The Sorrows of Being a Millennial Mass killings and the tragic consciousness of a generation.

When I heard about the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, I was just about to take a final exam.[1] I had heard there had been a lot of deaths, and that it had been in an elementary school. I had also heard that the school had done everything “right”: the outer doors had been locked, visitors had to check in to gain access to the school, and when a threat was detected, an administrator had tried to stop it. But it had not worked. I stopped listening to the news, trying to focus only on the content of my exam, and for a while, I thought I could.

I was wrong. As I squinted at the pages in front of me, I thought of my mother, an elementary school teacher and gifted and talented coordinator. I thought of her in her classroom, imagined her confronting a gunman, putting her body between him—let’s face it, it is nearly always a man—and her students. As I tried to remember details from my study sessions, I imagined other scenarios: My mother confronting a gunman with a gun of her own (unable to actually imagine that my mom could actually shoot a person, no matter his intent); my mom leading students from her classroom, running outside with hands over their heads, surrounded by SWAT teams.

I made it through the exam, but the result was certainly not the highest grade I had ever achieved (to be fair, it also was not the lowest). With the Sandy Hook shooting, I was transported back to memories of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School (I was in fifth grade, and during my time on the school bus I wrote a poem, trying in my limited way to understand what had happened the day before). Then my memory revisited the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting (I read about this in Facebook posts in my dorm room in between classes). Finally, I remembered the 2012 shooting in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, (days before my husband and I, avid movie theatergoers, had plans to see The Dark Knight Rises). Peppered amongst these mass shooting incidents were terrorist attacks, from the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995 to 9/11. Between each of these incidents were countless more, many of which have since been forgotten among the “big” events, which have expanded to include the 2015 Charleston church massacre, the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, and now, the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida. These mass shootings can be identified by city and school names, and are events that have become enshrined in national memory.

We are the generation of school shootings. We grew up with the horror of Columbine, and when we arrived at college, Virginia Tech.

I am part of what is called the millennial generation—the generation who entered adulthood in the first quarter of the 21st century. Born primarily in the 1980s and 1990s (and early 2000s, depending on whom you ask), millennials have been blamed for the deaths of many industries and institutions, from restaurant chains to home ownership to jewelry to banks to marriage to democracy. Commentators so regularly blame millennials for flagging industries that “millennials are killing … ” has become a widespread meme. Increasingly, commentaries about millennials have begun to be a bit more empathetic, attributing millennials’ postponement of marriage, having children, saving for retirement, and buying houses—typical markers of adulthood—to the Great Recession, which left many of us either laid off or unable to find work—and especially, well-paid work for which we were trained. The millennial generation has, in many ways, come to be defined by the Great Recession.

But in the midst of the housing crisis, the full effects of which some millennials are only now beginning to understand, millennials have also been dealing with acts of gun violence that have not only marked our childhood, but have followed us into adulthood. We are the generation of school shootings. We grew up with the horror of Columbine, and when we arrived at college, Virginia Tech. We listened as beloved professors, lacking any official university policy, improvised procedures for mass shooting events, which usually meant that they alone would confront the shooter as the rest of us fled. Or, we experienced the horrifying flaws of university policies that implemented lockdown procedures, leaving unlucky students outside of buildings to fend for themselves on campus quads. We have seen mass shootings enter our leisure activities and communities, from clubs to concerts to movies to churches. We listen to warnings before every movie in a theatre that attempt to instruct the audience in an entertaining way what to do in an active shooter situation.

For those of us who have become teachers, we have been prepped in policies and procedures to attempt to protect our students from semi-automatic weapons: we practice locking our classroom doors, or, in lieu of a lock, fastening extension cords around a door handle to prevent someone from opening them from the outside. We cut pieces of dark-colored felt and velcro it above the windows of the doors to our classrooms, ever ready to shield our students from view of a gunman. We have planned places to meet parents, and there are backup locations in case we are unable to reach the first. We teach our students, from age 5 to 25, three approaches in school shootings: hide, run, or fight. We teach our students how to confuse and distract someone holding an AR-15 by throwing books, water bottles, shoes—anything that might buy time for escape. It does not take much for millennials to imagine a mass shooting—we have seen the pictures, read the profiles, studied the timelines.

We practice locking our classroom doors, or, in lieu of a lock, fastening extension cords around a door handle to prevent someone from opening them from the outside. We cut pieces of dark-colored felt and velcro it above the windows of the doors to our classrooms, ever ready to shield our students from view of a gunman. We have planned places to meet parents, and there are backup locations in case we are unable to reach the first.

What has growing up alongside such public violence, marking our school years by acts of mass shooting and terrorism, done to us? This is not a question I have the method to effectively answer. But it is a question that needs to be asked—a question as important as how the Great Recession has permanently affected millennials’ lifetime earnings.

To focus on the impact of the economic downturn is to tell only one part of the millennial story. We are also a generation grown of and in highly publicized violence—violence caused by homegrown and foreign-born terrorists in Oklahoma City and on 9/11, and violence caused by homegrown mass shooters in schools and other so-called safe spaces. While some baby boomers may remember crouching under their desks in nuclear bomb drills, I remember standing outside my elementary school in the months after Columbine as bomb-sniffing dogs and police officers investigated every school in the district following a bomb threat, wondering if the bomb was in my school, or in my brothers’. Many of today’s students will have similar memories of active-shooter drills. Just as scholars consider how baby boomers’ Cold War experiences shaped their understandings of global politics, will future historians ask how millennials’ active shooter drills shaped their understandings of national politics? As baby boomers crouched under their desks, they took cover from threats from abroad—threats from people they would likely never meet in lands they may never see. By contrast, millennials’ threats seem to come from without and within: their attackers may live within their communities, they may know them. How does this impact millennials’ sense of security, as parents, homebuyers, employees, and as contributors to a national economy? How does it impact their relationship, even their allegiance, to the nation?

The morning after the Parkland, Florida shooting, NPR’s Steve Inskeep asked if, especially after the early onslaught of school shootings in 2018, we still feel mass shootings and their associated carnage. I would argue that we do, and that an instinct toward resilience should not be mistaken as an act of forgetting. In many ways, millennials’ formative years were structured around violence in “safe” spaces; in lieu of political figures coming up with solutions to curb what feels like a growing culture of gun violence committed by both those struggling with mental health issues and those who have no history of mental health issues, millennials do move on. We are not paralyzed, but we also do not forget. Each new event is compounded by those that have gone before, adding to a tragic national memory that has inevitably shaped our experience of growing up as Americans.

As baby boomers crouched under their desks, they took cover from threats from abroad—threats from people they would likely never meet in lands they may never see. By contrast, millennials’ threats seem to come from without and within: their attackers may live within their communities, they may know them. 

As a writer, this is where I need to conclude, drawing what I have said together into a neat and easily consumable thesis. But try as I might, I cannot—because now, as teachers, parents, emergency responders, nurses, doctors, police officers, and countless other occupations, millennials are tasked with shepherding their own children and students through violent events—another generation grown of and in mass shootings. I am left wondering how the next generation’s regular rehearsals of active shooter drills will impact their positions within the American political landscape. What will their relationship to the nation be? We are not yet done with mass shootings, and so I continue to rehearse active shooter policies in my mind—Is there an extension cord? Which way does the door open? Does the door lock? What corner is safest?—unable to find a conclusion.

[1] Many thanks to Liza Dister for her insights on this essay.

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