You can’t overstate the importance of an apology. Even when one is not yet or ever offered, the grace of its promise waits in the wings, only a few steps away. Painfully and also ever present beside it stands shame.
This month’s Texas Monthly cover story, written by contributing editor Robert Draper, studies the aftermath of a middle school shooting in 1978 in Austin.
The school shooting was not the first in Texas, but it predates the current wave of mass shootings and the mother of all modern mass shootings, Columbine. The zeitgeist for that brand of public armed terror was building. The Austin 1978 school shooting happened one year before the San Antonio Fiesta parade tragedy. In many newsrooms it may or may not have been called a school shooting, since school-based gun violence was not yet common.
The article is rich in detail and insightful in unraveling the long tail of trauma and survivor’s efforts to live normal lives after horror is visited on them. The random, unknowable nature of madness doesn’t keep survivors from searching for answers to unanswerable questions.
The tragedy’s true genesis, because it was marked by mental illness, will be impossible to know. It seems to have been sparked by a bad grade and a boy’s fear of disappointing his parents. Perhaps it was an accumulation of worry that broke the bright boy’s otherwise admired brain. The eighth-grader was told by his math teacher that he would be failing his algebra class. He may have become terrified at the prospect of an F in Algebra. No one knows for sure, not even the shooter.
Here is what is known:
One morning close to the end of the school year, before leaving home for school, the 13-year-old had devised in his fright a calculation that seemed to him a plan to end his pain. In the next hour the boy’s plan would end a life and alter the course of the lives of many. He waited for his family to leave the house for work. He then took his father’s loaded rifle and walked several blocks looking like a latter day underage confederate recruit. He was never stopped or questioned. Once he arrived at the school he was uninterrupted as he marched into his first period Advanced Placement English class where he opened fire on his teacher in front of a class filled with students. At first the students thought it was a well-planned stunt or joke. They soon realized what happened. The shooter walked out the classroom and was later apprehended on the school grounds.
I was working at the time at an Austin TV station then owned by the Lyndon B. Johnson family. My boss, Joe Roddy, was a pioneer news broadcaster who had earlier worked in the LBJ White House along with several Texans, including George Christian, who had also returned to Austin after working in the White House, to head a public relations firm that catered to political candidates. It was now 1978 and on the day of the junior high shooting, George Christian had a PR problem of a lifetime. His son was the 13-year-old eighth-grader who killed his teacher.
We cannot know what was in the mind of the boy who killed his teacher. The grown professional man who he is today refused to be interviewed for the article. We do know that his classmates continue to struggle with the trauma they experienced. Nothing can bring back their beloved teacher, yet many of them keep asking what their lives would be like if the shooter, a classmate they admired, had tried to explain or at least apologize for his actions. They don’t hope for a new or revised past but they do hope for a revised future, one with less unplanned instances of reliving the terror they witnessed as eighth-graders.
I will always wonder if how closely our station covered the tragedy was affected by our news director’s close association with the father of the shooter. Roddy was not known for censoring his reporters or playing favorites. There is no way I’ll know for sure since no recording was made of newscasts in pre-digital 1978.
The Texas Monthly article chronicles the impact and trauma that the bystanders suffered over the four decades since the shooting. The shooting of the popular teacher is an endlessly painful unsolvable mystery for the victim’s survivors: his wife and son, and the classroom full of boys and girls who watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded.
The shooter spent 20 months in inpatient psychiatric treatment and returned to finish high school in Austin. He enrolled at the University of Texas and graduated from the UT law school. He is currently an Austin attorney.
The article points out the underlying bias in the judicial system that allowed the shooter to serve a mere 20-month treatment sentence while other offenders of color who were his age received harsher sentences for lesser crimes. Besides race and class, what was the role of the possible political influence of the shooter’s well-known father?
My reading of the article became a deep dive into what an eighth-grader lives in the rush of growing up and the zig zag of one minute being and the next not being a little kid. I could relate to the shooter when I was an eighth-grader. Like the boy, I too had an antipathy to numbers. But I was lucky that I never questioned whether my mother’s acceptance of me was at issue because of my usually scraping by with a C every grading period in math. I am lucky that I never felt that my parent’s love and acceptance depended on my ability to memorize theorems or solve equations. I am so grateful for having the privilege of my mother’s unqualified acceptance.
I am also grateful for the ways Draper’s investigative article examines the role of power and privilege in the tragedy.
Growing up in South Texas, my familiarity with those long-resident evil twins power and privilege spans across two countries, two languages, and two cultures. On either side of the Rio Grande power and privilege go together like a combination dinner and cold beer.
Here are a few examples from my personal collection. In a nearby Texas village, a young man was murdered behind an icehouse where the highway connects to the village. The accused murderer was the son of a wealthy, land grant ranching family. The judge in the case found the accused man innocent and with that sentence many observers speculated that the judge repaid many years of political favors owed to the family of the accused.
The abuse of privilege and power struck close to home when my cousin, who lived in Nuevo Laredo in the ‘80s, escaped punishment for the rape of a young woman he and his friends picked up from the highway. His father paid off the local police and newspapers and thus the matter was handled. Later his sister was murdered by her policeman lover who she was trying to break up with.
An apology can never change what has already happened, but an apology can change things moving forward. Many of the classmates who witnessed the 1978 tragedy wonder even today if their lives might have been different if they had ever received an apology from their former classmate for his actions.
It is possible that an apology would not have changed anything. It is possible that the shooter was or is incapable of giving one. Neither changes the fact that an apology is what many of the tragedy’s survivors feel is needed for them to move forward.
Knowing this helps to understand the importance of an apology. Maybe it also helps us to decide to offer one when it is needed.
This commentary originally appeared in View from the Borderlands.