedly it is impossible to control access to or discuss every news item and even more impossible to ascertain how indelible an impression is being made.
The work for every adult in the life of any West Liberty-Salem student has just begun. The open house last Monday provided an essential first step in helping everyone move forward. Staff members in the coming weeks will do exactly what I would have done: reestablish a steady routine – all the while watching students like a hawk for signs of lingering stress and distress.
I hope parents and teachers in surrounding schools will also be on the lookout for anxiety. The outpouring of orange-and-black support has been remarkable, as the Tigers grow stronger every day. But grownups are not the only ones to think that if it can happen at West Liberty-Salem, it is not out of the realm of possibility for Mechanicsburg or Triad or Urbana or Graham.
During my years in the classroom with other people’s kids, I came to realize that one of the most important things parents and teachers can give the young people in their lives is perspective. We must listen carefully and explain as best we can; we must realize that neither overreaction nor underreaction is particularly beneficial; we must provide a sense of normalcy even as we hold every kid a little closer to our hearts.
When the world intrudes…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.