Last month, I accepted an invitation to attend one of the speaker series sponsored by the University Forum, on The University of Southern Mississippi campus.
The event, “Conversations with Samantha Fuentes: Uplifting the Voices of the Silenced,” was held at Bennett Auditorium. In case you haven't heard of Ms. Fuentes, she's a survivor of the tragic school shootings at Parkland, Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in February of last year.
It's been a long time since I was a student in high school, and to tell the truth, I was reminded how old I am when I realized most of the students attending Ms. Fuentes' lecture were young enough to be my grandchildren. (But I'll leave that subject alone.)
Those students attending the event, many of whom were, themselves, fresh out of high school, could surely relate to her story on a much more current level than me.
But I do certainly remember my days at Hattiesburg's Blair High School. As Ms. Fuentes shared her story, I imagined myself sitting in a classroom at Blair High. Knowing me, I would've been sneaking peeks at the wall clock between lessons, waiting for the bell to ring.
For Ms. Fuentes, it would have been a routine afternoon at Stoneman Douglas High. That is, until a series of exaggerated pop-pop-pop sounds interrupted her school day.
She and her fellow classmates had to have been startled. I've never fired a gun (believe it or not) so the sounds may have been unfamiliar to me right away. But the screams that immediately followed those popping sounds would have been unmistakable.
They were the cries of students being gunned down one by one, in an insane act of violence. As we were later to find out, in a matter of minutes, one of Ms. Fuentes’ seriously troubled classmates had murdered 17 people at the school - students and faculty members.
Another 17 were injured, including Samantha Fuentes.
As I listened to her speak, I could imagine the fear Samantha and her classmates must have felt.
The emotional trauma those students endured following the shooting would have been hard enough to live with. But the saddest news is, many of her classmates would, most probably, have suffered that pain, emotional and physical, if only they could have survived the horror of that afternoon.
During the nightmare, terrified students ran and took cover in an attempt to save their lives. They hid in classrooms, closets and bathrooms, cell phones in hand, trying to reach their parents to let them know what was going on. (Probably wondering if they'd see their loved ones again.)
Ms. Fuentes did survive, but not without injury. Once the shooting began and realizing what was happening, she dove to the floor to protect herself. The move may have saved her life, but still, a bullet had pierced her thigh, as shrapnel penetrated her legs and face.
Samantha was seriously injured during the shooting; several surgeries were required to help her recover. For the rest of her life, she'll live with emotional and physical scars, as pieces of shrapnel remain lodged in her face.
In spite of those scars, Samantha has chosen not to live her life in a state of fear or why-me misery. Instead, she has turned her survival into a much more worthy cause.
She has dedicated her life spreading the message to lawmakers and to fellow Americans, that we must do all we can to end the gun violence that plagues our nation, especially in our schools.
The only thing students should have to worry about are scores on final exams, not fearing whether or not they'll come home from school alive.
Ms. Fuentes' story sent me back to my own near-death experience.
This time of year that brush with death always returns to my mind. Eighteen years ago, the first weekend of November, I was the victim of violence in one of the hotels that line New Orleans' Canal Street. There was no gunfire involved, but still, that act of violence nearly cost me my life. It was during one of my weekend getaways to the Crescent City. I'd returned to my hotel after a night spent exploring the French Quarter.
Entering my room around 2 a.m., apparently someone had already let themselves in. According to the police report, which I read later, I was found the next morning, fully clothed, except for my shoes. I have a routine when I'm travelling and staying at a hotel.
After entering the room, I immediately removed my shoes to get comfortable, necessary after hours spent walking the French Quarter.
Piecing things together from the police report, my best guess is that upon entering I must have interrupted someone as they were robbing my room on the 40th floor.
The room appeared totally empty to me as I walked in, but from behind, I was struck in the head. I was knocked unconscious, my wallet and watch taken, severely beaten and left for dead on the hotel room floor.
It was a late Saturday night and I was to have checked out Sunday morning. The police report indicated hotel housekeeping knocked on my door to see if I'd checked out, as they were ready to prepare my room for the next guest.
Knocking on the door, the housekeeper called my name, but heard only a muffled groan in response. Naturally alarmed, she let herself into the room to discover me lying on the bed, fully clothed (except for my shoes), semi-conscious and seriously bleeding from my head and face.
My assailant had left me on the floor, not caring whether I was dead or alive. But somehow, I'd managed to stay alive, even managing to move myself from the floor up onto the bed.
After the housekeeper notified hotel management, an ambulance was called and I was rushed to downtown New Orleans' former Charity Hospital, where doctors, nurses, my mother's prayers and, of course, the grace of God brought me back from the brink of death.
Like Ms. Fuentes, I had to endure multiple surgeries and have lifelong scars from my assault.
Friends and family who visited me shortly after I entered the hospital told me my face was unrecognizable, as I'd been beaten beyond recognition.
A friend came down from New York City to see me and was shocked at what she saw. She told me later, "Elijah, it looked like they'd taken a basketball and painted your face onto it."
The person who assaulted me (I'd call it attempted murder), to my knowledge, was never found.
Listening to Samantha Fuentes speak brought back so many of those memories for me. No, it wasn't gunfire that nearly took my life; it was violence using an unknown weapon or object at the hands of a stranger. Here's a question I'd like to have asked Samantha.
Her assailant, the murderer of her classmates, was captured the same day. I assume my own assailant walks free, unless arrested for some other crime. I will never know for sure. My question for Samantha would be: would she want the person who committed such a heinous act, once found guilty, to be put to death?
I have no recollection of pain from my assault; none. I'm sure most of my memories from the hospital stay, including those of any physical pain, are jumbled by doses of heavy-duty medications that would have been necessary for me to make it.
But what if I had not survived the assault?
I spent five weeks in New Orleans' Charity and Touro Hospitals. Shortly after returning home to Hattiesburg, I didn't realize, until after some time passed, how clouded my memory had been. It took some time before my brain was back to functioning normally.
I had to be told by my mother what had happened to me. What troubled me most was hearing about the phone call she received from Charity Hospital, informing her and my family of my at-death's-door condition.
A mother's greatest fear is having to bury one of her children. If I'd not survived, I fear most how it would have affected my mother.
Had the outcome been worse for Ms. Fuentes, or for myself, had neither of us survived, would putting the person to death who killed us have changed anything? It certainly wouldn't have brought us back to life. So what would have been the benefit of the death penalty?
Would the guilty party being sentenced to death have provided a sense of closure for our families? Or some sense of vengeance for them, perhaps?
To be honest, I remember my mother being divided on the death penalty issue, as am I. I never got the opportunity to ask her how she'd have felt if the ending to my story would have been truly "The End." Would my mother have wanted the death penalty for the person who took her son's life?
Thankfully, Samantha Fuentes and I are both alive to ponder the issue of utilizing the ultimate form of punishment for those found guilty of committing these most selfish acts of evil. I admire her strength, intelligence and dedication as she works hard to lessen the chances of other school children experiencing the pain and terror she went through, on what should have been just another ordinary day at school.
I can understand how some people feel about the death penalty. To lose a loved one in such a tragic way,is something I can definitely relate to. Earlier this year, my great-nephew, Neal Paige, just 21 years old, was killed by gunfire outside a local nightspot. He was the only son of one of my special nieces, Kristin Jones, more like a daughter to me. So yes, I understand the pain. Like with the criminal who nearly killed me, the person who took Neal's life has yet to be apprehended. My heart breaks whenever I think of him and how his loss hurt my niece. As I said, a parent should never have to bury a child.
We're all placed on this Earth for a purpose. No one has the right to end that purpose, an act that should be left only to God. But when society uses the death penalty as a deterrent, as punishment for murder, are we not ourselves playing God?
Elijah Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of the Hattiesburg Public School System and the University of Southern Mississippi. Drop him an email: email@example.com.