In the silence of death, a pledge to honor life

February 24, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

I HAD THE THOUGHT yesterday afternoon, in the chilly air outside Old St. Paul's, just as I've had it before - that there will come a day, an event, a Baltimore tragedy so shattering that it will galvanize us into a grand community action to arrest the bloody flow of misery in our midst.

I had this thought 17 years ago, on the night of the funeral of 11-year-old LaTonya Wallace, the "angel of Reservoir Hill" who was murdered on a winter's day. Kurt Schmoke had just become mayor of Baltimore, and he and Barbara Mikulski, then a first-term U.S. senator, reached deep for words to console the mourners and unite the city against all the forces, social and criminal, that harm and destroy the lives of children here.

Schmoke and Mikulski were genuine and masterful, and the congregation at First Emmanuel Baptist, weeping over the little girl's death, roared with affirmation.

And life went on, full of homicide and other brutality.

There was a crossfire shooting of a child in a West Baltimore barbershop some years back, also on a winter day, and there was such an outpouring of outrage against gun-toting drug dealers that the dream flickered again. Some of us believed we had reached the tipping point, a critical mass of misery, and that the public would rise up and demand a sweeping justice that went far beyond jail sentences for the killers into a comprehensive attack on the poverty, ignorance, gun violence and drug addiction that corrodes any municipal progress the city makes.

And life went on, full of homicide and other brutality.

Still, yesterday, depressed and disturbed by the senseless death of the St. Paul's teacher, I had those thoughts again - that the tragedy of this smart, generous, life-loving man, shot to death in a parking garage at a Towson mall, might lead to some kind of pact among his colleagues and students - that they, if not this entire community, might unite for some greater good. There is hope in that.

The students and faculty of St. Paul's School, up on that grassy hill in Brooklandville, might pledge to honor the life of Bill Bassett by giving part of their lives to an effort to reduce the violence in our midst. We are so sopped in it that we need to recruit an army of idealists and socially conscious visionaries for this battle, and there is no better place to start than in classrooms, as boys and girls become men and women, heirs to this world.

They are needed because they are still capable of idealism, even in the face of their teacher's death. They are not yet jaded, as are most of us who can remember the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lennon, and all that has happened on the drug- and gun-infested streets of America since - that long and bloody flow of misery in our midst.

There is nothing new about any of this, so it's easy to slip into hopelessness: The world can't be fixed, so why try?

"But it is in this world that we live," Father Mike Wallens, the chaplain of the school, said at Bassett's memorial service in Old St. Paul's, at Charles and Saratoga. "It is to this world that we are called. We are children of God, and as children of God we have to believe that the world can be different."

But, of course, the world is full of evil - we hold that as an American truth - so you might wonder where this God has gone.

And who in God's creation would want to kill Bill Bassett?

Here was a man who had devoted his life to teaching, to supporting his colleagues and encouraging his students. He was 31 years on the hill in Brooklandville. And last Friday night in Towson Town Center, he was shot to death, allegedly by a teenager the same age as some of his students at St. Paul's. It was a life dashed for nothing, a brilliant mind and sensitive presence extinguished, a father and a husband taken. Where was God?

"God looks down on this world," said Wallens, "and it's not too hard to think of God shaking his head and going on to be God somewhere else."

But, Wallens said, the God that lives in us is better than that. The chaplain implored those listening, the St. Paul's community, not to hate and not to lose hope - and not to ever forget the good spirit that Bill Bassett instilled in them. He seemed to be asking for a pledge.

"We are called by God, who has not turned his back on us, not to turn our backs on others," Wallens said. "May we dare to hope that a day will come when peace will reign ... that a day will come when no one will want to shoot a Bill Bassett. ... By the way we live, let us keep him alive in ourselves."

In the silence that followed Wallens' sermon, you could hear boys and girls taking that pledge. I am certain of it.

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