First Person / Pretty close by

I heard the sirens ... multiple stabbings, Twitter said ...

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Early this morning, sirens went off in my town, and emergency vehicles went screaming by on the highway I can just barely see from my apartment at the bottom of a hill. Even though I didn’t have my hearing aids in, I could hear them, there were so many and they were so persistent. My Twitter feed soon told me why: multiple stabbings at the high school in Murrysville.

Notice that I did not write “a high school” but “the high school.” There’s only one in that small town. I saw it last week when I drove home from my dentist, whose office is on the same street as the school. I live in Monroeville, the town that shares a border with Murrysville.

That’s pretty close by.

That’s what I keep telling myself, when I wonder why I can’t move on with my day since there’s nothing I can do but pray: “Pretty close by.”

I used that phrase before on a day when the sun shined like it does today and the sky was similarly blue and dotted with white clouds, a day when I spent a great deal of my time trying to explain to people who don’t know Manhattan how far away I was exactly when the planes hit. Now I’m wondering if the distance between my apartment in Brooklyn and the World Trade Center is comparable to the distance between my apartment in Monroeville and the high school in Murrysville. I bet they’re about the same.

How close does tragedy, chaos, violence, helplessness have to come before it is happening to you?

Except for five minutes of watching the news and a Facebook update, I stayed away from the television and the Internet this morning, knowing that news doesn’t break fast enough to keep the anchors away from their twin flaws: sentimentalism and speculation. But when my mom sent me a text to get an update, I glanced through my Twitter feed and learned that the suspected attacker was in custody, having been wrestled to the ground and disarmed by a security guard and an assistant principal.

My eyes flooded with tears, of course. I know high schools. I know these types of people. I have walked in the main door of a high school and been met with a guard’s skeptical, flat stare. Even though I have the face of a teacher (which I was) and the demeanor of a teaching artist (which I am), I must be regarded carefully, checked out, approved. Since Columbine. Since Virginia Tech. Since … well. Often one of these men walks with me to the classroom where my teaching artist residency will take place, and I silently note the paunch over his belt or his limp. But I know that if something bad happens, they will run toward it, and this astounds me.

And principals. Oh, I’ve known some bad principals, some folks whose policies and beliefs would make your toes curl. But I have also seen all of them, even the worst of them, run toward the bad that is happening. I think of the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, who walked toward a man with guns.

And Newtown makes me think of my friend F I lost touch with after we stopped teaching together at a preschool in Manhattan. She and her husband had a son, moved north, out of the city. It seemed like a logical thing to do, I remember. Who would want to raise a child in the insanity that is New York?

They moved to Newtown, as it turns out. And their son was killed in the shooting. The little boy I knitted a baby hat for, many years ago.

Pretty close by.

On Facebook, I update my status to let people know that I’m upset after reading about the security guard and the principal and the suspect. I’m trolling for comforting words. I get two responses. One friend says she’s crying with me, which is the perfect thing to say. The other suggests I step away from media and posts a link where I can look at photos of cute puppies and kittens.

It’s a good instinct, isn’t it? To say, hey, you don’t have to look at that — you’re not a student at that school, or a parent of a student at that school, or a teacher at that school, or even a teaching artist who’s done a residency at that school, once escorted to your classroom by the security guard who’s now in the hospital. And this is all true. I am not. I do not have to look.

I can look at photos of kittens and puppies. Or I can go to Google Maps and type in my home address and of the high school in Murrysville. 7.3 miles, it tells me. I can be there in 16 minutes.

Pretty close by.

Shannon Reed is working on her MFA in creative writing: fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. A theater and writing teaching artist for City Theatre, Gateway to the Arts and Pittsburgh Public Theater, she lives in Monroeville (

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