Cook: You never really graduate

Cook: You never really graduate

April 11th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

An hour or two after Pittsburgh teenagers lay bleeding on the floors of their high school Wednesday morning, my good friend Frank called.

There was a shakiness in his voice.

"That's my alma mater," he said.

Frank Zahrobsky works at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, plays catcher on his church softball team and enjoys a good stout. He adores his kids, cherishes his wife and can list every Steelers quarterback back to 1969 ("Terry Hanratty," Frank said. "He was Bradshaw's predecessor.").

And in 1988, Frank graduated from Franklin Regional High -- "the Panthers," he said -- the same school in Murrysville, Pa., where 16-year-old Alex Hribal has been charged with stabbing 21 of his classmates before the first bell on Wednesday.

"Everybody was just getting off the bus. They were at their lockers," Frank said.

Back in Frank's day, the school was a mix of middle and working class, drawn from three neighborhoods just on the fringe of Pittsburgh. They had a hockey team. A rifle range. Lots of kids were hunters. It was a good place. A safe, quiet place. That is why Frank's parents moved there.

"Little retired steel mill towns," he said.

For the last 48 hours, Frank's been scouring Facebook posts from friends, classmates, family.

"My cousin's daughter saw everything. She was in the hallway. The kid just ran up and down stabbing people," Frank said.

He's heard stories and more stories. How the emergency crews had been so prepared for something like this: helicopters landing on football fields, two or three surgeons ready for each teenager, ambulances from everywhere.

How alumni are starting to organize some response.

How so much blood comes from a knife wound to the stomach.

"You know how all the kids wear UnderArmour hoodies? Apparently the teachers were grabbing them off kids to bandage wounds," he said.

Think about your own high school. Where you sat in the cafeteria. The combination to your locker. The smell of the gym. Your best friend. That unforgettable teacher.

Now picture a 16-year-old walking into your school -- your school -- and carrying two kitchen knives, slashing left and flailing right, like a conductor of some symphonic evil. Kids, just like you were, just like yours are now, not rushing to algebra, but to the emergency room.

Your heart would break too, right?

"It's as close to home as it can be," Frank said.

That's because high school is home, at least during the four years we're there. For better or worse, high school exists as the intersection between our past and our future, between childhood and adulthood, between innocence and something else. Few memories are as powerful as our high school ones. Few places, as lingering.

It is where we learn. It's where we mingle, a cross-hatching of color and class and history and experience.

It is home to so much emotion: love, pain, loss, belonging, isolation.

That's why such school violence -- imagine your school -- is such an American canary in our collapsing culture. In 50 years, or 100, or whenever we wake up to things, folks will look back and see these shootings and stabbings like some giant billboard, flashing like a strobe-light or lighthouse warning: please America, pay attention to this. Something is underneath this ... there is a reason this is happening.

I could write columns until my fingers bleed about gun control. In January alone, there were 11 school shootings in 19 days, according to The Wire.

Or the influence of TV culture: Two weeks before the Pittsburgh stabbings, Fox's popular serial killer show "The Following" depicted two men who walk into a restaurant "and start stabbing everyone in sight," summarized TV.com.

Or the importance of awareness and pro-active policies, like SROs: near my kids' school, someone has spray painted: "Don't Care" and "Stop Life." Is that a warning? A cry? (And yes, the SRO is investigating).

Or the way violence pollutes like a cloud: Did you hear there was a triple homicide in Lookout Valley? Did you know the Nazis are coming to town?

But Frank?

He sees it differently.

To him, the biggest solution is elsewhere.

"Be as involved as you can be in your kids' lives. Know how they're feeling," he said. "Love your kids."

Like steel.

Love them with a heart stronger than steel.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.