Opinion

Marysville-Pilchuck High shootings hit too close to home

A few days ago, the world was introduced to my hometown, which until then was barely known outside Washington. Marysville – an itsy bitsy city when I lived there – is now renowned as the place where a 15-year-old shot five of his classmates in a school cafeteria.

For people with ties to Marysville – I suspect I speak for most of us – this feels weird and heartbreaking. It’s unjust that someone in England or China now knows Marysville only as a place where a ninth-grader carried out a lunchroom massacre.

As the cliché goes, I thought it couldn’t happen here. Seattle, yes. Tacoma, yes. Suburb in Connecticut, yes. Not my old town.

That’s ridiculous, of course. The same thing can happen anywhere in the United States.

The detached journalist in me tells me to chill. Statistically, the United States is getting safer; violent crime has been falling for years. Nor are public schools shooting galleries. Last year, the chances of a child being shot to death in the K-12 system was much lower than the chances of being struck by lightning.

That all makes sense until your own hometown suffers the bloodiest school shooting since the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. You recognize, as the news breaks, the names of victims and bystanders – names of nieces and nephews of your own schoolmates. There’s a wrongness to it all. The lightning isn’t supposed strike here.

The Marysville I grew up in 40-some years ago was not a violent community. Despite what happened at Marysville-Pilchuck High School last week, it isn’t one now.

Marysville has never been a pretentious place. Until the 1980s, it still had the heart of a semi-rural Western Washington town. Its lumberjack days were long gone, but men still drove to the pulp mills in nearby Everett and made good money there with high school degrees.

Marysville was the Strawberry City. At the annual Strawberry Festival, half the town showed up for the grand parade on State Street and the shortcake-eating contest. Kids worked in the strawberry fields after school got out in June. After picking in the sun all day, our hands would be caked with a reddish marinade of strawberry juice and farm dirt. Our fingernails and the creases in our palms wouldn’t be clean again until late July.

The farms are mostly covered with subdivisions now, but the Strawberry Festival lives on. To get a glimpse of Marysville’s soul, stop by the city the third Saturday in June.

Toward the south end of town is Marysville’s signature, 1920s-vintage water tower, a relic that citizens fought to preserve. A small brick building near the base of the tower once housed the old city hall and the library. As a kid, I scoured the library’s shelves for science fiction books and eventually stumbled across George Orwell’s “1984.” That book from that tiny library first opened to me the possibilities of the English language.

Towards the north end stood (and still stands) the Quonset-hut-shaped Marysville Skate Inn, Back in the day, it booked Paul Revere and the Raiders, Merrilee and the Turnabouts and other classic Northwest bands. That was about as exciting as things ever got in Marysville, aside from the football games.

Today, across Interstate 5, on the Tulalip reservation, the casinos and outlet mall draw shoppers and gamblers from throughout the region. But Marysville itself has never been much of a destination. It has been an ordinary, down-to-earth place where good citizens grew up, married, lived quiet and useful lives, and sent their own children off to school.

I imagine the people of Newtown, Connecticut, and Columbine, Colorado, have felt what Marysville is feeling right now. It’s tough to see CNN, Fox, The New York Times and Washington Post present your community to the nation as the place where kids get shot in school.

This is not who we are. This is not who our children are. Marysville has never been the place where school kids get shot in school. Except last Friday.

Patrick O’Callahan edits the online and print opinion sections of The News Tribune.

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