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Way beyond too late

‘Shooter in custody. I am okay.

10/24/22. 11:22 a.m. 

Tita Marites’ Facebook features snippets of her colorful life: verdant green vegetables, a red rooster, the bright smiling faces of her sons. And then, last Monday, a shooter broke into her school.

I have fallen prey to the vicious and deceptive mind trap of believing that I am safe from the school shootings that plague the media. I see the tabloids in the news and browse through photos of tearful children. And while I acknowledge their pain, mourn for their loss and call for some action, I am guilty of following the crowd as we collectively move on. It’s always too far away, too removed from my circle. I found myself thinking, “That’s awful, but it’ll never happen to me.” 

The shooting last Monday at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School (CVPA) back in St. Louis jarred me as I realized that no one is the exception to these terrible crimes. We never really know who is going to be next or when it will happen, because for the students and staff at CVPA, it really did begin as just another Monday morning.

Tita, or “Aunt,” Marites is known to her beloved students as “Ms. O” and to the St. Louis arts community as Maria Ojascastro. She was at CVPA when the intruder broke in. The shooter invaded the classroom right next to hers and shot and killed a teacher. That teacher was Jean Kuczka. She taught my older sisters PE when they were in elementary school.

My sister Mia doesn’t remember much about Mrs. Kuczka, but she does remember the way Mrs. Kuzcka made her feel: safe. 

Mrs. Kuzcka died shielding her students, placing herself between the bullet and her kids. She died making sure they were safe. 

‘I’m home now. In shock…I ate and drank a lot  of water. Tending to my garden and spirit now.

10/24/22. 3:41 pm. 

In her back yard, my Tita Marites squats amongst fuschia hyacinths, small popping corn and towers of lettuce. She puts her palms in the dirt just to feel it between her fingers. It’s therapeutic, to return back to the ground. 

She first started gardening over 20 years ago when one of her sons was diagnosed with cancer. Digging through the soil is remedial. Designing the plants by texture and color gives her total control over a space made by her and for her. 

There have been a couple of freezes in St. Louis already this autumn, but her flowers endure. For Tita Marites, Maria, these plants symbolize hope — that life can persist through trauma. Sometimes she becomes frozen with grief and fear, wondering what might have happened if the shooter invaded her room instead of Mrs. Kuczka’s. But crouching there, with her hands in the dirt, looking at all that growth reminds Maria that she is still very much alive and that there is beauty all around her.

Maria wants her entire front yard covered with winter and spring bulbs. Her friends and family will come from all over to plant them, and when they bloom, they will be a visible reminder that love and joy will conquer trauma and pain. 

On her Facebook, Maria asked her friends to plant these bulbs, to donate snacks and materials to her classroom and to fundraise money to care for CVPA’s students’ and alumni’s small needs: special art materials, gas cards for returning alumnae, snacks for the kids taking a shuttle to the funeral, tissues for a runny nose, lotion for dry hands and sweet tea to sip after class.

“Teachers use their own money for small things that the district doesn’t cover,” she said. “Everything we buy for them we give with love. They need more love than ever now.” 

But what she asks for most is this: to put joy and love out there everyday. 

‘I finally got to hug a couple students today and I didn’t know how much I needed that. CVPA Strong.

10/28/22 5:42 p.m.

Art, for Maria Ojascastro, is a healing process. She hones her creative teaching skills through a Well-Being practice at PALM health, as well as through her collaboration with Prison Performing Arts and the Cancer Support Community, teaching incarcerated men and cancer survivors to express themselves creatively. “Art puts on paper what you can’t say in words,” she said. 

After graduating from St. Mary’s in 1987 a year behind my mom, Maria got her Masters of Fine Arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis.  She sees her work as a way to bring mental health through the arts to those who are often forgotten. Taking care of ourselves and of those around us is her motto. 

The shooter who intruded the building last Monday had severe mental illness. His family noticed his declining mental state in the weeks prior to the shooting and had gone to the police asking them to take his gun away. But he still managed to get his hands on the gun he used at CVPA because of the ready accessibility of firearms in America, a shocking reality that haunts Maria.

“We can’t have one more mentally ill person who the laws allow to buy a gun without any sort of paper trail. That has got to change. It is way beyond too late,” my Tita Marites said. “You young people need to have the people in power make the change. Now.”

Maria believes that the change is up to us — the youth of America. “You can make a lot more noise than I can,” she said. “Anyone that can vote, vote. Anyone that can protest, protest loudly.”

What happened at CPVA in St. Louis last Monday was far from an isolated incident and one that was met with more “thoughts and prayers” before being discarded as another tragic incident. But we must ask ourselves how we can keep operating in a society where children cannot feel safe enough to go to school, where teachers must shield their students from bullets and where parents cannot trust that their son or daughter will come home after sending them off to the school bus in the morning.

Instead of politicians taking action to improve gun safety laws and to enforce stricter procedures for buying and selling guns, there is a different type of change happening: schools like CVPA are creating manuals to help teachers educate traumatized students. 

Maria just finished Week 1 of this manual. It is terrifying to think that situations like these are so frequent that there are written guides on how to act in the aftermath. And with the way our country is headed, these shootings and these manuals will become increasingly common, while stricter gun laws will not. 

How much longer must we endure these calamities? We cannot wait until tragedy strikes a community close to us. We must act, and we must act now.

“Have your voices heard,” Maria said. “There are adults that are cheering you on. Have hope. Spread it beyond just your community. Encourage good mental health. And make the world beautiful.”

My Tita Marites recognizes that the reality we live in is frightening. But she has faith in our generation. Our voices are a hyacinth blooming in the morning frost — a symbol of hope. 

She makes little changes everyday with her watermelon seeds. Now it’s time we start to make the big ones.

Link to Donate: https://www.gofundme.com/f/healing-through-art-support-cvpa-students-staff?utm_campaign=p_cp+share-sheet&utm_medium=copy_link_all&utm_source=customer

Link to Gallery/Info on Maria Ojascastro: https://www.bextraordinaire.com/ojascastro-gallery.html

You can contact Gracie at geppler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.