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Cleveland School Remembers took an identical tack in April, extending its own offer of counsel to teachers in Newtown. A liaison for the Sandy Hook teachers replied with her thanks, assuring her counterparts in Stockton that their proposal would be reviewed in May. That was the last the Cleveland teachers heard from Connecticut.
“We said, ‘We’re here if you need us, and nobody else needs to know about it,’ ” Schardt explains. “I think we felt the need to talk to somebody. We thought, ‘Who else could understand this experience, at least from a teacher’s perspective?’ ”
But despite the unfathomable casualties, the suffocating media crushes, the instant notoriety and the long, barbed emotional tails that the schools’ massacres have in common, there are two notable differences informing the perspectives of teachers at Cleveland: Unlike Sandy Hook, many of them were eyewitnesses to the gunman’s rampage, and virtually all of them returned to campus as classes resumed—the very next day. “That school is being torn down,” Rothman says of Sandy Hook. “None of that happened to us.”
Meanwhile, according to a 2009 report in the Stockton Record, just 227 of Cleveland’s 975 enrolled students came back on Jan. 18. Egeland’s only kindergartner that day was a little girl whose mother couldn’t figure out why her daughter was the lone child on the school bus.
“She had been absent the day before,” Egeland says, “and her mother hadn’t heard the news.”
Khorn Ing still has the school portrait of her daughter, Sokhim An, that ran in The Record and other newspapers worldwide in the days following the shooting. She sets it on the coffee table in her house on the east side of Stockton, where she sits in a tidy, spacious living room with the window shutters closed. She hasn’t kept much else from that day or the period around it. She discarded most of the girl’s clothes and toys and other effects in the early 1990s. There is a small box somewhere in the house, inside of which Ing vaguely recalls storing some of Sokhim’s work from Cleveland School. But the box, like every keepsake before it, just reminded Ing how much she missed her daughter.
“When I keep, I think a lot,” she says in the clipped English that is her second language. “I cannot do anything, you know?” The box’s whereabouts are as unknown in 2013 as those of the condolence letter she says she received from President Bush in 1989. “I maybe throw away,” she says. “I don’t want to keep. They don’t help me with nothing.”
Ing presents the wallet-sized portrait along with a 3-by-5-inch snapshot of Sokhim’s dead body. She offers them matter-of-factly. They are less mementos to Ing than proof to her visitors of who was lost. In the latter photo, Sokhim’s black hair darts over her forehead, and a crimson bloodstain blossoms from the puncture in her sky-blue sweater. It’s the same sweater that Ing spotted on the playground in the raw moments after her husband told her there had been shots fired at Cleveland Elementary. She fled her residence at the Park Village Apartments, a heavily Cambodian enclave less than a mile east of the school.
“I run!” Ing recalls today. “I run too fast, you know? I leave Park Village, and I run from Park Village to Fulton Street, and just around, and then I saw it. And I say, ‘Oh my God!’ ”
Ing fainted upon seeing her daughter. When she awoke hours later at San Joaquin General Hospital, her friend Sovanna Koeurt was at Ing’s bedside.
“Don’t cry,” said Koeurt, trying to comfort her. “Your daughter...”
Ing claps her hands, bringing herself back to the speechless present. She shakes her head, silenced by tears.
Of all the victims, families, witnesses and others directly touched by the Cleveland shooting, few experienced an aftermath as complex and cathartic as Ing, Koeurt and the rest of the Cambodian community in Stockton. The initial story—that four of their children had been killed and 18 more wounded by a man with a reported hatred of Southeast Asians—seemed an impossibly tragic fate to befall a population who’d escaped the torture, starvation and death squads of their native country’s Khmer Rouge regime. Among the Cambodians, Purdy’s rampage prompted a new wave of fear and distrust right here in America.
“They say he’s crazy,” Koeurt explains from her office at the Asian Pacific Self-Development and Residential Association, a nonprofit organization she helped found in 1989 and for which she serves today as executive director. “We don’t believe he’s crazy. Maybe they have a lot of groups. We don’t know. We don’t come from a place where one person can kill a lot of people. A group kills a lot of people.”
The unprecedented massacre mobilized an equally unique outpouring of support for the immigrants in Stockton. Prior to Jan. 17, 1989, they were largely invisible beyond the walls of Park Village and outside the campuses of Cleveland Elementary and a handful of other local schools. The week of the shooting, though, as parents deliberated about sending their children back to school, Koeurt requested and received a dedicated fleet of buses to drive kids from Park Village to Cleveland. The school’s principal, Pat Busher, arranged for a Buddhist monk to visit the playground for a traditional blessing believed to ward away evil. City officials raced to learn customs and language that could stave off a mental health crisis among a population already ravaged by years of trauma and grief.
The challenge was huge: On the one hand, Stockton saw a need to combat the Southeast Asian community’s stigma of mental illness before they could adequately treat their symptoms. On the other, past research had shown the language barrier getting in the way of accurately diagnosing the immigrants who did seek help—flashbacks, hallucinations and other signs of post-traumatic stress disorder were sometimes mistaken as schizophrenia. Quickly they learned that the horror of the shooting had collided with the legacy of war and violence in Cambodia, crafting a sort of psychological superstorm.
Of course, many of the wounded were at an age when death made literally no sense. Seven-year-old Paul Taing, for example, got over his existential panic as soon as paramedics started cutting off his clothes; he was almost more upset about the destruction of his favorite striped sweater and blue pants than he was about being shot. It wasn’t until he was an adult that he acquired an appreciation for the regular Cleveland counseling sessions that he loved so much for getting him out of class.
Today, at 31, on the infrequent occasion that a stranger learns about his past and asks about his wounds, he unabashedly lifts his shirt to expose the muddy 12-inch line that has grown where doctors once cleaned out the trail of bullet residue that ran through him. He doesn’t register the scar in the mirror most days, and he doesn’t register mass shootings in the news as phenomena that have happened to him. “I mean, I think it’s very sad,” Taing says one morning at his home in Los Gatos, where news footage from that day’s mass shooting at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard plays on a muted TV across the room. “But in terms of do I have flashbacks? No, I don’t. I just feel really bad for the victims and their families.”
Touch Lim sympathizes, too. He sees the shootings on TV but doesn’t catch where they take place, or learn how many died or were injured, or ask who is responsible. He doesn’t hear the debate that ensues—the gun-control pleas, the Second Amendment homilies. He just senses a wavering in the darkness that has shrouded most of his life, tragedy that climaxed with the murder of his daughter Oeun Lim. She was the fourth of his eight children to perish; three had starved to death in Cambodia, casualties of the Khmer Rouge. Oeun never made it to Sovanna Koeurt’s list of injured students; shot in the head just three steps from a school entrance, she died instantly.