A Review of Amye Archer and Loren Kleinman’s If I Don’t Make It, I Love You
December 17, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Sarah Chaves
Cindy Clement Carlson, a library staff member of Sandy Hook Elementary, recalls a specific thing she did after the infamous mass shooting. She developed a habit of counting twenty-six people everywhere she went—twenty-six people she saw in churches, malls, and grocery stores for the twenty-six lives that were lost on December 14, 2012.
“The destruction and loss [were] unfathomable,” she writes. “My mind could not take it in so my eyes needed to see it, to size it up, to make visual and tangible the horrible enormity.”
If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings, an anthology of essays culled by editors Amye Archer and Loren Kleinman, offers testimonies and opens up a world of woe many have tried to ignore or pad with thoughts and prayers. This book has no such padding. Similar to the experience viewers had with the Sandy Hook Promise PSA that was released last month, readers cannot turn away from the raw reality of school mass shootings—students using tube socks as tourniquets, teachers using bookcases as barricades. Each chapter offers a very real testament to what has been lost and the unimaginable trauma of mass school shootings.
There are twenty-one chapters in the book—twenty-one mass shootings, beginning with the most recent Santa Fe High School shooting in Texas, May 2018, and ending with one of the oldest, the University of Texas at Austin shooting in August 1966. Stories are told by letters, tweets, comics, time-stamped memories, and speeches. A pain-painstakingly clear pattern emerges—there’s a need for action.
Megan Doney, an English professor who worked at the New River Valley Mall campus at the time of the 2013 shooting states, “But when it comes to the people who are in the classroom with their students when the shots pierce the air, educators who have to decide in an instant whether to flee or barricade, open the door or lock it, our voices are absent from academic literature and public discourse.”
In December 2018, I wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post about my fears of being a teacher in an era of limited gun control laws. From the way the media idolizes late teachers who saved the lives of their students, I feel pressured every day to act more like a martyr—like the renowned Dave Sanders, the only teacher shot and killed in Columbine—than I do an educator. I imagined my teacher evaluation form highlighting my Need for Improvement if I did not actively run towards a shooter, thus ending my life, to save the lives of my students. One commenter noted they were glad not to have their grandchildren in my classes.
For months, this silenced me. But reading If I Don’t Make It, I Love You came with a deep reckoning. As Megan stated, teachers have been largely left out of this conversation, but not anymore. Nearly 800,000 people protested in the streets of Washington D.C., on March 24, 2018, in the March for Our Lives campaign with hundreds of sister protests across the country. Not only teachers, but students, parents, first responders, community leaders, and supporters gathered to end the normalization of gun violence.
Archer and Kleinman’s accomplishment lie in the ability to gather a myriad of diverse voices into one distinct call to action. There is unapologetic despair on every page, be it a mother cutting off a piece of her fallen daughter’s hair to a father’s helplessness in watching his surviving son search for exits and escape routes wherever they go. But among these tales of sorrow is a deeper message, one that goes beyond shining a light on those whose stories have predominantly gone unheard.
At Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, Tenn., where victims from the Marshall County High School shooting were brought in, Sterling Haring, a first-year resident physician, will tell you, it’s devastating to realize that “images of children being rushed from a building, bullet wounds packed with gauze, ambulance helicopters landing on a high school lawn before whisking young people off to undergo emergency surgery in the next state over” has done little to introduce stricter gun legislation than to invoke thoughts and prayers. For the survivors, those days are gone.
As chapters 1-21 lead readers through the heartbreak and suffering of survivors who must deal with the long-lasting trauma of school shootings, the final chapter calls readers to do their part in ending this narrative. Hollye Dexter, a dedicated activist for gun violence, details how we all need to do our part in order to see real change. But perhaps the most resounding call for action is by Charlene Mokos Hoverter, a former middle school teacher and principal of a Catholic Grammar School. She writes, “I’ve never been involved in a school shooting. Nor have my children. Nor have my grandchildren. And here I’m tempted to include the word ‘yet.’”
I, too, have not experienced a school shooting, and yet, my school has not been immune to credible threats. I have instructed my students on what to do in the case of an active shooter—I’ll shut the lights and lock the door, you hide here and here, don’t make a sound. In the most desperate scenario, run. Don’t look back. I say these instructions with severity as if their lives depended on it, because they do, but I always end with a smile. “Don’t worry,” I say. “We’re safe here.” But more and more, I find myself lying awake in bed at night, my husband snoring beside me, wondering whether my job is worth my life.
For me and many survivors of mass shootings, the answer is as simple as Cindy Clement Carlson says. At what number will enough be enough? It’s time for everyone to decide and let that number be zero.
Sarah Chaves is a former Fulbright scholar who currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts. Her most recent work has appeared in Glamour, The Washington Post, and The Lily among others. Find her on Instagram @sarita_chaves.