**Warning: Trigger Alert**
**This post contains content regarding school shootings and related events. Please take care of your mental health and skip this post if needed.**
(If you haven’t had a chance to read Part 1, you can click HERE to read it.)
That’s what I was thinking as I walked out the doors of the Highlands Ranch Recreation Center where I was reunited with my daughter after a tragic school shooting. But I knew that wasn’t true. And the nauseously twisted feeling in my stomach confirmed that. It was only the beginning.
Sadly, I walked out of those doors a different person than when I walked in. So much had happened and so much had changed, but the worst day of my life was coming to a close.
Adalyn was ok.
I was holding her hand.
She was really here.
I had her back with me.
I was so relieved, and yet, I felt so guilty that I got to take her home with me when I knew other parents didn’t.
As we walked out of that hot gym and into the cold rain, nothing looked the same. Every inch of road had a car parked on it, emergency lights were coming from every direction, and people were just everywhere.
The media was swarming, and maybe it is my background, but I felt obligated to stop give a quick statement. The story ended up going to national outlets, including CNN. That’s one interview I hope I never have to give, ever again. (If you have any interest in seeing it, you can view it below.)
Adalyn is the type of person that shares NOTHING about her day. She could win the most prestigious award plated in pure gold, ride a unicorn and fly on a magic carpet all in the same day and she wouldn’t tell me any of it.
So as much as I wanted to drill her about what she saw and heard, I reigned myself back in as much as I could. She sat in the backseat with my huge purple sweatshirt and just kept chanting “Locks, Lights, Out of Sight.” It was like she was brainwashed. I asked numerous times if that was something she heard. She would respond, “yes.” And then go back to saying that. Over and over. I later found out this is what was playing over the speakers the whole time they were locked in their classroom. 1 hour? 2 hours? 3 hours? I don’t know. It would be enough to make anyone crazy, but I now understand it is played on repeat to throw the shooters off and to mask any noises coming from classrooms so they don’t know what locations people are hiding in.
She also told me she asked the teacher’s aid on the bus ride to the rec center if all the screaming they heard was other kids screaming. And God bless this teacher for her quick thinking. She responded, “No, it wasn’t kids. It was just the police officers trying to help people.” If that doesn’t put a little twinge on your heart, I don’t know what will.
The only other thing Adalyn told me is that she heard lots of glass breaking and wood cracking. The best thing I can figure out is that was when police had to break down the elementary doors to enter the school, as her classroom was located close to that entrance. I don’t know if they had to break down her classroom door or not, but I know she was scared when the police officers came in to clear the room. I heard they were looking for a third shooter for quite sometime before they cleared everyone out of the school.
It was at about that time we learned there were 8 students injured and one that died. To be honest, I don’t even remember how we learned that information. I drove the 3 minutes to Stephanie’s house to pick up the other kids. We stayed and had a quick dinner because everyone was eating when we got there, and then we headed home. Everyone piled in bed to watch TV like nothing had happened. I stayed downstairs and just stared into space for a while. I poured myself a glass of wine, and for the first time ever in my entire life, I thought to myself, “I need something stronger.” I didn’t have anything else and I didn’t even drink the wine, but it was such a strange feeling.
What do I do?
What do I think?
What do I say?
Where do I go?
The next morning, my alarm went off at 6:15 a.m. because I forgot to turn it off. (We of course did not have school the next day, or the rest of the year.) I started to get up and do my usual thing, and then everything came flooding back to me about what had happened the day before.
I remembered all of it.
It was real.
It really happened.
There was a shooting at Adalyn’s school.
She is a school shooting survivor.
She is ok.
Others are not.
How am I supposed to even process all of this?
I laid back down in bed and stared at the ceiling for a long time.
We are both now members of a club that we never wanted to be in.
Questions about what happened started to pop up here and there. I mostly wanted to make sure she heard the story from me and not someone else. But, how do I explain what happened to a first grader? Luckily, I have an incredibly intelligent friend who knows everything there is to know about child development and she walked me through how to talk to her. I explained that a couple of STEM high school students were sick and needed help. And instead of asking an adult for help, they made some really bad choices and hurt a lot of people in the process.
I let that sink into her mind for a while and answered more questions as they came up. She soon understood that these “bad decisions” included bringing a gun to school and using it, but she could not comprehend why they wouldn’t ask a teacher or another grownup for help first. God bless her innocence. She learned a boy named Kendrick died saving others. And she learned that he’s a real-life hero.
I know this situation was way worse for SO many other people, and that my experience is nothing compared to theirs. I have friends whose kids were in rooms where there were injuries, and friends whose kids were in the classroom where everything unfolded. I’m in no way trying to minimize those experiences. Their stories are no doubt more powerful, meaningful and impactful than mine.
I did not lose a child that day.
I did not lose a loved one that day.
I did not lose a best friend that day.
And neither did my kid.
But I did lose something: I lost the ability to make my child feel safe at school. One of the two places on earth she should feel the safest. Home being the first.
When second grade started the next fall, Adalyn became a “bathroom buddy” for one of her friends who was terrified to go to the bathroom by herself. She panics that when a shooter comes into the school she will be stuck in the hallway with the shooter and will be locked out of her classroom. Read that again. WHEN a shooter comes into the school. Not IF.
What 7 year old should have to think like that?! The most stressful part of their day should be wondering if they get a juice box or oreo for lunch. Not if they are going to die on their way to the bathroom.
One of my worst fears is that my child will not be in the classroom when something like this happens, especially the little ones. (Again, when. Not If.) I asked Adalyn what she’s supposed to do if they have one of these drills and she is in the bathroom. She said she crawls up onto the toilet so no one can see her feet and it looks like the stall is empty.
That pretty much broke me. But what came out of her mouth next is what really made me fall apart.
She said if someone looks in between the cracks of the door and the stall, she’s supposed to lean to the opposite side to try and hide from the bad guy. She continued by telling me that if they have kindergarten friends in the stall next to them, they are supposed to whisper very quietly and try to help them without getting down or leaving their own stall.
(She did make me laugh when she followed all of this up with, “but if I had to stay on top of the toilet, I would just squat down and finish going to the bathroom.” That’s my girl. Haha.)
I have been thinking about what this one year mark might feel like for 364 days. Someone asked me 2 months ago how I was feeling about it. At that time, I wasn’t feeling anything different than all the days since the shooting. But as May 7th started to sneak in closer and closer, the feelings that I knew were hiding started to surface.
I was a sophmore in high school when Columbine happened. It was 20 miles away from my high school. I had friends who went there. I had been in that building.
It was one of those historical moments where you remember exactly where you were when something happens. I remember sitting in Spanish class at a group table. I can remember who I was sitting with and even the shoes one friend was wearing (a pair of brown Doc Martens). We had to stay in Spanish class for an extra long time because there was some kind of lockdown due to an incident at another school. Stuff like this happened all the time for various reasons, even back then, so no one thought much of it. It was a strange time that I can barely remember, there were no cell phones or social media, so no one had any information on what was going on. Most every classroom had a TV and for some reason the teachers were not allowed to turn it on. When you tell a bunch of high school kids not to do something, that’s the only thing they want to do. I don’t remember exactly what happened exactly after that, but I remember a rumour going around that there had been some kind of shooting and everyone was trying to find a TV.
My friends and I always hung out in the band room after school, so that’s where we headed, and the TV was on when I got there. That was the moment I saw the school. I saw kids running with hands over their heads. I saw students trying to escape through windows. I saw chaos. I saw fear. It was surreal and I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing.
After school sports practices were shockingly not cancelled for us so I went to practice and then raced home to watch TV. I remember being glued to the TV and not being able to look away. I remember them reporting that up to 25 people had died. I remember my dad walking in the door from work and all I could say was “25 kids! 25 kids!” (Luckily the number didn’t end up being that high.) Maybe it’s because I was the same age as these kids, or because this happened in my backyard, or maybe I would have felt the same way if it had happened in a different state. But for whatever reason, this had a huge impact on me and I believe I’ve thought about it over the last 2 decades more than maybe other people have. Undoubtedly not as much as the people who lived that nightmare, but more than perhaps the average person.
But STEM. STEM didn’t just hit close to home. STEM WAS home!
I Google pictures of it and I see faces I know. I’ve been impacted again in a way that will never go away. I always know where all the exits are when I go into a building. I always think about where everyone is located and what our exit plan will be if something happened. My husband knows when we sit down in church and I’m “somewhere else” for a few minutes, it’s because I’m getting my game plan together should something happen.
Stars of Hope sent to STEM from around the country offering words of support and encouragement
Anytime there is more than one police car or emergency vehicle zooming by, I always assume there’s been a shooting. Period. That’s just where my mind goes.
The first time I left Adalyn after the shooting was at church a couple of weeks later, and I had a panic attack while walking away. It took every bone in my body not to go back and get her, but I knew that would be so much worse for her.
A couple of months later, we were attending a carnival. I happened to be standing next to my friend Stephanie when a big balloon behind me popped and it triggered a panic attack. You guys, I wasn’t even in the immediate place where any of these shootings happened and this is the reaction I have.
That summer, so many people said to me, “I assume you aren’t going back to STEM next year?” And all I could think was, “Why would I NOT go back?” It’s going to be one of the safest schools in the country now. And generally speaking, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. So I feel like my kids are in the right school for now. Carter started there this year and Aubrey will start there the year after next. And I feel as confident as I’m ever going to feel that they are safe when they are there.
There has been a lot of extra communication over the last couple of weeks leading up to this day. Before the pandemic happened, everyone at STEM was going to go out and do “Acts of Service” projects in the community. Obviously, that cannot happen now. So the school basically left it up to us if we wanted the structure of a traditional day or if we wanted to take the day off. We have decided as a family that we are taking the day off and that each of us will choose one random act of kindness. Whether this is covering the bill for someone behind us in the drive through, writing a letter to someone who is lonely, making a donation to an important organization or just calling someone who might need a little extra love. But we will do all of this in memory of Kendrick and the selfless sacrifice he made to save the lives of so many.
Again, I’ll never be the same, but it’s ok. There have been a lot of situations over the last 4 years that have forever changed me. My DNA is now different. I’ll keep learning how to live with my new normal and I’ll learn how to manage the feelings and emotions that overwhelm me every single time I drive to STEM. I’ll learn that my kids are probably just fine when an ambulance goes by. I’ll learn that nowhere is 100% safe. And I’ve come to terms with the fact that chances are high that I (and more likely, my kids) will unfortunately be impacted by some sort of mass shooting again in our lifetimes.
Students from Columbine and the Columbine community have been so supportive throughout this whole thing. They came up with a phrase that touches me so deeply and gives me chills every time I hear it or read it.
“A Columbine is nothing without its STEM.”
For so many reasons that statement is imprinted on my heart forever, and I get emotional every time I think about it. It’s so powerful and a perfect example of how community comes together in the midst of tragedy. There are no comparisons. No judgment. Just kindness, acceptance and support from one grieving community to another.
So however this STEM anniversary is impacting you, or whether it’s another big event that has impacted you, be kind today.
Honor all the victims who have lost their lives at the hands of someone else.
Honor those who have given up their lives to save one of ours.
Honor his parents.
We all need to bless someone with an abundance of grace and kindness today.
Much love to everyone, today and everyday.