My Westside Story
I was on the radio, dispatching tag-out instructions to an overhead-electric maintenance crew, when my co-worker opened the door, and with a trembling voice told me, “Danny. There’s been a shooting at Westside.”
I grabbed the nearest phone and called home. When their mother answered, I asked with held breath, “Where are the kids?”
That was Tuesday. The next Sunday, as we did almost every week, we went to our little church in Bono. Many of the victims and their families had deep roots in the small town. It was a place where everyone knew everyone. After I parked my car, I was approached by a man who said he was from the BBC. It was surreal. There were dozens of vans with antennas and satellite dishes lined up and down the street. He kindly asked if we’d like to say something. I shook my head, sadly. No. There were no words then, there are no words now, or will ever be prose in human language to describe that day.
The circus of media has long gone, only a few reporters sometimes coming back for a follow-up story. Twenty years later, I know what I want to say, in one word:
Several years before March 24, 1998, I worked with Shannon Wright’s father, Carl Williams, at the Arkansas Highway Department in Jonesboro. Carl is one of the finest men I’ve ever known, a humble and decent man—a family man. One day our secretary pointed at him standing outside our office, looking up at the sky and talking on the phone to his wife. Severe weather was forecast and a tornado watch had been issued. I didn’t overhear what he said, but I expect it was to make sure she knew about the approaching danger, and to pass word along to Shannon. This wasn’t the only time I saw him do this. His daughter was one of my daughter’s favorite teachers. She was kind and fair to all her students, including the boy who shot and killed her.
My son was in the second grade at the time of the school shooting at Westside Middle School. I quit my job at the end of that March to start my own engineering and land surveying business. I also volunteered part-time as a teacher’s aide in his class until school was out for the summer. His teachers said it gave them comfort to have me there. It did my heart good to help, but I was mostly there for him. My son was the type of kid back then who would say things without knowing the seriousness of the words, and I was afraid that a knee-jerk reaction of follow-on school discipline policies would single him out as a trouble maker. The next Fall, we sent him to a private school along with my daughter. About a year after the shooting, we moved away from Northeast Arkansas—but we had separated socially from the community not long after the shooting. Isolation from the people involved in the tragedy and everyone else was the way I managed my family’s way of coping. Right or wrong, that decision is all on me.
Their mother answered as my heart stood still, “They’re here.”
That Sunday as I sat in church, I thought God must have spared my daughter for some greater purpose or perhaps her guardian angel was steadfastly looking out for her that day. I see now how selfish it was of me, to not consider then, that those other four girls and Shannon also had purpose and guardian angels. I’ll never understand why they were taken away like that. And some people might say we were just fortunate, but I believe Providence intervened on our behalf—on that day. I don’t know why; all I can do is give thanks and keep looking up at the sky on stormy days as well as fair and pray that my family will always be protected from such evil things.
Happenstance or otherwise, on Monday, the day before the shooting, we had kept my son and daughter at home to practice an educational curriculum, to see how a homeschooling program we were considering would function for us. As I was leaving home on Tuesday morning to go to work, Ashley complained about not feeling well. I insisted that she go to school because she’d already missed the day before. Thankfully, after I left, her mother overruled me. But if my daughter had gone to school that day, she most likely would have been outside in the playground when the shooting started.
I’ve never been very open with my feelings—but I cry at sad movies. If I’m with someone, I’ll wipe my tears away inconspicuously. If I’m alone, I let them fall silently down my cheeks. I’ve wished many times I had cried more with the families in my community. I don’t know if it would have benefited them, as I was not that close to the victims or their families except for Carl and the Thetfords. Nevertheless, I regret not mourning more closely with the friends and families of all the victims, strangers or not.
I’ve read where some parents and other people around Westside tried to influence political action after the shooting, but ran into a lot of resistance. I can understand why. Guns are a big part of Arkansas’s culture. I grew up in a small town and although not an avid hunter, I’d bagged my share of squirrels and rabbits as a kid with my 10-gauge shotgun. I’d even killed a deer that was unfortunate enough to straggle out in front of me one cold winter morning. I don’t believe that guns are the entire problem with our society. I think there are a lot of factors that have led to the decline of the moral fabric in American society. There is a lot of work to do to fix those things. One step at a time with priority. We can do something right now to ensure guns do not get in the hands of people who would commit crimes like those committed at Westside and other places around the country. There is no better time than Now.
That is simply all that is behind the movements such as Never Again and The March For Our Lives.
It’s not politics. It’s not a conspiracy to do away with the second amendment. These kids are not puppets. Doesn’t it sound absurd to think these young people are being manipulated by adults. Who of us at that age listened to adults. And that’s the gist of it. This wave of protests is simply about a generation of people who see that now is the time to say—Enough!
I’m really proud of the students in Florida who have decided to take the lead for change. They seem to know they’re in for an uphill battle against some entrenched special interest groups and politicians—but they are determined they will win, most likely by attrition using their soon-to-have voting rights.