STOCKTON -- The graves of the children buried here long ago in the cold January ground are about a mile from Cleveland Elementary School. But except for the passing cars, chirping birds and the occasional freight train rumbling nearby, the resting place is mostly silent.
Twenty-five years ago today, Cleveland Elementary was the scene of one of the nation's worst school shootings -- years before Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown. Patrick Edward Purdy's three-minute shooting rampage left five children dead and 30 teachers and students wounded. All but one of those killed were offspring of Cambodian refugees who had survived the murderous Khmer Rouge.
"This just doesn't ever go away. I think that's something the outside world just doesn't get," said Judy Weldon, 65, a retired teacher who tended to the wounded that day. "Yes, we all grow and move on and change. But we never, ever forget."
The scars aren't just emotional. Rob Young, then a first-grader, still carries a bullet fragment in his chest after being shot twice. The shooting, he said, "will forever be a part of me."
But amid a renewed national gun debate reignited by an even deadlier school massacre 13 months ago in Connecticut, those who survived Stockton's horror can add an epilogue to its deadly lesson: Painful memories never go away but don't necessarily define the course of people's lives.
Some survivors of the massacre simply accepted what happened as part of life's travails; others felt compelled to become activists. Some have been in trouble with the law -- like Sarim Chabb, 32, of Stockton, wounded in Purdy's attack and recently charged with murder herself -- while others, like Young, became police officers or found other ways to serve their community. And many see the past 25 years as a gift denied their schoolmates.
"It's still always in the back of your mind, but I know I'm OK," said Kolap Gemma, 37, a former Cleveland student who stills lives in Stockton. "I'm so blessed to be one of the kids who made it."
For Gemma, Jan. 17, 1989, was the last day she got to walk her 9-year-old neighbor, Rathanar Or, to the bus stop.
"He was such a sweet little boy," she said.
For some time after the shooting, Gemma said, she felt like Rathanar was still with her, watching her every second.
Shannon Barrera, 31, was a first-grader on the playground that day. One of her friends, 8-year-old Ram Chun, was killed. An amateur photographer, Barrera once wanted to create a project on the shooting, but dropped it after other former Cleveland students balked.
"They just didn't want to have to relive it again," she said, though "I was more interested in showing how it does not stop you from having your own life, from pursuing what you want to do."
Weldon and Julie Schardt -- second-grade teachers who faced the kind of challenge seen mostly by combat troops and first responders -- developed foxhole camaraderie that has lasted beyond their education careers.
But the horror of that day is brought back with each new shooting, particularly the December 2012 spree that claimed 26 innocent lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. "It's there now always in front of our faces," Weldon said. "We have to address it."
Purdy -- a 24-year-old man with mental illnesses, drug problems, a long history of mostly petty crimes and a racist chip on his shoulder -- ignited a cache of fireworks in his van near the school. He then leveled his semi-automatic rifle -- a Chinese version of the AK-47, bought legally in Oregon -- and fired 105 rounds before killing himself with his handgun.
Weldon was on the phone in the school office when students ran in to report gunfire. Schardt was in her classroom with an ill student and at first thought she was hearing only fireworks.
Schardt later found one of her students, Oeun Lim, among the dead. "Somebody walked me out there and I looked at this little girl, an 8-year-old lying on the playground with a very severe wound," recalled Schardt, 66. "I knew it was her. She was wearing her little red shoes."
Weldon held herself together while carrying a wounded child to a triage area, holding her own students in her classroom during a lockdown. She helped identify one of the dead children.
"It hit me when it was time for me to go home," Weldon said. "I was going home to two kids who were the same age, and these parents weren't able to do that."
What happened to them also profoundly affected gun laws in California and the rest of the nation.
David Roberti, president pro tem of the state Senate at the time, already had co-authored a bill to ban "assault weapons" -- specific makes and models of semi-automatic firearms, including the one Purdy used -- before the Stockton rampage. He was in Gov. George Deukmejian's office when the news reached them.
Roberti is sure the bill wouldn't have passed if not for the outrage over the Stockton massacre. "We got it through the Senate with maybe three or four votes to spare and through the Assembly with no votes to spare," he said.
Deukmejian, a longtime gun-control opponent who was sickened by the shooting, signed the law.
Enacted in May 1989 and expanded in 1999, it was the nation's first assault-weapons ban. Along with the July 1993 rampage that claimed eight lives in a law office at 101 California St. in San Francisco, it helped pave the way for a federal assault-weapons ban that lasted from 1994 to 2004. Today, six other states and the District of Columbia have such bans, while two more states regulate such firearms.
"It has significantly reduced gun violence, but obviously it hasn't eliminated it all," Roberti said.
Weldon and Schardt agree. Last year, after the Newtown shooting, they and other teachers founded a group called Cleveland School Remembers. Both lobbied last year in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento in favor of gun-control legislation.
One person who politely declined joining the group was Young, now a Union City police officer, ¿who also still lives in Stockton. He too traveled to Sacramento and the nation's capital, but to oppose the gun-control bills.
"It's my belief that these crazy people targeted Cleveland School, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and other places because schools are gun-free zones," Young, 31, said this week. "I firmly believe that if there had been a police officer on my campus that day or if there was somebody else trained to use a firearm, that a lot of my classmates could have been saved because that incident could have ended quickly."
But while Young and the teachers have agreed to disagree, they share something nearly absent in the debate over guns: genuine respect.
The teachers still call him "Robby," with affection. Young, in turn, says the teachers were the real heroes a quarter-century ago.
"They experienced something that teachers never should have to live through," Young said. "I know they somehow feel responsible because we were their students to protect. But there was nothing they could do. There was nothing anybody could do. Nobody woke up that morning with a crystal ball that told them a madman was coming to the school."
So when they all see each other at a memorial service tonight, they will warmly hug one another as they think about what they survived and pay their respects to those who didn't.
Even without a landmark anniversary, the past is never far for Young, Gemma and others who stayed in Stockton.
"You still hear about it; it's still in the community," said Gemma, who was interviewed last week just after cutting a former Cleveland Elementary teacher's hair.
Now an admittedly overprotective mother of two, Gemma owns a salon less than a mile from where her schoolmates are buried.
The graves of the four Cambodian-American students are side-by-side; Thuy Tran, 6, a Vietnamese-American girl, was buried in the same cemetery.
Chun and Sokhim An have their own markers, while Or and Lim share one granite headstone.
Last week, two wilted poinsettias bracketed the shared marker and incense sticks jutted from the soil -- signs of a holiday-season visit from someone who still loves them.
Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428.