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  • Writer's pictureKrista Price

In the shadow of tragedy

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

(The following is my experience of the tragic school shooting at Oxford High School on Tuesday, November 30, 2021. Student names changed for privacy.)

I don't miss a day of work very often because I teach 5 different courses and, well, taking a day off for mental or physical wellness is almost always more work than it's worth. Additionally, I never want to burden our office staff with potential sub shortages due to my absence. (Every single teacher in this country knows what I'm talking about.) However, yesterday I wasn't at school and this reality has caused a bubbling brew of guilt and grief that's hard to describe. This is why I'm choosing to write.

My day started at 4:45 a.m. yesterday, like most days. I had decided to take a much-needed respite day after having spent time in the emergency room/hospital the previous week. I was still healing physically, but was also mentally overwhelmed from the previous day’s work load. I knew I needed to pause my body and mind for a day before beginning the chaos of this year’s musical. Truthfully, it was (at the time) a guilt-filled choice that I felt compelled to make for reasons I still don’t understand.

I had a colleague willing to sub for me, but when I tried to submit the sub request, his name was not available for subbing. I went through a few different hoops to solidify his placement in my classroom during my absence. By 6:00 a.m. it was confirmed, and I worked to create sub plans for him. Once I completed the plans, I e-mailed them off to the sub, and began my day of rest (as well as final preparations for musical rehearsals which were to start the next day).

At 1:00 p.m. I received a horrifying text from the sub, John: “We’re locked down in your green room. There’s someone in the building.”

This is every teacher’s worst nightmare; sadly, far too many teachers across this country have lived through (or died during) this nightmare. My brain couldn’t fathom that it was really happening to us. We train and plan for this type of scenario all the time, and over my 23 years of teaching, the training has evolved to include counter-attack and other scenario-based responses. We are no longer in the days of “turn off the lights and hide”. We have far too many school shooting statistics to support that option as the only or best choice. Let that sink in…we have too many school shooting statistics.

I prayed we wouldn’t become the next statistic. I feverishly opened my laptop and got to work, making sure all of our students who were supposed to be in class were accounted for. (John hadn’t had time to take attendance before the lockdown was called.) We already knew that one student (Anna) hadn’t made it to class on time. Other students were trying to confirm with her that she was okay, but no response.

Including the one student who ran into our classroom for shelter and the two who were marked absent that day, I confirmed that John should have 13 students in front of him and I sent him the attendance list via text. Meanwhile, the sound of sirens wailing down M24 could be heard from my house. “I hear lots of sirens on M24.” (1:03 p.m.) I reassured John.

I learned after the fact that just after John locked the students and himself in a back room, students were going through my storage boxes, looking for anything they could use to prepare for a counter-attack….anything to throw at, startle, or disarm the shooter, should he gain access to the room. This is the reality of what our kids (KIDS) have been trained to do in order to increase their chances for survival in the worst-case scenarios.

Prepare to save your OWN lives. Be smart. Know your exits in EVERY class. Know whether the doors open in or out. And know what to do in case I’m not there.” I tell my students every single time we do an active shooter drill. “The reality is, I could be in the bathroom, you could be at lunch, or there could even be a sub in the room if, or when (God forbid), we ever have to use this training.”

And here we were.

A sub in my stead.

My students under the care of a colleague.

“Bella got to Meijer” John reported. (1:07 p.m.) Another sweet theatre student of ours had texted her brother to report that she was safe.

“There’s gunshots in the hallway outside the classroom. They’re freaked out (me too).” John texted (1:13 p.m.) That’s when I broke down. Someone was in “my” place with “my” students feeling the terror of a moment no students or staff should ever have to feel. I felt helpless and hopeless. There was literally nothing I could do.

“Oh no no no. I’m so so sorry. Be strong and brave for them. I’m in tears. Hang on. Still more sirens….” I replied. (1:14 p.m.)

“Still no word from Anna.” (1:17) John messaged. I fired off a text to school administrators and staff (1:17 p.m.), knowing that they probably couldn’t answer, but also not knowing what else to do. I was crippled with anxiety for the 1800 students whose fates were not yet known, and for the precious 13 in that storage room, who I truly love.

Meanwhile students from other classrooms were texting me to be sure I was okay. (This generation is amazing.) These students’ communication provided me with insights from other areas of the building that I was able to relay to John.

“I’m in the math hall, the gun shots were outside of our classroom but we’re okay, just scared.” reported one of my actors, Grace. “All I know is the shots were in the math hallway and a kid in the room next to us has a bloody leg.” (1:22 p.m.)

I messaged my parents to be praying for our students. “Can you and dad be praying? I stayed home today, but there was/is an active shooter at the high school. My class couldn’t get out and they’re locked in a back room scared. Gunshots heard. I’m so scared and stressed for them.” (1:30 p.m.)

“We just stopped the car and prayed!” my mom replied.

It was then that I heard again from Grace. “We are being evacuated.” she reported (1:33 p.m.)

“Grace said the math hall is being evacuated.” I told John (1:34 p.m.)

Fifteen minutes later I learned that John had safely gotten our entire class to Meijer where their parents could pick them up. (1:58 p.m.) An hour later (2:29 p.m.), I learned that Anna was safe as well. She was a smart survivor in the worst of times. I was so relieved, and finally breathed. “I was so afraid [for her]” John texted. “She ran out before she got to the classroom.” (2:30 p.m.)

“I couldn’t sleep last night.” I told John the next morning. “I couldn’t sleep either.” he replied. “I just kept thinking about how Anna didn’t make it to class.”

Anna made it out alive. But four other students under our collective care did not. As I share my experience, I recognize that there are no words. No words for those who suffered the ultimate loss of a child. No words for the 1800 students and staff who are forever traumatized. No words for the fact that someone viewed a mass killing as his best option. Just no words.

I grieve and I mourn with our community. We are forever changed. Healing isn’t magical. It doesn’t come because we say we’re ready for it, or because we will it to happen. Healing hurts, and it’s messy, and it’s on its own timetable. Worse yet, some wounds never fully heal. We have to accept that.

In my grief and mourning, however, I keep coming back to a colleague’s words that she shared with me only 2 weeks ago in response to a discussion we had about how we might find a way to counteract any meanness or malice in our building (which is obviously a reflection of our society). She said “Kindness is quiet. We just need to figure out a way to turn up the volume loud enough to drown out any bad.” I’ve been sitting on those words for the past two weeks, contemplating how we can collectively “turn up the volume of kindness”. I don’t know the answer(s) yet. What I do know is that we can’t heal without kindness.

In the dark shadow of a tragedy, find your light. A million lights can drown out darkness. And a million kind acts just might be able to drown out evil. I hope.

Hug your loved ones tight.

Be kind to a stranger.

Give to someone who has less than you.

Sit silently and lovingly with someone in his/her grief.

We have more beauty and power in us than we live up to. Please unleash yours today, and every day that you are able. I believe it’s what we’re put on this earth to do. Maybe when we choose to, we can “turn up the volume” and begin to heal ourselves, each other, and our shattered community.

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