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School Sounds

By James Utt
By James Utt

My home is close enough to Thurston Middle School that the chimes calling students to class are often audible through the glass windows. When a gentle wind is blowing onshore during fall evenings, the roar of the crowd from the high school stadium is easy to hear. If my partially torn meniscus is up to it, I strap on a brace and walk from Alta Laguna Park to Top of the World Elementary where a cacophony of young voices mingle in the morning air, struggling to be heard.

Being nostalgically inclined, I sometimes drive back to the public schools I attended in the 1950s and ‘60s. There were Roosevelt and Hoover elementary in Santa Ana, then Guin Foss, Columbus Tustin, and, finally, Tustin High. Aside from the angst of acne, these were idyllic times. The only jolt to our senses was an occasional slap of a ruler on the teacher’s desk to help us regain our wandering attention. There were a few fistfights, but usually the combatants were all too eager for a teacher to appear and end the dustup.

But the sound of gunfire on campus? This was as foreign an idea to us as making friends with Russians. Things like that simply did not happen. The only time gunshots brought us to our emotional knees at Tustin High was when three bullets were fired in faraway Dallas in 1963.

Six years after that, I was a newly minted teacher at Foothill High, but not for long. Being one of the “winners” of the first draft lottery, then, after my service ended, taking some time off to find myself, I did not return to teaching until 1976. This time at El Toro High, where I would stay until retirement in 2010. The sights and sounds of school life rolled on pretty much as they had when I had been a student.

Then in 1999 came Columbine. I look back now and think of the words of Thomas Jefferson when he heard of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. “It was like a fire bell in the night that awakened and filled me with terror,” he wrote to a friend. That is what Columbine should have been to us.

A Chicago Tribune article on school violence around the world in which two or more people were murdered between 2000 and 2010 presents us with a most disturbing statistic: There were 57 such incidents in 36 countries and 28 were in the United States alone.

During my last years at El Toro, a new sound was added to our school life. The P.A. system would, from time to time, blast out “lock down” drills where we would practice actions we would take in case there was a shooter on campus.

Unfortunately, these are now necessary. In the first seven weeks of 2018 there have been eight shootings at U.S. schools that have caused injury or death.

What has caused this sea change from the days that I was a student? Does the USA have a higher proportion of students who are mentally unstable as compared to other developed countries? Fareed Zakaria points out that our country has 25 times as much gun violence as any other country. He doubts we have 25 times more people with mental health issues.

That brings us to the elephant in the room. We have about as many fire arms in this country as we do people. When I bought my first shotgun in the 1960s, the gun store was mostly stocked with hunting rifles and shotguns. Go into a gun store today. You will see lots of weapons like the AR -15 which the Parkland shooter legally purchased and used. It was the same type of weapon used in the shooting at the Texas church, the Las Vegas concert shooting, and at Sandy Hook. Bullets from these weapons can penetrate a steel helmet from 500 yards. Ask a trauma surgeon what they will do to someone shot up close.

We hear so much about the Second Amendment, but not so much about the first clause, which speaks about a well-regulated militia. I would like to know how an 18-year-old with an AR -15 fits into a “well -regulated militia.”

I continue to hope the only sounds I will hear from nearby Thurston are its chimes, and, from the Breaker’s football field, its cheering. But a great change has come over the land, casting a dangerous shadow over our schools and I don’t think arming teachers is much of an answer.


James Utt knows gun ownership is soaked into our cultural DNA, but even Judge Scalia believed in reasonable restrictions on our weaponry.




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  1. I am so tired of hearing “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of (fill in the appropriate name).” It will take voters casting their votes for candidates that run on a gun-control platform before we will see real reform. The Gen Z students who recently marched have the right idea, but must back up the rhetoric with participating in the election process . The NRA must be defeated at the polls and reasonable gun-control legislation enacted before wee will see any peace in the land.


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