in a land with more guns than people.
Sunday, February 25, I woke up in the dark and turned on 880 AM, the all-news station I listen to only in the morning and only for about a minute in order to get the time and weather. Amazingly, during that one minute, I heard that survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School shooting would be speaking at the Temple B'nai Abraham in Livingston, NJ.
I shot out of bed and googled this temple. I wanted to phone immediately but waited till nine.
A lovely woman named Linda answered the phone.
It's hard to describe vestibular disorders, because they are invisible and relatively rare. If you saw me walking alone, in a straight line, you'd never think I have any mobility issues. In a crowd, though, and with no straight lines like fences or walls or sidewalks edges to visually orient myself, I am less stable.
I tried to explain to Linda why I was a bit worried about showing up in a big crowd. I phoned to ask her if the temple had a side entrance I could use so that I wouldn't fall over and turn into a warm-blooded speedbump.
I explained that I am a teacher and a long-time supporter of gun control and a comprehensive approach to school shootings. I don't attend violent movies, for example. And I try, as I am able, to talk about ethics with my students, while respecting their diverse spiritual traditions.
Linda said, "I'm going to send a driver for you."
Whoa! This just took my breath away. I tried to explain that that wasn't necessary, but Linda was so beautifully gracious I said yes.
Charly was born in Newark, of Sicilian parents. He can speak Italian, but, "They talk so fast!" He talked like a New Jersey chauffeur in a movie might talk. Salt of the earth. I was amazed by his car. No key! It started just by pressing a button, and he opened the door because he had something called a "fob" in his pocket.
I asked to sit up front. He moved his stuff from the front seat and pushed the seat back to accommodate me.
At first Charly was very circumspect. He's a professional chauffeur. Jersey people are very direct, but a chauffeur must not reveal his opinions too rapidly. I let him know that he could speak his mind with me, and he did.
Charly was FURIOUS. He even let fly a few obscenities. His grandchildren attend school in Florida. In his very distinct Newark accent, he raged against the NRA idiocy that allows non-military to purchase and stockpile military weapons, weapons one would never use for hunting or self-protection, but only to massacre human beings – like his grandchildren.
It was Charly's daughter's birthday. There was a party at the house. His wife, who is a good cook, had made lasagna.
"I'm so sorry to take you from your daughter's birthday party," I said.
"No! I'd rather be doing this! I'd like to attend this event with you! I am so angry! This is all so stupid and it has got to stop!"
The temple was surrounded by press. Everyone was there. Radio stations, TV stations. There were kids with signs: "Guns don't die. Children do." There was a man giving out the Constitution. I took one. There was *a lot* of security. How sick are gun nuts? This sick: they are sending death threats to the MSD shooting survivors. There were different uniforms: local police, state police, private security.
I was stopped and told I could not bring in my backpack, a small one containing only a clipboard so I could take notes, and a camera. I wish I had been more feminine and brought a purse that could have stored the same items. I took the items out of the backpack, carried them in my hands, and folded the backpack flat.
The Temple was very spartan in design. No stained class. A couple of difficult-to-interpret wooden and metal sculptures on the "altar" (right word?)
The young man sitting next to me identified himself as a former employee of Senator Robert Menendez, who has been much in the news for alleged corruption. I asked about this. He said, "I'm aware of the accusations, but I have to say, he was an ideal boss not just to me but to us all, and his positions on policy matters were exactly what I agreed with."
We talked more. This young man, a local, was very smart, but he had some PC ideas that I found intellectually vapid. For example, he said, "The French tortured the world trying to impose Christianity on everyone." I look at him as if he were crazy. "I lived in a former French colony in Africa and what you just said is completely inaccurate." He rolled his eyes as if I were a benighted savage.
But we kept talking to pass the time. We were there for an hour before the presentation began.
Finally, a bit after five, the presentation began. David Hogg spoke first. He was immediate and unpolished.
What struck me most about him and the several other MSD high school students who spoke is this.
They are so average.
These are not the most handsome or beautiful high school students.
These are not the most profound or innovative high school students.
Not the star athletes. Not the glam bad boys and girls.
These are average kids. Stick skinny, probably just went through a growth spurt and not yet filled out, funny hair, pale, sometimes losing their train of thought and bursting into a giggle.
They reminded me of Jesus' apostles. Jesus didn't conduct an extensive candidate search and scan resumes. He chose average guys.
Like the apostles, the MSD kids have been touched by an exceptional experience, and they are *doing something about it.*
Hogg thanked the conspiracy theorists who are insisting that the shooting never happened, that he is a "crisis actor," that he is a thirty-year-old man who has had plastic surgery to make him look like a teen. Hogg said that these head-cases have helped to get word out about their work.
I've attended many meetings like this, including Solidarity meetings in Poland during the break-up of communism. I have *never* been at a meeting like this where *every* presentation was *superb.* Each speaker was as good as the last. Each speaker said something you wouldn't want to miss.
The temple was standing room only. News cameras lined the back wall. Press reports 2,000 attendees, who came at a moment's notice, with minimal publicity.
We were on our feet, standing ovations, from the first presentation to the last. I was trying so hard to take notes, but I couldn't. Had to jump up, every few minutes, to applaud.
I kept trying to subdue "Yeah!" and "Shame!" and other such comments. Finally, toward the end, I let 'er rip. I got some stares but I was tired of holding back.
Senator Robert Menendez delivered a terrific, spot-on speech. He said exactly what needs to be done.
A Rabbi whose name I could not jot down (because I had to jump up to join standing ovations so many times) gave a sermon that wowed me. It was very short, compact, and super. He harkened to this temple's previous rabbi, who had been a colleague of Martin Luther King, and had spoken before the "I have a dream" speech. Our speaker wove all these references together with the Bible and the Talmud to make a Jewish case for gun control. He made me cry.
We were in that room for about three hours. There was no rustling, no impatience. Everyone there was fired up, rising to standing o's from the fist speaker to the last.
I kept hearing, in my ear, Sam Cooke.
There have been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will
Charly, as promised was outside waiting for me. He wanted to know everything. He really let himself go. He was so enraged by the crazy gun policies in this country. He wants change, for his children and grandchildren.
I promised him that that temple had been jam packed with people who will work for change.
As we drove under the exit sign to Paterson, the glowing, granite-and-sandstone Lambert Tower on Garret Mountain looming up on our left, we both fell silent for a moment. During the ride to Livingston, a moment of silence felt tense. Two strangers in a car. Now, the silence under the stars pulsed and warmed. We were sharing a dream of a better tomorrow, for our students, and our grandchildren.