When the Bullet Hits Too Close to Home

I am drastically late on last week’s post, I know. But hear me out! I did not get a single moment last weekend to write, so I’ll be posting for last week and this week over the weekend. Two posts in one weekend!

I had intended on doing something carefree and fun last week for my “new thing.” Unfortunately, that’s not the way the week panned out. Instead, I was forced to have a conversation for the first time that I never wanted to have.

On Wednesday, a young man named Caleb Sharpe walked into his high school with an AR-15 and a handgun with the intent to kill as many of his classmates as possible. He was thwarted in this attempt after the AR-15 jammed. At this point, a fellow student, a kid who had known Caleb and had hung out with him from time to time, approached and told him he always knew Caleb would do something stupid like this. Caleb responded by shooting Sam in the leg and then in the head, killing him. Caleb went on to attempt to shoot and kill other classmates. Luckily, though, the other three survived. A custodian nearby tackled Caleb and held him down while authorities made their way to the high school.

Parents waited an agonizingly long time to see their children. For hours they knew someone had died, that others had been shot, but those parents didn’t know if it was their child/children.

Across the valley, I sat in my classroom with a room full of precious lives. We hunkered down in an instructional lockdown–standard procedure when something like this happens nearby. I knew a shooting had occurred in Freeman, but I didn’t know the extent of it. Some of my students were receiving alerts on their phones as we sat and waited for the lockdown to be lifted.

My school is in the same sports league as Freeman. Even though we live in a metro area of half a million people, Spokane is more like one giant small town. Nearly everyone had a connection to someone in that school. I did–and I was scared. It turned out, rightly so.

My friend’s son, whom I have known since he was a seventh-grader, was standing between two girls who were shot. He pulled one of them into a nearby classroom and performed first aid until help arrived. Later, his mother told me the details of what her son saw. He witnessed violence the likes of which most of us couldn’t even imagine.

I remember once when I was in graduate school we workshopped a poem by a classmate that included a reference to the Zapruder film. I thought I had seen the entire film in documentaries and news stories, but the references in the poem made clear that I had not. In order to understand the depth of the poem, it was necessary to see the moment captured on that home movie. So I Googled it. I thought it would be much like watching old silent films where the violence seems almost cartoonish. The Zapruder film is anything but cartoonish. The footage shows the bullet entering and subsequently splitting JFK’s head in half. Jackie grasps at him, at pieces of his skull and brain sprayed across the car seats, desperate to put him back together. It is vivid. Disturbing. Even as I type this it’s as if each individual frame is on a permanent loop in the recesses of my mind.

If I am this affected by grainy, black and white footage of a politician being struck by a bullet to the head from hundreds of feet away, I cannot begin to fathom how truly terrifying and sickening being within inches of such horrifying violence would feel, particularly at such a young age. I can’t stop thinking about the trauma that has seeped into the bones and souls of those kids and teachers.

This one was too close for comfort.

In order to go to school every day, we have to convince ourselves that it won’t happen to us. Not in our school. Not in our town. But here I am–faced with the reality that a school very much like my own, in a place just miles away, filled with kids I’ve seen at athletic events, who are the same age as my own foster son, was also the home of a school shooting. It’s difficult now to think, “Not here.”

So the new thing I was forced to do this week was face this reality head-on. For the first time in the eleven years I’ve been an educator, students looked to me to answer some tough, terrifying questions.

“Why do we ‘lockdown’? If there really is a shooter in our school, shouldn’t we run?”

“If our classroom doors lock from the outside, doesn’t that mean you could get shot? And then the bad guy would be able to get to us, right?”

“How do we get out of the classroom if we’re locked in?”

“What if there is more than one shooter?”

“What if they’re waiting outside for us to evacuate?”

We have evacuation plans. We have evaluation tools to try to determine how suicidal or homicidal a kid may be. We have drills and we have practiced scenarios. We have a solid principal who would do whatever it took to keep kids and staff safe.

But the reality is, we can never truly prepare for what we cannot know. And that uncertainty, that lack of safety, that vulnerability is paralyzing.

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