Picture Credit: NBC San Diego
Disclaimer: This article isn’t one of its usual nature where I share words of encouragement and Scriptures that help you relate to the story. Instead, it’s written out of much wrestling and angst with the latest events of the school shooting and how this particular kind of tragedy personally affects my own family every time this happens. And because I’m a teacher, this topic is one I think about, unfortunately, more and more often. What would I do if a shooter stormed into my classroom? How would I protect a room full of littles? What would I do if I was asked about my faith? There’s no doubt that Christians are being targeted more and more. But I don’t think news coverage about Christian martyrs will make a difference. As we all know, there are no easy answers. No perfect ending wrapped with a neat little bow on top. So, what brings you peace? What gives you comfort? What is your prayer?
There’s been a burning in my stomach for days, along with a flood of memories that bring a fresh set of feelings of insecurity and fear. For the most part, I don’t think about the images and feelings, but every time there’s another school shooting, they reappear, reminding me what it feels like to have absolutely no control when a loved one is in imminent danger.
I had one foot out the door, so when the house phone began to ring, I almost didn’t answer it. For whatever reason, I decided at the last minute, to step back inside the house and pick up the receiver.
“Mom?” I knew immediately from the tone of her voice that something wasn’t right.
“What’s the matter Honey?”
“Mom, there’s a shooter at my school!”
Instantly, I could feel the blood rush from my head and my hands and legs began to shake. Everything took on a slow-motion kind of feel and my daughter’s voice sounded distant, as if she was in a cave.
“Oh no! Where are you? Are you safe?” I implored. “Where are you?” I asked again, then insisted, “I’m going to come and get you right now!”
“I’m ok Mom. A bunch of us kids ran to someone’s house but I don’t think you can get to me because all the streets are blocked off by the cops.”
I rushed to turn on the television and what I saw made my knees buckle out from under me and I began to weep. The parking lot across the street from the school was filled with cars parked willy-nilly and hundreds of parents were huddled together in groups, crying. Some were standing on the hoods of their cars trying to see over the masses in order to see if their teenager had escaped from the school into the safety of the shopping center. One desperate parent had climbed up the lamp post and was clinging tenaciously to it, yelling out the name of his child over and over. Anguish and fear was written on every face. It was utter chaos. And it was a scene that I was immediately thankful that I had been spared of. The sheer terror of not knowing.
As the helicopter camera panned from the parking lot over to the school, a group of students suddenly came running across the expansive front yard. They looked like ants, scattering in every direction. I began to pray out loud. I honestly don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure it was succinct, as in, “Help Lord!” Or “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus….” Because when trauma strikes, we may lose our words, but the Holy Spirit doesn’t. He takes over for us and communicates with the Father in a way we’re rendered incapable of during moments of shock or grief.
I contacted my BH, who left work and found a back road (that wasn’t blocked off) to the house where our girl and a half-dozen other students had run to safety, a few blocks from the school. In the interim, I paced. At one point I walked to the back of the house and opened the door of my daughter’s bedroom. As usual, the bed was unmade with clothes strewn across it and I saw that she had forgotten her math notebook. Dirty clothes were lying in a heap on the floor and her dressing table was in its usual state of disarray with makeup, hair products and perfume bottles sitting haphazardly across it. As any mama of a teen can often attest, her room was a constant source of contention between us. But at that moment, I knew it would be a long time before I became intolerant and cross with her because of an unkempt and disheveled bedroom. I was just relieved that she would be coming home.
When she arrived safely in our driveway, I ran and grabbed my girl and hugged her the way you see in a movie; like two people who have been separated for years and the homecoming is bittersweet. Relief crashed over me like a tidal wave in the breaking, but I soon learned that when you or someone you love escapes death, a whole host of continual emotions sweep over and through you, leaving you feeling consoled one moment yet fully aware of the pain of what you’ve endured the next.
Within moments we learned the story of how our daughter had truly been spared from the worst.
The previous Sunday night, she and my BH attended a youth rally at church where the prominent guest speaker’s topic was on fear. During his presentation, he brought up the Columbine shooting, recalling the story of when Cassie Bernall had reportedly been asked by the shooter if she believed in God, and how her response of “Yes,” was met with a gunshot that caused her immediate death. He challenged the students to do the same and at the same time, [I believe] in an effort meant to soothe the fears of those who worried about being caught in a similar situation, he threw out a statistic. Something along the lines of being much more likely to be struck by lightening than being in a random school shooting. But that statistic didn’t ease my BH’s concern and later that night, he felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to pray for safety over our daughter.
Our desire to find the answers to safety and peace can’t be found in statistics.
The next morning started out like any other, with the girls hurriedly eating breakfast, then my BH and I scrambling to drop them off at their respective schools on time. After her first class, our girlie routinely met up with a couple of friends in one of the quad areas, then walked to a food cart that was situated in the adjacent quad area just outside the boys bathroom and bought a bagel before going onto her next class.
That March morning, for the first time since the beginning of her Junior year, she took a bagel with her from home because she was out of allowance money. When the release bell rang, she met up with one friend, but they were delayed when the other friend never showed up. Finally, the two of them started towards their next class. Just as they entered the hall that led to the next quad area, all hell broke loose. Kids were screaming and running every which direction and the girls heard “popping” sounds. They thought a fight had broken out, so they started running, unknowingly towards the shooter. All of the sudden, a big, brawny student came barreling the opposite direction, yelling to the crowd, “Run! It’s a shooting! Run the other way!” He scooped up my daughter in one arm and her friend in the other charging like a linebacker determined to make a field goal.
When he set them down, the girls fled off campus through the back entrance and sprinted several blocks until they felt safe enough to stop. She felt the full effect of that escape later that night, when the lactic acid build-up in her legs caused gripping and unrelenting cramps.
We later learned that the 15 year old, gun-wielding assailant, shot two students, then came out of the bathroom shooting aimlessly into the crowd of students…the bathroom was right next to the food cart where our daughter routinely bought a bagel.
We are forever grateful that the events of that day didn’t include a phone call from the hospital. But we still grieve the fact that it did for 15 other families whose loved ones were either wounded or killed. There is no doubt that our daughter was spared her life that day. So we should feel nothing but relief, right?
My girl called the day after the Oregon shooting rampage. “How are you?” I ask. She instantly knows the depth of the question, and there’s no pretense. No need for small talk. We always “check in” with each other every time there’s a school shooting. And I could just bawl that these kinds of calls are becoming more and more frequent.
Our conversation turned long as we talked about how tragedies like this can make a body want to live in your jammies, curl up in a fetal position, and hide away in a “safe place”. It shuts down your best intentions and has the ability to steal your peace. Really. It does. And no amount of statistics about how random these shootings are (because they’re not so random anymore) brings comfort. And while we try to process through conversations about gun control, better health care for the mentally ill, safety precautions and whether or not we as Christians would be willing to forsake all at the point of death (all things worthy of our attention), peace seems elusive.
And, because I’m a teacher, I think about this topic frequently. The scenarios that run through my head are many. I thought I might be the only one “obsessing” about a situation that I pray will never happen, but in talking with another friend and teacher, it turns out, she’s equally concerned for the safety of her students and thinks about escape routes and the like. What if we were asked about our faith in front of a room full of kids? Neither of us could answer that.