The moment everything changed

For several years after May 2000, after the day Nathaniel Brazill killed Barry Grunow, I couldn’t pass the Lake Worth water tower without thinking about one part of that day, one of the parts I didn’t see: a 13-year-old boy, both scared and angry, as I picture it, with being misunderstood, rejected, punished, who had been suspended from school two hours or so before the end of the whole school year anyway, riding his bicycle back to the place he had just been sent home from, with a gun in his pocket.

Only something about how tragedy imprints itself on the mind made the water tower part of this; it had nothing to do at all with what happened that day, but it says Lake Worth on it, in big letters that you can see from far away, I noticed it that day on my way, and  what happened in Lake Worth that day made it one of the saddest days I have lived.

But then, I had only been covering the night cops beat for just short of three months. I had learned about the moment that changes everything — the drug dealer lured from his house to meet some people who shot him dead in front of his house, the five-year-old boy trying out his new skateboard on the street in front of his house when a teenage neighbor trying out his new driver license drove down the street too fast and killed him, the brute speed of I-95 — I had already stopped keeping track of how many signal 5s, signal 7s — murders, dead people — I had gone out to write about by the day Nathaniel Brazill shot Barry Grunow in the face, killing him on the last day of school.

That day had begun festively, the way last days of school do, from what was put together later. Mr. Grunow had come with a movie to show his kids, Nathaniel Brazil had come with balloons for a water-balloon fight in the hallway. By the time the kids got out of the school that day, many of them were sobbing, many of them stumbling into the arms of trembling parents who had surrounded the building screaming for answers, and for their children, for the previous half hour. By then most of them knew that the easy-going English teacher, who made school fun, was dead.

Some kids who were on their own told me what they thought happened. Nathaniel Brazil had gotten into trouble for throwing water balloons, they said, so he had gone home, gotten his gun and come back and shot Mr. Grunow. I phoned that in to the newsroom, a little afraid I would be reprimanded for taking the time to report such a preposterous story. Soon, though, police confirmed that was exactly what had happened. A few blocks from the school Nathaniel Brazill had already flagged down a police car and turned himself in.

I started running into other reporters from my own paper — the whole office, and some from a south bureau, people I didn’t think had ever left the building — so I went to police station where a press conference was scheduled. I saw a lieutenant I knew leading a heavy set woman in, guiding her in a way that seemed like she was afraid the woman would fall over if she didn’t have her arm around her. It was Nathaniel Brazill’s mother.

A school assistant principal had called her a couple of hours earlier, after plucking her son out of the hall where he had been the straggler of a group throwing water balloons at each other who had been ordered back to their classrooms. So he was suspended, the administrator had told Polly Powell, the mother. Did she want to come pick him up, or should they just go ahead and send him on down the road home by himself? Send him home, she said, from her job as a cook at a nursing home. That will teach him a lesson.

It was brutally hot that day. Even in late afternoon, those of us who followed his footsteps by car — from school to his grandmother’s house where he got the key to his house, to his house where he got  his bike and what was now his gun, back to school — were sweating, moving through a fog of heat.

He had already told classmates he was going to be on the news, so how much was fog and how much was determination, he might not know himself.

He had found the gun some weeks earlier, visiting an older relative, a godfather figure in his life, who for some reason kept a handgun in the cookie jar. Nathaniel Brazill, whose birth dad had opted largely out of his life, had been watching his mother recover from breast cancer surgery, her incision bleeding in front of him at least once, his stepfather beating his mother in front of him more that that, apparently. As this story came together in the days that followed, I pictured Nathaniel Brazill in his room, posing with the gun, like Clint Eastwood saying “Make. My. Day,” like Robert Deniro saying “You talkin’ to Me?”

He said later he only wanted to say goodbye to some friends in Mr. Grunow’s classroom, and after Mr. Grunow said no, he pulled out the gun, because he thought that would persuade him to say yes. Then he shot him in the face and killed him. He said later there was something wrong with the gun. I have always assumed that there was something wrong with him, and something very very wrong with him having a loaded gun in his hand.

Mr. Grunow, had he lived, would probably have taught another 12 years of middle-school students by now, leaving all the kids, or those who could be reached, the better for it, in having found the joy and the power in reading and writing that he shared,  in having a teacher who loved what he was doing, and who was kind to them. The loss to all of those students is one of the overwhelming sadnesses  that reverberates still from that day.

Barry Grunow’s death also left a widow and two half-orphaned children, one of whom will never remember her father, the other of whom will never forget his loss. His larger family, including one brother who seemed to serve as a spokesman, remained vocal in their desire that Nathaniel Brazill be punished to the greatest extent possible. In the several succeeding years that the aftermaths played out in the court system — Brazill’s criminal trial, a civil lawsuit against the gunmaker — Barry Grunow’s family remained stolid in their agony.

“There was something about the experience of knowing that man,” my lieutenant friend ventured, several years later, “that seems to have left the people who did frozen in time.”

That was the case for Nathaniel Brazill as well. He has been prison for 11 years now, since his trial ended in 2001. He won’t get out until he is 42 years old, and he will be on parole until he is nearly 50. The boy who wanted to say goodbye to a girl he liked that day has not been alone with a girl since. He  has paralegal training now, and had a deeper voice, a taller frame in the television interview he gave last year, but he still seemed to have the simple righteous logic of a self-centered adolescent. He is sorry, and thinks about it every day, he said in that interview, but he said it in a way that suggested he has continued to view what happened that day as an accident, in which he was only one of the parties involved. Whether prison has made him better or worse than he would have turned out otherwise is impossible to tell. When you think about what happened that day, you can think of yourself at 13 — the stupid, silly, rash things you did. It’s impossible though, when I do it, to picture pointing a gun at someone’s face, let alone with a finger on the trigger, let alone pulling the trigger.

Of course he was only one of the parties involved in what happened that day, though. There was the godfather who bought a handgun, kept it in the cookie jar. There were the school officials who decided to send a 13-year-old child out alone, a couple of hours before the last bell, a policy, they said they later changed. Then there were, and are still, all the people who did nothing, in all the years before, and all the years since, to make it harder for someone who couldn’t think straight to get a gun, and in a moment, change everything.

When I see the water tower that says Lake Worth on it, that I noticed as I drove past it that day, I remember I saw it on my way into work that day, as well as on my way back to what was then a crime scene, and I always wonder what could have happened in the time between to make everything turn out differently — Barry Grunow enjoying summer vacation, and holidays, graduations, life, with his wife and two children, Nathaniel Brazill getting the help he needed, 12 years of seventh-graders learning to love reading and writing.

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