Danvers, Mass., is two towns away from where I grew up. I used to shop at the mall there. When I was much younger and stronger, I'd ride my bike that far. We played Danvers in football. I went to camp in Danvers.
If you'd asked me yesterday or the day before whether Danvers was a scary town, I would have laughed. Danvers? I live in Los Angeles. In Danvers, kids still ride their bikes at night.
Danvers should be safe. And I always thought it was — until I read about the murder of math teacher Colleen Ritzer, originally from Andover, one more town away, and only a year older than my daughter.
The alleged murderer was arraigned in the First District Court of Essex County. When I was a kid, my first job was at the Essex County Registry of Deeds, right next door to the courthouse, and for "fun" (would-be lawyer that I was), I used to go over at lunch and sit in on the trials. There was one family murder, but I never sat in on a case like this. Things like this didn't happen in Salem or Danvers or Andover.
Until they did.
Why does a 14-year-old murder a well-liked, dedicated, beautiful and talented math teacher just 10 years older than him? I'm sure his lawyers will come up with some excuse, mental illness or an abuse excuse, family troubles, diminished capacity, one of the long list of defenses and excuses I used to teach.
Is it wrong to say I couldn't care less what his excuse is? Is it wrong to say that if 14 is old enough to kill — and it is — then it's old enough to be responsible and to be punished as an adult?
Maybe I've lost my empathy. Or maybe I've just become very clear about who does and does not deserve empathy Not the alleged killer. The victim and her family.
Ritzer is the second teacher to be killed this week by a student (allegedly, of course). Two days earlier, in Sparks, Nev., another math teacher — this time a man, a former Marine and National Guardsman — was shot at school by a 12-year-old who also shot two other students before killing himself.
You can try to find a pattern. But really, what could it be? That teaching math is life threatening? Ridiculous. I'm pretty sure the gun-control laws in Massachusetts are tougher than in Nevada. So the 14-year-old used a box cutter, allegedly. The kid in Nevada reportedly got his gun from home. Some people are describing the kid in Danvers as "soft-spoken," whatever that means (like the "baby-faced" Marathon bomber, who was no baby-face), and others are speculating that he was infatuated with his math teacher. If every teacher of an infatuated student were vulnerable to murder, well, there would be no profession.
In all of my years living on the North Shore of Boston, as a student and as an adult, I never heard of a student killing a teacher. I certainly would remember. It just didn't happen.
So why now?
It's the sort of thing we need to talk about thoughtfully, not screaming at one another about gun control, but listening respectfully, trying to figure out what's gone wrong and what we can do about it. But we don't have those kinds of conversations anymore — about anything. There is no discourse. It's all just ideological prattle, screaming back and forth, talking heads competing to be outrageous enough to get their own shows. Meanwhile, decent people shake their heads, and parents and families mourn losses that are just unfathomable.
Two math teachers in one week. So wrong.
(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)