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The shooting at my school, and what "unthinkable" means now

Front page of the Austin American-Statesman from May 18, 1978
Austin American-Statesman via Austin Public Library 

In May, it will be 40 years since the school shooting at my junior high school in Austin, Texas. It wasn’t a mass shooting. On May 18, 1978, one of my 8th grade classmates at Murchison Junior High — now Murchison Middle School — walked into a classroom and shot his English teacher to death.

At the time, that was unthinkable. Everything stopped that day as we tried to process it. It was surreal, and it was national news (here’s the New York Times account). Now? It wouldn’t be unthinkable at all. If it doesn’t have mass casualties and kids being gunned down — like Columbine, Sandy Hook, and now Parkland — it barely registers.

I wasn’t in the classroom that morning — I’ve only heard accounts from classmates who were. The one thing everyone seemed to agree on is that the shooter walked in with a hunting rifle, said “the joke’s on you,” and opened fire.

The part I do remember is when he ran out of the building. I was outside at gym class, and my coach stopped the class and muttered, “What is that kid doing with that gun?” We looked over, just in time to see him running near the bike racks. He dropped the rifle and ran off, and the coach ran after him. We were later told that the coach caught him trying to climb the cliffs across the street.

There was never any moment of fear. It happened too fast, and the shooter dropped the rifle quickly. The only thing I remember thinking was: “Wait, is that a real gun?"

But it was a horrifying experience for our classmates who saw it happen. The teacher, Rod Grayson, was tough but caring, funny, and well liked. And to think about it now — and realize that there was absolutely nothing to stop the student from walking into a classroom with a rifle — is chilling. (You can read more about it here.)

Now, think about how our standards for school shootings have changed. We’ve become conditioned to expect stories of the kids themselves being shot to death, or hiding in terror from the shooter. We’ve even seen a video from Parkland with the sound of gunshots. Yes, school security has gotten better — but not enough to protect them from this.

Every time a school shooting happens, a bit of the memory of the Murchison shooting comes back. It’s especially disturbing now that my daughter is in 8th grade, at about the same stage in her life as I was when it happened. As a parent, it takes on a new meaning.

All we want — all of us — is for our kids to be safe. There’s probably a mix of solutions, and that’s for others to decide. But for those of us with kids in school now, the answer can’t be nothing. And to know that we’ve graduated from hunting rifles to AR-15s is no comfort at all.

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