Authors: Todd Strasser
To ending youth violence
To every young person who has ever been killed or wounded by a gun
To Kayla Rolland, age six, who was shot to death on February
29, 2000, in
her first-grade classroom by a six-year-old schoolmate. The death of this innocent child will serve notice that we live in a country where gun use and gun availability is horribly, insanely out of control
My sincerest thanks to my editor, David Gale, and his assistant, John Rudolph, for their insight and encouragement; and to everyone else at Simon & Schuster for giving me the opportunity to write this book; to Joanna Lewis Cole for her inspiration, suggestions, and guidance; to Jann Wenner and
, and Tom Diaz, for their dedication to fighting youth gun violence and for their generosity; to Dr. Barry Brenner of the Brooklyn Hospital/Cornell University Department of Emergency Medicine for his helpful information; to Sophie Ryan for her diligent research assistance; to Erica Stahler for her excellent copyediting; and to my family and friends for their constant interest and support. â¢â¢â¢â¢â¢â¢â¢â¢
One of the things I used to like about writing books for young people was that it wasn't necessary to deal with murder, adultery, and various other immoral or criminal activities that seem mandatory in adult novels these days. I find it sad and frightening that this is no longer the case.
One of the things I dislike most about guns in our society is that, like violence and sex in the media, they rob children of what we used to think of as a childhood.
The story you are about to read is a work of fiction. Nothingâand everythingâabout it is real.
“The hallways erupted in screaming, terror-stricken pandemonium as students realized this wasÂ .Â .Â . another, increasingly familiar scene: a student with a gun.”
By the time you read this, I'll be gone. I just want you to know that there's nothing you could have done to stop this. I know you always tried your best for me, and if anyone doubts you, just show them this letter.
I don't know if I can really explain why I did this. I guess it's because I know that I'll never be happy. I know that every day of my life will hurt and be a lot more bad than good. It's entirely a matter of, What's the point of living?
Around 10 P.M. on Friday, February 27, Gary Searle died in the gymnasium at Middletown High School. After the bullet smashed through the left side of his skull and tore into his brain, he probably lived for ten to fifteen seconds.
The brain is a fragile organ suspended in a liquid environment. Not only does a bullet destroy whatever brain tissue is in its path, but the shock waves from the impact severely jar the entire organ, ripping apart millions of delicate structures and connections. In the seconds that follow, the brain swells with blood and other fluids. The parts of the brain that control breathing and heartbeat stop. One doctor described it to me as “an earthquake in the head.”
At the moment of Gary's death I was in the
library at the state university, where I was a sophomore studying journalism. As soon as I heard the news, I went home to Middletown, determined not to leave until I understood what had happened there.
Returning to Middletown was like stepping into a thick fog of bewilderment, fury, agony, and despair. For weeks I staggered through it, searching out other lost, wandering souls. Some were willing to talk to me. Others spoke because they felt a need to defend themselves even though no one had pointed an accusing finger at them. Some even sought me out because they
to talk. As if speaking about it was a way of trying to figure it out, of beginning the long, painful process of grieving and moving ahead.
Some refused to speak because it must have been too painful. For others, I suspect it was because they had learned something about themselves that they were still struggling to acceptâor to conceal.
I spoke to everyone who would speak to
me. In addition I studied everything I could find on the many similar incidents that have occurred in other schools around our country in the past thirty years.
The story you are about to read is really two stories. One is about what happened here in Middletown. The other is the broader tale of what is happening all around our countryâin a world of schools and guns and violence that has forever changed the place I once called home. The quotes and facts from other incidents are in a different-style print. What happened in Middletown is in plain print.
This, then, is the story of what I learned. It is told in many voices, in words far more eloquent and raw than any I could have thought of on my own. It is a story of heartbreak and fear and regret. But mostly it is a warning. Violence comes in many formsâguns, fists, and words of hate and contempt. Unless we change the way we treat others in school and out, there will only be more â and more horribleâtragedies.
Mrs. Searle and Gary moved into the house next to ours the day before second grade began. So the first time I actually saw him was at the bus stop. He was kind of quiet, but friendly enough. Some of the kids at the bus stop would play soccer in the street in the morning. I was glad when Gary came along, because I wasn't into that, and with Gary there it gave me something to do. We'd mostly talk about stuff like Magic cards and video games and what we saw on TV.
If you want to know the truth, I think Mrs. Searle was a little overprotective. I guess because she was the only parent. She always wanted to know where Gary was going, and would he be warm enough, and
junk like that. Gary would just roll his eyes.
Each day people wielding guns kill 64 people, rape 33 women, rob 575 people, and assault 1,100 more.
Until Brendan came along, I think I was pretty much Gary's best friend. The thing about Gary was that mysterious part of him that you never knew. It was like something he kept hidden and private. I can't explain it, but I could feel it when I was with him. He'd just get quiet and you knew he was a dillion miles away. I always thought maybe it was something about his parents getting divorced.
â Ryan Clancy, a friend of both Gary's and Brendan's
Gary Searle was a very sweet little boy with slightly reddish brown hair and big, round eyes. He was polite and quiet and always did what he was told. I do recall that some of the children teased him about his weight. But you know how kids are at that age.
âRuth Hollington, Gary's fourth-grade teacher at Middletown Elementary School
I didn't move to Middletown until fifth grade, so I didn't know Gary before that.
After we started hanging out, he'd sometimes talk about what it was like when he was younger. About the divorce and how completely nasty it was, and how after it was over, his dad just left and never paid child support or called or anything. That was a huge thorn in Gary's side. He just couldn't get over that.
âAllison Findley, Gary's on-and-off girlfriend at Middletown High School
It was an ugly divorce. All that yelling and fighting. Arguing over money. Gary was caught in the middle, and sometimes I guess I used him to get what I thought I needed. What we both needed. It's a terrible thing to put a child through, but I didn't know what else to do.
âCynthia Searle, Gary's mother
“As parents, teachers, and other adults look for ways to reach out to young people, some see a common thread in the disappointments and isolation students experience when they lose a sense of place, lose a parental figure, or lose a girlfriend.”
âChristian Science Monitor