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A mom with gun grief wonders: ‘What did I not see?’

Updated: March 7, 2013 6:32AM

My friend and former teaching colleague, Kay Burmeister, called in a fury.

“Can you imagine asking, Carol, where is my .38 so I can get ready to teach?” she demanded.

It was just days after the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. And six weeks before 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down in Chicago.

Kay Burmeister, a master-teacher and mentor to an army of young people over the years, burns with the outrage that should inflame us all.

She has been thinking about guns for decades. For heartbreaking reasons.

In 1963, near the beginning of Kay’s career, an 18-year-old Dundee High School student of hers murdered his mother and father with a .22-caliber rifle he’d borrowed from a friend.

“He killed them because they would not give him the car to go see his girlfriend a day before the prom,” recalled Kay. “He washed the basement wall, rolled them in a carpet, and put them in the trunk of the car.”

There were warning signs.

“We wrote summaries on any student who concerned us. . . . Every year, I would write him up. . . . He was very bright,” she said, “but he didn’t have appropriate responses. If he dropped a pencil, he’d leap out of his seat and apologize to the class. He was the strangest boy.”

Kay and her husband, Henry, had two wonderful boys of their own, each of them adopted as babies. Kay always called their younger son, Mark, her “poet” . . . a child of few words but deep feeling. “He was almost 21 when he came to me and said, ‘I need to find out who my real parents are.’ ”

What he learned included a birth
father who’d been in trouble with the law. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m such a loser.’ I said Mark, every family is goofy, every family has problems. We had a long talk.” Not long after, at his parents’ home, Kay said, “I gave him a big hug and said, Mark, I’m so proud of you.”

Mark shot himself at 3:30 the next morning with a gun he had bought against his mother’s ferocious objection.

I was at his wake. And I can still see the grief-numbed faces of his brother and mother and dad.

“I talk to myself every day. What did I not see?” Kay asks.

What the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention sees is that as of 2010, “firearms are used in more suicides than homicides.” That mental health issues loom large in any discussion of gun violence. At the very least, isn’t this the starting point in the search for some small area of national consensus on stemming the carnage in this country? Either in restricting gun access or increasing mental health services?

It’s been 23 years since Mark’s death. And 50 years since that Dundee student killed his family.

Kay Burmeister retired in 1994. But she teaches every day with her wisdom and her words.

“Guns,” she said before hanging up, “are the expiration points in my life.”

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