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The day after a shooting
Every shock that brings us close to death has three things in common.
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A bushfire is different to a flood. A riot is not like a plague. But throughout all of time and history, anyone going through one of these crises will experience the same three moments:
1. The breakdown of hierarchy
2. The moment of calm
3. The respite.
The first time I experienced these moments was when I was 16 years old, during the first real shock of my life. Every crisis I've lived through since then takes me back to that day - April 1999, in Boulder, Colorado.
I was smoking weed in the carpark of Fairview High School when I first overheard two other stoner kids talking about it.
'You hear there's something happening over at Columbine High this afternoon?'
'On South Pierce street? What do you mean?'
'I don't know, the police are over there. Maybe there's a fire? Apparently they're evacuating all the students.'
'Lucky motherfuckers. That's what we should do, pull the fire alarm and get the rest of the afternoon off.'
I was too stoned to understand what they were talking about - I just knew that Columbine was a neighbouring town a few miles to the north-east. Later that afternoon and into the evening, on the TV, on the radio, on the internet, the story came out in confused, unclear bursts.
There'd been a bombing - no, there'd been an intruder who shot students - no, it was students themselves who'd been shooting - two of the goth kids in the Trenchcoat Mafia had murdered their classmates. It's three students dead - no, it's five - no, it's nine - no, it's more, it's more - it's friends and family members of students I knew.
The 24 hours that followed the shooting laid down the template for every shock I've experienced since.
1. The breakdown of hierarchy
When I arrived at school the morning after the shooting, the mood was tense. In the corridors, the jocks talked about beating up the goths in revenge if they dared show up to school. I wasn't a goth, but I was friends with some of them (they'd always been nice to the weird Australian transfer kid) so I kept my head down and tried to stay out of sight. The goths, wisely enough, stayed home.
In class, the teachers talked to us about the shooting, trying to place the horrific events in context and reassure us. But as the day wore on, it became clear that they had no idea what to say.
My world-weary History teacher Mr Kincaid was used to convincing his classes of counterintuitive things. The week before, he'd gently broken it to us that the USA had in fact lost the Vietnam War, to the general disbelief of half of my classmates. But he struggled to convince us that we had nothing to worry about in the event of a follow-up shooting.
'You see, if someone tried to come in through the door to this classroom, we'd just lock it here. Then they'd have to shoot through the window, which means they couldn't hit these students here, it'd just be the kids at the back of the room in the line of fire. You'd all hide under your desks, which would shield you, except for these two rows here, you'd be exposed. But then of course if they shot out the window they could unlock the door and enter, and then really, at that point, I don't know what I'd do, I don't know what I'd do...'
He continued on in this dazed monotone, and we glanced at each other, then back to his red-rimmed eyes, and we realised that he hadn't slept all night.
Drama class was no better. Ms Hawtin was a cheerful eccentric with frizzy hair and amazing fake tan who told her theater students gossipy stories about 1930s Broadway stars as if they had happened yesterday. But when we arrived in the Drama classroom today, she launched into a furious tirade.
'I don't want to blame anyone, but we know for a fact whose fault it is: this film, The Matrix. Did you realise that it's got a scene in it where two people - wearing trenchcoats - walk into an office building and start shooting at people with machine guns? How else could those kids have gotten the idea? They should arrest Keanu Reeves today, he's responsible for this.'
As Ms Hawtin railed, her voice cracked, her eyes blinked with tears. I realised suddenly that behind the anger, she was scared - confused, unsure, terrified.
It became clear that the teachers had no explanation, no assurances, no understanding. They were as lost as the rest of us. And gradually, the attempts at lecturing us stuttered to a halt. They stopped telling us how it was, and instead they asked us how we were, they confessed to how helpless and overwhelmed they felt.
The hierarchy dissolved. And suddenly we weren't teachers and students any more, we were just a group of people, trying to process something awful together.
In every crisis I've experienced since, the same thing has happened. At first, as the fires spread or the floods start to rise, the pundits and the blowhards talk louder and louder to convince us that they understand what's happening. As the scale of the shock becomes clearer, it becomes obvious that they don't.
Gradually, with no discussion needed, people stop listening. The hierarchies come down. The pundits are ignored, forgotten about. By the time the firefront is visible, by the time the rising waters knock out the power grid, there are no leaders. We're just people, helping each other out, human to human.
2. The moment of calm
The second moment that comes with every shock is the moment of calm. In the midst of the chaos and noise, when the threat really escalates, there comes a sudden stillness, quietness - and with it, clarity.
The day after the shooting, the moment of calm came during fifth period French. We were sitting at our desks, trying and failing to focus on translating a chapter of Candide, when an announcement came over the school loudspeaker: 'Teachers, please check your stations.'
Ms Panettiere told us all to stay in our seats, and without saying a word, she got up and walked out of the classroom, and began walking up and down the corridor outside. We were unsure of what was happening - until Damon, the kid to my left, whispered, 'Shit, someone's planted a bomb.'
No-one spoke. We watched Ms Panettiere through the open classroom door. On the opposite side of the corridor, someone had left a discarded jacket. We all saw it at the same moment, and the same thought entered all our heads: that's it, there it is.
Ms Panettiere approached the jacket very slowly. She knelt down, and while we held our breaths, she carefully lifted the jacket up. Just a jacket.
As she stood up, there was another announcement on the loudspeaker. 'Teachers, please lead your students out of the school in a quiet, orderly manner.'
So someone had found something. Whatever this was, it was real, it was happening, and we might not make it out of school alive. I thought, okay, we're going to die.
But I didn't feel frightened, or panicked. Instead it was a sense of stillness, of sudden clarity.
Damon gave me a grin, and we got up and patiently filed out of the classroom.
Every crisis I've lived through since that day, I've felt that same sudden calm. When the fire jumped the road in front of my car, when the taxi started filling up with water in the dark flooding streets, I've felt that same stillness and quiet. That sudden clear realisation that death is very close. That death has always been there, right there, close enough to touch. Not a scary feeling, but maybe a slightly melancholy one.
And then as we made our way out of the fire exit behind the French classes, the moment passed, and the chaos and the panic rose up in me again.
3. The respite
The last moment that every crisis has in common is the moment after the immediate danger has passed. It's the sensation of the aftermath, of respite, of escape.
After we evacuated the high school, we stood on Fairview High's front lawn. A thousand students, still in shock, waiting uncertainly for the all-clear to go back inside.
After a few \minutes, Damon said, 'No, fuck this, that's enough. I'm going home.' And he picked up his bag and walked away.
One by one, without saying anything, other students followed him. First a few, then a few more, then hundreds of students, crossing the road or walking over the sports fields. The teachers watched us go and said nothing. At last, I picked up my bag and did the same.
I remember vividly the feeling of walking home that afternoon. It's a sensation I've felt in the aftermath of every other shock I've lived through. When the flames die down and you look around and see no new embers flying. When the floodwaters in the streets drop to waist height, then to knee height. When you know the worst is past, and you're somehow still alive.
The bomb threat at Fairview High School that day was a hoax. Turns out there was no danger of death. But the feeling of relief I felt on the way home - that was absolutely real.
What's the name for that feeling? Respite, or escape, or reprieve? Maybe it's just the sensation of adrenaline passing out of the system. But it's peaceful like nothing else I've ever known.
Someday there'll be a crisis where that feeling doesn't come - where there is no aftermath, no escape, no relief. Someday the fires won't subside, the waters won't recede, the bomb threat will be real.
Until that day, whenever I feel that sensation of danger passing, of crisis temporarily averted, I flash back to that afternoon, how I felt on that walk home. The sunlight, the cold wind off the Rockies, the cliffs of the Flatirons rising over the city, the clear Colorado sky.
The Flatiron plates seen from Boulder, Colorado. Pic by Nate Emerson.
NEWS AND PROJECTS
It's the end of 2022. After the collapse of live theatre during the last two years, and the turmoil of other life events, this year felt like a gift - two theatre productions! The Sydney Festival and the Barbican London! I'm very grateful.
I spent November in Manila, my first visit since January 2020, diving into development on a new project with some old friends and new collaborators, and that was a gift too.
After the success of the Edinburgh Fringe and Barbican London seasons, I'm now in conversations about bringing You're Safe Til 2024: Deep History to some conferences and workplaces in 2023.
If you'd be interested in bringing this performance to your event, please reach out. After the Edinburgh Fringe and Barbican London seasons, I'm really pleased with this show and excited to share it with some different audiences.
Now I'm putting my energy towards a few new projects coming up in 2023:
· A commission from Chatham House to create a new game, exploring climate adaptation challenges over the next decade, which will launch as part of the London Design Biennale in June 2023;
· A project with Boho to develop a game about coastal communities for CSIRO's Centre for Marine Socioecology in Hobart;
· A collaboration with the World Bank's Global Program for Safer Schools.
In the theatre space, Scenes from the Climate Era (the third play in the You're Safe series) launches at Belvoir Theatre in Sydney in June - I'm madly in rewrites on this at the moment.
Recommendations: The best thing I read this last month was Rebecca Giggs' stunning review of Rachel Carson's Sea Trilogy in the New York Review of Books. It's the next best thing to diving into the ocean yourself, do it.
My record of the year is Fossil Rabbit's Pure Eroding Shores, which is yet to be released for public consumption. In the meantime, you should play his gorgeous release Margin Sounds to soothe your soul at the end of the year.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling and New Rules for Game Design series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.