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When Shocking Stories No Longer Shock Us

It's been eight years since I talked to my mom. That's because she's dead.... My parents used to fight a lot, even hit. One night things got really out of control. I stayed in my room as my parents went at it, yelling, screaming, hitting.... I guess my dad grabbed a pistol. I heard two shots and then silence.....

It is the first paper Shannon writes for me in September. The topic: regret. Shannon regrets that she did not interfere that night. She thinks, If only I had come out of my room.

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I read the paper again, trying to reconcile the image I have of a terrified seven-year-old with that of smiling Shannon, a delicate girl with sparkly eyes and a button nose - a nose, she writes, that matches her mom's. I tell myself that maybe the story isn't true; perhaps it's the product of too many afternoons spent watching soaps. But the details are so compelling. It is a story Shannon knows and one that she has shared with me. I lie awake that night wondering what to say to her.

She's lolling against her locker in the morning. "Shannon," I begin. Her eyes travel to the paper in my hand. Words knot in my throat.

Shannon is bright. She sums it all up in a second. "It's not true," she says.

She claps a hand over her mouth. "You didn't think it was true, did you?" She laughs. And suddenly I'm laughing too - with embarrassment, relief, and sheer joy that she has not suffered so.

The buzz at the start of class tells me that Shannon has spread the story. As I hand back papers, the students eye me, jubilant to discover that a teacher could be this dumb.

I let them enjoy the joke but then call them back to Shannon. "You should congratulate her," I tell them. "She wrote such a convincing story, I couldn't help but believe it."

"Read it," they clamor. "Let's see."

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Shannon nods permission and I begin. The students listen spellbound, and I finish to the silence that powerful writing provokes.

"Y'know," someone finally ventures, "it is a lot like what happened to Erin. That's why she lives with her aunt now."

"Yeah," Kevin chimes in, "and remember Danny? He was right there when his grandfather shot his dad."

Their voices swirl around me, and I feel a terrible sadness. Here I am in a suburban classroom, in a corner of the world deemed far safer than most, and my 15-year-olds are calmly discussing the murderers they've met.

So another night I lie awake. Something bothers me, something even stronger than the sadness that loss of innocence and life evokes. Horror, sadness, fear, confusion - emotions tangle about me - and then suddenly I understand. The one thing I am not feeling - have never felt since I first read Shannon's story - is shock. Ten years ago, I would have been so shocked by Shannon's words that I would have been sure they were fiction. Ten years ago, I would have heard the classroom conversation as teenagers telling taller tales among themselves.

Yet now, on the edge of the 21st century, I seem incapable of shock, and the absence of that emotion makes me ache. But it is hard to feel shock these days, when the cumulative folders of students bulge not with test scores and transcripts but with family history and pain. Hard when mothers produce restraining orders, when fathers call from jail, when siblings are in rehab, and when a child's life is measured by court dates.

When all these things are commonplace, then anything seems possible. And so I lie awake, nostalgic for the time when I could say, "This cannot be."

* Susanne Rubenstein has taught English for 22 years at Wachusett Regional High School in Holden, Mass.

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