MILK Guest Post: Teens, Trauma and Grief with Journalist Rona Kobell

In the wake of the Parkland school shooting and student uprising for sensible gun control, a friend from high school, Rona Kobell, wrote a Facebook post about a brutal incident that happened to our classmate when we were 17 years old. I encouraged Rona to write more about the incident that upended our community, and was our first experience with traumatic violence and an unfathomable outcome. Rona and I worked together on the piece last week and talked a lot about where Karen Hurwitz would be today, and what might have happened if the boy who hurt our friend had access to an assault weapon. This collaboration is a re-connection with our once 17 year old selves, and Rona's words add a painful layer to understanding our own vulnerability as mothers.  -- Mallory

**Following the publication of Rona's piece here on, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette published it in their March 3, 2018, edition.

In middle school, I knew a boy who was smart and talented but often very much in his own head. In high school, he got his hands on a weapon he never would have been allowed to bring to school, prepared his attack at the local library, and set out to do something terrible.


The weapon was a samurai sword. And he used it, along with a pair of nunchucks, to kill my friend. We lost one friend that day, instead of dozens, because it was a sword and not a gun, and because he went to her house instead of our school. We lost her because a boy was troubled, and obsessed with weapons, and he decided to kill a girl who had been nice to him.


It was 1989. She was 17 years old. And in our minds she still is, a curly-haired girl who loved the Rolling Stones and hoped to be a journalist. She never got to be more than our memories of her. He took that from her, from her family, and from us.

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Taylor Allderdice’s class of 1990 mourned Karen Rachel Hurwitz. We went to her funeral, where the rabbi talked about a beautiful light so unfairly extinguished. We read newspaper stories about her killer, whose defense was that he was influenced by the movie A Clockwork Orange. And at the student newspaper we wrote our own stories, agonizing about what to say in conversations that have become familiar in my adult life as a newspaper reporter. We talked about mental illness and movie violence. But mostly, we mourned our friend. We didn’t think about our own safety. Her killer was not a threat to us. He hadn’t come for us. (He is now serving life in prison, a sentence upheld after a couple of re-trials.)


But what if he had? What if, instead of a sword, he had a gun? And what if, instead of going to Karen’s home, he had come to our school?


People will argue that guns aren’t the problem. It’s the mental state. But a sword can’t kill 17 students in five minutes. A knife can’t do that.


I don’t have answers, nor do I have anything particularly insightful to say on gun control that anyone with an Internet connection hasn’t seen a thousand times. But my classmates and I, unfortunately, have something else: We know what it feels like to lose someone, brutally and without warning, at a time when we are still figuring out who we are and will be. In that, we have something in common with the Stoneman students. We are no longer 17; we are in our 40s, seeing our own children off to the bus, hearing about their lockdown drills and about classmates plotting school walkouts. With good concealer, some Spanx, and regular hair maintenance, we can pretend not that much time has passed. Some of us even run a faster mile now than we did then.


But time has passed. There is a void at every reunion. More than that, we think of Karen all the time. We think of where we were when we found out, who told us, what we did. (For me, it was my French teacher, and I ran through the empty halls to the journalism room, looking for someone to tell me it wasn’t true.) And we think of her when we have babies of our own, when we win awards or get promotions, when we achieve milestones that she never got to experience. I think of her when I hear Mick Jagger yowl about getting no satisfaction, or when I see a red bathing suit like the one she used to wear to the beach. No matter what else her old classmates endure—bitter divorces, painful addictions, the deaths of our own parents—the day we found out she was murdered will always be one of the worst days of our lives.


Taylor Allderdice is not so different from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. Both are excellent public schools that celebrate their diversity and encourage social activism. Their motto is: "Be Positive, Be Passionate, Be Proud to be an Eagle!" Ours is “Know Something, Do Something, Be Something.” Our two most famous alumni are Jeff Goldblum and Wiz Khalifa. Today, portions of the country are still fighting about wedding cakes for gay couples. But in 1990, when two girls wanted to go to our prom together, our student body made sure they could. When I look the Stoneman kids, I see my own daughters, my high school friends, myself. I hear their stories—five of the 17 killed were Jewish—and I think of my own summers at Jewish camp, the long talks about standing up for those with no voice. I’d like to think we were that fierce. But I’m glad no one tested us.


I grew up in Pittsburgh but now live outside of Baltimore. I know that, 20 minutes from me, students are surrounded by violence. They lose many Karens—not, perhaps, in the brutal manner that she was killed, but to altercations, accidents, domestic disputes, and sometimes police shootings. High school kids in Baltimore attend many funerals. They’ve been tested, too. Long before Stoneman, students in Baltimore pleaded for their lives, too. And they still are pleading.


Karen’s death inspired me to become a police reporter. As I wrote in our school paper just after she died, I wanted to understand why bad things happened to good people. The Hurwitzes are unquestionably good people. Linda Hurwitz, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was the longtime director of the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Her father, Dennis, a prominent plastic surgeon, has helped many children suffering from deformities.


I can remember the victims in every murder case I covered: Gracie, gunned down in a convenience-store robbery and survived by her husband and beloved three-legged dog; David, whose ex-wife shot him on Christmas Eve in a custody dispute; Tony, a rowdy fellow who had the misfortune of living on the same block as an armed, order-loving former police chief. An NRA spokesman said reporters enjoy covering shootings for the attention they bring; I’d return every byline to bring the victims back. Each felt personal; I’d come home from my shift and turn on Law and Order, to replace the bodies with fictional ones in my head so I could sleep, wishing the real detectives could wrap up cases like Jerry Orbach did.


Even after writing about dozens of victims—many of them good people who, like Karen, found themselves in a terrible circumstance—her death still hurt the most. Once, when Karen’s killer was in court for a re-trial, I stopped in for the proceedings, looking for something to help me understand. I found nothing. I’m no closer now to figuring out why bad things happen to good people. Covering more murders did not dull the blunt force of the first one I wrote about. Nothing ever will.


My classmates and I think about Karen’s light. But when a deranged man brings a gun into a school, we think about our own mortality. We don’t want to, but that’s where our minds go. In another time, with a different weapon, the lights so unfairly extinguished could well have been our own.


Rona Kobell lives north of Baltimore with her husband and two children. A former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, her recent work has appeared in Slate, Columbia Journalism Review, Modern Farmer, The Atlantic’s Citylab, Undark and the Washington Post.