Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: On School Shootings, Falls Church & the Past

By Ted White

As I write this, there have been at least 16 school shootings already this year. That averages around three a month.

I grew up in Falls Church. I went to its schools before and after Falls Church became a city. I was in ninth grade the year George Mason High School opened.

School shootings were unknown while I was in school. My classmates and I were completely unaware of their possibility. Frankly, I was more worried about a nuclear attack, living only six miles from D.C. That worry caused me more than one nightmare, but I never actually considered anyone invading my school with a gun. That was far less likely.

I’m reasonably certain that this was true of my peers — my fellow classmates — and our teachers as well. No one expected a “school shooting.” The very phrase had yet to be coined.

But those times, when the nostalgia is stripped away, were hardly less violent, and guns were more freely available. I had a .22 single-shot rifle that I got before I became a teen. A neighbor, the father of one of my friends, used to take me to an impromptu shooting range for target practice. Another of my friends had a revolver. But the idea of a killing spree using those guns was alien to us. And if the NRA existed then, I was blissfully unaware of it.

Racism was quite open then. Falls Church had no black families living within its city limits, and its schools were lily-white. Many of my classmates and some of my teachers were openly racist, and a Presbyterian minister, Dr. Altfather, at a school assembly told us that as whites we were superior to the other races.

Bullying certainly existed then. During first-grade orientation, in a mid-’40s August day, I was standing in the playground at Madison School, talking to my friends about what school would be like when a “big kid” — probably a third-grader — walked up and without warning punched me in my stomach. For a moment I wondered if I’d ever take another breath. I’d just met my first bully, from a family still located here. I’d see him on and off over the years. I always avoided him. But my daughter went to school with his daughter.

When we were both going to George Mason, I heard that over the summer he’d killed someone in a bar fight in Florida. When I was in tenth grade I saw evidence of his violence first hand.

In those days there was a fierce rivalry between George Mason and Falls Church High (then still located on Hillwood Avenue, but by then owned and operated by Fairfax County). One morning two boys from Falls Church High showed up at George Mason and headed for the girls’ gym dressing room. They were stopped by two hall monitors, one of whom was the bully. His girlfriend was taking gym that period and he took exception to the two interlopers.

He and his fellow hall monitor grabbed the Falls Church High students, each taking one of them, and pitched them out through the front doors by the gym entrance. Those doors had been propped open, but the first kid through them kicked them in passing, and they swung shut – just as the bully literally pitched his victim through them.

I encountered the scene between periods, going to my locker. The glass — laminated with what looked like chicken wire — was broken out of one door and there was a lot of fresh blood. An ambulance had taken the victim away. It was rumored he’d lost one arm.

That was in 1954.

Only a few years later, a year or two after I’d graduated George Mason, one of its teachers was shot and killed. But not at school. William Snodgrass was a math teacher whom I was glad I’d never had. His was a prickly personality and he was not liked by my fellow students who’d taken his classes. He did things like threatening detention for everyone involved in a friendly after-school snowball fight (we got little snow, so these were infrequent) when an errant snowball hit him.

But he was friends with Falls Church’s then police chief. One day they were in a local drugstore at its soda fountain (remember those?) when the chief decided to demonstrate his fast draw to Snodgrass, using his service revolver.

The chief was apparently incompetent with guns, because in demonstrating his fast draw he shot Snodgrass at a very close range and killed him. The chief resigned in disgrace.

That’s the closest Falls Church got to a “school shooting” in those days.

What’s changed?

What hasn’t?