On April 19, 1999 my mom took me to the doctor because I woke up with ear pain that wasn’t going away. My doctor diagnosed me with an ear infection. He put me on a round of antibiotics and told me to stay home from school the next day. I was grateful because the pain was pretty intense and I tossed and turned all night. I woke up late the next morning. My mom was at work, a note stuck to the refrigerator said to call her if I needed anything. I was a junior in high school and I scoffed at the note: “Love, Mom”. Geez, mom, I’m fine, I can take care of myself. I made myself a bowl of cereal and set up shop on our old, comfy couch. I grabbed the remote control and flicked on the television. I’m not sure what was on tv. Maybe Price is Right, maybe one of those daytime talk shows, Sally Jessy Raphael or Geraldo, was he on the air then? I flipped the channel between bites of off-brand lucky charms, stopping occasionally at a funny commercial or to raise my hand to my throbbing ear, did I take my medicine already? At about 11:30 a.m. I stopped on Channel 9, KBMC, the local ABC affiliate in Kansas City, because something caught my attention. The scene showed a SWAT team, with automatic weapons drawn, running into a high school in Colorado.
The tragedy that unfolded in front of me that day on KMBC, was the catalyst for my high school to implement a safety protocol for an active shooter situation. I suspect Columbine, and the 15 students fatally wounded, was a catalyst for many schools across the country to implement comprehensive safety plans. To teach their children how to respond in an emergency situation. Bombs. Active shooters. School Emergency Response Plans. School Preparedness. They assessed by color. Code Black. Yellow. Red. Blue. Unsafe odor. Lockdown. Even for a Kansas kid, this was a lot. Kansas kids are used to drills. Leavenworth kids were able to tell the difference between a tornado siren and an inmate escape siren. We knew when the doors to school locked. We remembered when the doors to our school didn’t lock. We wrestled with our anxiety. Our constant barrage of drills, butting up against our desire to be cool and unbothered. The day after the Columbine High School shooting, though, things changed.
Our lunch room chat was spent on deciding with your best friends where you would meet if it ever happened to us. We all developed our own action plans, unbeknownst to each other. Those of us in the journalism room, we knew how to lift the handle of the dark room just right to jam it a little. We knew it would buy us time. We started getting cell phones. Little brick Nokias with emergency numbers and a game with a long snake. Active Shooter Drills became commonplace. We dreaded them. We stood in lines across the street from the school as the administrators would “sweep” the classrooms. We laughed and talked. Secretly assessing who we thought would be wearing long, black trench coats at our school. Our teachers told us to be quiet. They listened intently on their walkie talkies for the all-clear. We joked and made fun of their seriousness. But inside, we were a mess.
At home my mother would want to know what happened. “Where do they send you?” she’d ask, as she sloshed mashed potatoes onto my dinner plate. “How will you call me at work?” I’d shrug off her questions. “Stop worrying, nothing is going to happen at our school.” Still, she asked more. She started to leave detailed instructions on the fridge for me after school. Chores, directions to start dinner, anything to keep me home, keep me safe. “Call me if you need anything,” they would say. “Love, Mom.”
I stopped sleeping altogether. My anxiety crept up. Panic attacks started. Once I was in the back of our library. I was working on a research project. It was the big one. The last big project before school was out for summer. I was doing a close reading of a poem. I was engrossed in the book I had, sitting along the back wall, the stacks covering my view of either door. I heard a loud bang. My heart leapt into my throat. I froze. A moment later the librarian walked around, looking for each of us, asking if we were okay. She said someone slammed a door across the hall. We smiled, eased our backs into our chairs again Laughed a little. “We’re fine,” we said. “Totally good”. We were not fine. We were not totally good.
Years later I was sitting in a classroom at Missouri State University when my professor came into the room in a panic and told us to evacuate. She saw a man walking into the building with a gun. By this time I was a mother. I had a toddler at home. I froze again. Someone tapped me on the arm, “Let’s go!” We all ran down to the basement of the building. We grabbed our phones, waited for the all-call. The text to come in. The beeping and the signal: Run. Hide. Shelter. Fight. This was drilled into our head from the first day. That familiar feeling crept up into my throat just as my teacher walked down the stairs. The man was a plain-clothed officer, she explained. He forgot to notify anyone that he was coming into the building, and he hadn’t taken his gun off his hip. She felt bad for overreacting. She was clearly distraught. I hugged her. I didn’t mind her overreaction.
In grad school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, we had routine preparedness thrown at us. Text messages would go out, followed by emails. Drills. Make sure the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) has your cell phone number. Make sure you are getting the Niner Alerts. I was diligent. Drills don’t bother me anymore. Overreacting doesn’t bother me. Be Niner Ready they would say. I was always Niner Ready.
And then the day came when all the practice, all the prep, all the drills became useful. Thankfully I graduated last May. Thankfully I was not on campus last Tuesday. Thankfully I didn’t need to get a Niner Alert. Or sit in a classroom, crouched against the wall, desks stacked up against the door, calling loved ones on the phone to check in, to say that I am okay. But there were people who did. And there were, as we soon learned, people who were not okay.
Kennedy, the building the shooting happened, is a lovely building. I led class discussions in that building when I was a Graduate Assistant for Prospect for Success. I remember that it was very high-tech, for being such an old building. The outside was deceiving. On my first week of grad school, I sat just outside Kennedy, out in the fresh air surrounding the Belk Tower, which was dismantled my second year, wondering how I was so lucky. How I had managed to get into a graduate program. Wondering how I had landed my cool new job at Colvard, the building just across from the Library. My library. Our library. Whose full, bright, stacks I occasionally roamed with no purpose other than to be in the library. To smell the familiar smell of books, and feel the collective tension of students with heads in folders, and in computer screens, and in their own thoughts. Kennedy is near the library. It is near the Career Center. It is right next to the Counseling Center.
I had friends on campus, and thankfully they are all okay. I had friends, professors, former classmates, and fellow Niners. I’ve checked in. I’ve seen their “Marked Safe” flags. I’ve cried for them. For my school, my community, the city that I miss. But, I can’t cry anymore. We can’t cry anymore.
You never think it will happen to people you love. You never think until it just does. And then when it does, all the pain, and all the fear, and all the anger builds up inside of you. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Will this happen again? Why is this okay? I was shocked and afraid on April 20, 1999 as I watched armored officers run into Columbine High School. I was afraid it could happen at my school, to my friends and to me. I was afraid, but I was hopeful. I just knew that this incident would be the one that would make my country work together to ensure that this never happened again. I just knew that our politicians, our representatives, our parents and teachers, the adults in charge, would protect us. Would work together to ensure that every child was safe while they were at school. Yet here we are. Twenty years later and mass shootings at schools and universities have become so commonplace that we don’t even blink an eye. We shake our head and say, “Heaven’s sake” or “Christ, it happened again,” while we make dinner, and help our kids with homework, and turn the channel to a comedy. We send thoughts and prayers. We make memes. We make hashtags.
Honestly, very honestly, I was angry the first time I saw the image on the top of this post. I was very angry. How can they sum up what just happened, hours before, into a picture. It felt too soon. It felt wrong. It felt like it was already made, just sitting there on someone’s hard drive, waiting to have the newest school’s tragedy stamped on it. Yes, I thought, Charlotte is strong. Yes, UNCC will come together and they will mourn and remember. Yes, my school, my community, my people will do the right thing. But what about everyone else?
I don’t want to get too political here. And all I can say is what a million angry mothers and fathers, and teachers and officers have said. We have to do better. And in order to do better we have to make major, sweeping changes to our guns laws, to mental health care, to insurance, to the angry in the community, to how we treat and respond to the bullied, the marginalized, those in poverty, those misunderstood. We have to revamp the systems. The public school system. The higher education system. The welfare system. The foster care system. And I know that is a lot, and I know it makes people afraid because it seems like it can’t be done. But it can, with small steps. It starts in our homes. In our backyards. In our communities. It starts with the way we treat each other every single day. Who we vote into office. Who we allow to represent us. It starts with boots on the ground.
Yesterday another gun attack happened, in another Colorado school. And today, like all the other days after a tragedy like this, we are learning of those killed and wounded. Learning about how they had to run, hide, shelter, and fight. These are children. Children. Children whose parents could not protect them. Whose teachers and administrators and classmates could not protect them. Who may have thought they didn’t need protecting from anything. I can’t stop thinking about the parents. About the mom of the boy, Kendrick Castillo, who tried to stop the gunman. I can’t stop saying his name. Wondering what his mother is going through. What about Riley Howell’s mom? What about Reed Parlier’s mom? They won’t leave their children notes on the refrigerator ever again. No more reminders of appointments, no more directions to bake the lasagna in the oven, no more “Love, Mom”.
I’m not sure what my plans are from here on out. But I have a 10-year-old son, and middle school is fast approaching and I am terrified, y’all. I have been, since April 20, 1999, and you should be too, and together we should work toward a solution. Together we should protect our children, at all costs.