Tales Out of School | Community Notebook | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Tales Out of School 

Last Updated: 08/07/2013 6:06 pm

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Bennett had bird shot deep in his leg, but he didn’t want to have surgery to remove it. He opted to live with it and, though he limped for several weeks, his physical wounds healed pretty quickly. His psychological state was a different story. In an interview with me a year after the incident, Bennett recalled his return to teaching on February 16, a week after the shooting. He made it through three days before he fell apart. “It was before the start of a class, and I was just walking down a hallway, and at that point I felt myself really getting ready to lose it—just the anxiety of everything—and I was able to get outside the building and get to my car. Then I lost it. I had a breakdown.”

Superintendent Brewer convinced Bennett to see a counselor, and that seemed to help.

He thought he was strong enough to start teaching again on June 2, but a nightmare about dying of cancer and then a bout of dry heaves the morning of his return didn’t sit well. “As I approached Columbia High that morning,” Mike recalled, “I began to feel worse and worse. I went to the nurse and said, ‘Sheila, I know I’m not having a heart attack, but I’m having a hard time catching my breath here. I’m just not feeling right.’” The nurse took his blood pressure and told him they needed to call his doctor. It turned out to be an acute anxiety attack. Bennett began to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed anti-anxiety medication for him. He didn’t return to teaching until September of that year, and transferred to Goff Middle School to avoid the difficult atmosphere and memories at the high school. He returned to Columbia this year when he was appointed vice-principal.

Three years after the incident, Sawchuk and Bennett have clearly moved forward with their careers. They looked healthy and acted welcoming, but were visibly tense when our Virginia Tech discussion reminded them of their past ordeal. “One of the things that I know is that you live it, and at Virginia Tech they will all continue to live it, to some degree, every day of their lives,” Bennett cautioned. He lifted his plastic identification badge, which also holds a picture of his two daughters. “Everything is about silver linings now. It’s all about my girls, and about my wife. Every day’s a gift.”

“We always talk about how lucky we were,” Sawchuk added, then went on to describe the 20 or so credible threats of violence that are revealed during the year on the anonymous telephone tip-line installed at Columbia High. “There’s always someone who knows,” Sawchuk concluded. “I thought about this with Virginia Tech—there are people who knew. And those are the people who need to come forward. They have to say, ‘Here’s what’s happening with this kid. This kid’s isolated. This isn’t normal.’” Of course, that is the only truly effective direction school administrators can go, identifying students who are at risk of becoming violent and helping them. But in John Sawchuk’s eyes I saw the scary recognition that these violent events, and the media’s formulaic treatment of them, might actually be changing our expectations of what is normal these days.

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