Four p.m., the second Thursday of a new school year, barely September on the campus I’ve considered mine for more than a quarter century. I sit in my new office in the new Student Services building at Sacramento City College. It still feels foreign to me, as though I’ve begun a new job, as if I don’t quite know my way around yet. I have moved across campus from the old “temporary” building where I spent two decades teaching journalism and advising the student newspaper and literary journal to this new glass, steel and brick structure.
I am an old fish in a new bowl, relearning how to swim.
Journalism shares the second floor of the STS building with the photography department. After several years of going steady, we’ve now moved in together, jokes the photo department chair, who was once our student on the campus newspaper. (Yes, I’ve been doing this a long time.) It is a unique pairing at Sac City, long known for turning out nationally known photographers and accomplished writers and editors.
I sit before my brand-new iMac in our office suite. Out in the general area sits Vienna, the news editor of the print version of the Express, and beyond her in his new office, photography professor Randy works at his computer. I’ve been thinking for a half-hour that I should head home but, as always, there is so much to do.
Suddenly, on my computer screen, a Facebook post pops up from a colleague.
“Sac PD is reporting shots fired at City College. If you’re there, take cover.”
My old news instincts kick in. “Randy!” I holler as I head out of my office for his. “Sac PD says there’ve been shots fired on campus.”
As I reach his doorway, I see Randy at the screen, searching in the electronic way we all do now. Once upon a time, we’d have been on the phone. Now we’re looking at Twitter feeds and Facebook posts.
“It seems to be over by the softball field,” Randy says.
I go back to my computer and start searching, too. “At least two people shot,” I read.
I hear Randy walking toward the glass door that leads to our second-floor landing. He’s moving fast, a long lens on his Canon, a photojournalist to the core, ready to go find the news and make pictures of it.
“You’re going out there?” I say before I can stop myself. I was married to a news photographer; my longtime partner is one of Randy’s former Sacramento Bee photo colleagues. This is what they do: They run toward the fire, not away from it.
“Yep,” he says, whooshing through the big glass door.
Then I focus on Vienna, sitting in the office area, working on a computer, her cell phone to her ear. She’d been working on stories for our first print edition. She’s also a producer for Channel 13, and she appears to be on the phone with her newsroom.
Sitting near Vienna is Steve, the college district’s locksmith, who has been in our area rekeying one of our new doors. He’d been here the day before, too, explaining to me that institutions have to make choices between security and accessibility. “That’s the problem,” I’d said. “I don’t want to work in an institution.”
So now we sit, encased in our institutional glass building, and I am suddenly aware of how vulnerable we are. Before we are even told by officials that we should “shelter in place,” I know that we are birds in a clear cage, sitting ducks, should someone come along with a gun. I had thought of this before, spending 20 years in what was essentially a trailer across campus. Anyone could’ve easily walked up the ramp or the steps and barged in with a gun. Fortunately, it never happened, but I thought about it every time the news reported another school shooting.
Too many, too many.
Still, the former news service reporter inside me clicks in. I’m texting with Kris, our online Express editor who’s off campus, working with other student journalists, getting updates from them, talking about sources and what to post and where.
Vienna appears at my office door. “I want to go out there and see what’s going on,” she says.
She’s a grown-up, but she’s also my student, and say I am nervous about her proposal.
Steve stands up. “I’ll walk with her,” he says. “We’ll be OK.”
Vienna perks up and I blink. “Uh . . .” I begin, but they’re already heading for the door.
“Be careful!” I yell after them, thinking duh . . . as if they wouldn’t be. Thinking I can’t lose another student to a violent death. Thinking what if there’s someone out there on campus with a gun and an itch to use it?
Randy returns, maybe 15 minutes after he walked out. I whirl in my chair. “Did you get to the scene?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah,” he says, heading for his computer. I follow him.
Within a few minutes, I see an image of someone on the ground under a blue tarp, someone dead, with cops talking off to the side of the photo. That person whose name I don’t yet know lies in a staff parking space next to the softball field, not 20 yards from Sutterville Road. Someone has died on our campus, and my heart falls, my gut twists. This has never happened here before.
Now it has.
I turn back to my computer, to monitor the tweets and posts and messages on my phone, and to respond and tweet and post myself, a long-ago reporter turned into a 21st-century journalist, pressed into service because of a crisis.
I’ve lost three students this year: Maui, Emma and, we learn the next day, Roman Gonzalez. He wasn’t my student, like the other two, but he was our student. Though we later heard that this was possibly a gang-related shooting, I cannot help but mourn for this young man. He was killed and two others were wounded, and yes, one of those two was arrested on a parole violation and later released. It would be easy to say, well, they brought it on themselves. It would be easy to say, see? We weren’t in danger, most of us. They weren’t after us. The scenario we’ve all been fearing didn’t come true.
Four weeks later to the day, I was again in my office when Randy told me about reports from Oregon that perhaps 10 people were killed and more wounded at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg. I shuddered, especially after I learned that the gunman had committed his carnage against a class of English composition students, killing eight of them and their teacher. The day before, we’d heard, an angry student hit one of our own English professors during class.
But the day the shots were fired at my school, as I sat in my office—as Vienna and Steve made their way near the scene and where she did a live report with her station—I thought of our journalism and literary journal student Maui, a fine writer and very capable copy editor. She had taken her own life in April, in tremendous physical pain, not wanting to deal with it any more. I thought of Emma, our lovely Express photo editor, 20 years old, jogging in Seattle in July, struck by a train as she crossed the tracks. And now this young man.
Roman Gonzalez shouldn’t have died. But he did, after a fistfight quickly escalated into a knife fight and then someone—a someone who walked to the street and disappeared—shot Roman, who was our student. Who, I like to think, was trying to better himself through education, as are all of our students.
Too, too much loss and sorrow.
And too, too much uncertainty.
The not-knowing hours are the hardest during a crisis. Not having a lot of information about the situation, a lot of pseudo-information flying around in the ether of cyberspace. Not having official word from administrators—that would come much later, when they knew more. Eventually, after locking us in for a time, campus police returned to our building, looking stern, to tell people they could leave but to head for the perimeter of campus—don’t go through the center—to their cars, to light rail, to go home.
Randy and Vienna and Steve and I stayed till 7:30 p.m., a good hour after we were told we could leave. I later learned that the college president and public information officer were there until 1 a.m.
We all had so many unanswered questions. We didn’t begin to have all the five Ws and the H we teach our newswriting students to find. We had three whos, but no names of anyone. We had a what—shots fired, people shot, someone dead—and a where, our college, and a when, a bit before 4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. But certainly no why or how, as there rarely is in a breaking story. Those details come later. Sometimes.
And so, after the students had gotten stories and quotes and photos on the website, on Twitter and Facebook, those of us on campus went home, though the students continued to monitor sources and post updates and text each other until midnight. Already we’d heard that counselors would be available on campus for the next two days for people to come and talk. There would be a gathering on the quad the next morning with the district chancellor and college president speaking.
When I walked out of the building into the dimming light on the day everything changed, I walked along Freeport Boulevard, under the great redwood trees, many of which were planted as saplings in 1926, when the campus was brand new. Twenty-six of them stand, some almost a century old, tall and magnificent in front of the college. My sandals crunched on the browned and downed pine needles, geometrically arranged by nature under those trees.
Now we are one of those schools, I thought. Now we are on a list of colleges where violence took place and someone died.
In the coming days, our student journalists would be applauded for their quick and careful reporting. The president of the college would come to class and thank the staff for that, even buying them pizza. She would weep a bit as she talked to them after days of supporting her campus, being strong, comforting others, the epitome of compassion and grace.
We are united by tragedy, all of us.
And on the day Roman Gonzalez died on campus, walking to my car, I stopped, struck by that thought. For some reason, I looked down. There, atop the rusty pine needles, lay a single black feather, new and intact, on a sturdy, pointy quill. I bent and picked it up because I like feathers. Because at other times in my life, I have found lovely feathers literally strewn in my path. It never feels coincidental. It feels like a blessing.
I picked up that feather, perhaps dropped by one of the watchful crows that caw their way through Sacramento skies, and I went to my car, the last one in the parking lot, and I went home.