Column: School Daze

In 1974, Mr. Levy was admitted to the hospital for the investigation of shortness of breath. He was a frail, elderly man with very pale skin and very little hair. He was one of thousands of little, old men admitted that year to the hospital for problems likely to be an inevitable consequence of his age.  He would get some medications that might benefit him modestly over the ensuing months of his life and recommendations that would benefit him only if he survived another twenty years. He was a quiet man who looked sad and bored during the day as he paced the hallway of the hospital. Each night, his medications included a sleeping pill. That pill guaranteed him a full night’s sleep. At about midnight, he would start screaming.

His screams woke the other patients in his room but did not wake him. He slept as he responded to the horrors that revisited him every night. The nightmares and the screaming had been going on for more than thirty years. He had left Poland after World War II after being imprisoned in what was euphemistically called a concentration camp. The Nazis more accurately referred to these hell holes for the innocent as Vernichtungslager, extermination camps. Mr. Levy revisited the horrors he had survived, but not escaped, each night in his sleep.  He had PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.  When asked about the screams, he would say, ”I cannot talk about it.” It was not that he was insisting on privacy. In reality, he could not recall the events of those terrible times without choking up and crying. His physical reaction to those memories made it impossible for him to speak.

Since 1974, I have met and managed other people who have experienced or been witness to unspeakable cruelty. Not surprisingly, many have the same response as Mr. Levy when asked to discuss the demons that refuse to exit their dreams. They cannot talk about it. No medication releases them from the horrors. No sympathetic discussion with a psychologist, cleric, physician, or fellow victim relieves or reduces their torment. They are scarred, and there is no remedy for that psychic mutilation. Their loss is as enduring as the loss of an eye or a limb or a child.

This is especially relevant in 2022 and will be in the years to come because of the recurrent school, church, and shopping center massacres that are happening with a regularity that is stupefying. The children of Uvalde, Texas, were some of the most recent victims of a school shooting. The surviving children had witnessed friends and siblings literally blown to bits. Two of the murdered children had been decapitated by rounds from the semiautomatic rifle fired at close range. Children smeared themselves in their classmates blood and lay motionless in a desperate effort to fool the shooter into thinking they were dead.

The surviving children have been assured by the police and politicians that measures have been adopted to guarantee that this will not happen again. Unfortunately, even a seven-year-old can see these reassurances for what they are: nonsense. The children who were not shot have been injured, and hiring more school psychologists and school “resource’”officers will not heal their wounds. In Texas, the powers that be have installed eight foot, allegedly unscalable fencing around schools. Entry points to the schools are now more closely monitored and are self-locking. Active shooter drills have been increased in frequency. There is the perennial suggestion that all teachers have weapons training and be armed. No sane assailant would dare attack a school with these additional barriers and personnel in place. Unfortunately, we are not contending with sane assailants: we are contending with well-armed, often irrational, inarguably evil people looking for “soft” targets.

There is a teacher shortage in America. There are undoubtedly several reasons for this problem.  I suspect two of the unmentionable reasons for teachers running for the exits is the threat of violence and the transformation of centers of learning into fortifications. In Uvalde the alarm that an active shooter was on school grounds was sounded even before the shooter entered the school building. There was no shortage of heavily armed law enforcement personnel on the scene within minutes of the onset of the carnage, but there was a shortage of courage amongst the men who stood by while children were killed.

Many of the Uvalde children who survived the school shooting are refusing to go to school. They do not feel safe. In fact, they are not safe. The government in Texas and in Washington, D.C., has done nothing of consequence to make them safe. Our politicians continue to facilitate the manufacture, sale, and distribution of military style weapons to anyone and everyone. I trust that these weapons are reassuring or entertaining for the people who purchase, collect, or merely borrow them from friends and neighbors, but how can we justify their easy accessibility in light of tragedies stretching from Columbine to Sandy Hook? How can we protect our children and their teachers and the countless citizens targeted by evil morons if we keep funneling weaponry to those intent on carnage?

As I have mentioned before, the second amendment was written to suppress slave revolts and invasions from foreign countries. We got rid of slavery, and we have a military capable of protecting us from enemies, foreign and domestic. It is time we stopped reciting words formulated in the eighteenth century and take steps to reduce the risk to our most innocent.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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