The Same Kind of Different as Me
Monday, December 1st, 1997, was the first day back to school from a long Thanksgiving break and in typical fashion I had overslept. I jumped out of bed and got dressed in record time finishing my hair as I scurried down the stairs. My mother was a teacher at my school and as we pulled into the parking lot, I remember the cold crisp air brushing against my face when I opened the car door. Once inside, I threw my backpack inside my mom’s classroom as I had done every morning and headed to the lobby to meet with my friends for prayer group. Each morning approximately 30 of my friends and classmates would gather in our school lobby for a prayer circle before the start of classes.
As routine, at 7:42 someone announced “time to pray,” and within a few minutes everyone started forming a circle. We took prayers requests, locked hands with one another, and bowed our heads. Suddenly, I felt someone walk up behind me. The buses were running behind schedule, so I just assumed it was a student running late. As we closed our prayer by saying “Amen”…BANG…a gun shot rang out from behind me. Instantly, I saw my friend Nicole fall to the floor. At first I thought it was a joke and I kept waiting for her to stand back up. Immediately, I went into shock and froze as the gunman continued shooting friends and classmates all around me. As I looked around the room I realized I was one of the only people still left standing upright. The sounds of screaming and crying echoed throughout the lobby. I saw my friends lying motionless on the floor in puddles of blood. I was so confused. I couldn’t make out what was happening. It was almost as if I was having some type of out-of-body experience.
When I finally managed to turn around, I found myself staring straight down the barrel of .22 caliber gun. The shooter, only feet from me, was someone I recognized: a classmate of mine and must have been the student who had walked up behind me just moments ago as we were praying. As blood from wounded classmates continued to pool around my feet, another shot was fired and I felt a hard shove from behind. It was my friend, Jessica, and she had just saved my life by knocking me down as the bullet flew over our heads. Jessica and I crawled a few feet away and huddled together on the cold tile floor wishing ourselves invisible as we hid behind a glass door watching helplessly as the gunman continued on his rampage. I vividly remember making eye contact with an injured classmate. I didn’t know her name, but I had seen her almost every day at prayer group. She was mouthing words that I couldn’t make out and then suddenly she went unconscious. There was a mixture of confusion and fear etched in her eyes that I will never forget. I later learned her name when I saw her face splashed across the news. She didn’t make it. When the shooting finally ended that morning, eight people had been critically shot, three of whom died, including my friend, Nicole.
News media surrounded the school within minutes making the small, narrow country road to Heath High School nearly impassable as worried parents rushed to the school. It looked like NASA had just set up a space station in the parking lot with hundreds of vans, satellite dishes and antennas poles winding up through the sky. Dozens of news crews were already on scene shoving cameras and microphones in front of anyone who would talk, trying to make sense of what was happening. Helicopters were hovering low over the school and first responders were interspersed among frantic parents desperately searching for their children and waiting to learn their fate. The glare of flashing police cruiser lights could be seen for miles. While most of the kids in our school were corralled in the gym, I somehow ended up back in my mom’s classroom. Her room was the the first room outside of the lobby. As I stared out the window, I was forced to forget my own panic and shock as parents began banging on the window asking me if I had seen their child. The window soon turned into an information center. First responders were handing me post-it notes with the names of students who were being sent to local hospitals. Hundreds of parents were pushing and shoving to get to the window. Then, I looked up and saw my Granddaddy. He reached in and hugged me asking if my mom and older brother were okay. I told him we were, and then he faded away into a sea of other concerned family members yelling at me to see if their child’s name was on the yellow blood stained post-it note clutched in my hand.
After several hours, the immediate crisis faded and students began leaving with their parents. The ambulances were gone, their sirens faded, and all that was left was law enforcement, school personnel, and a few dazed and confused students like myself wondering around the hallways. I don’t remember clearly how I made it home. According to my mother, school officials immediately convened after the immediate crisis was over. School shootings were an anomaly, and there was little information for administrators on how to handle things. After much deliberation, our principal decided we should go back to school the very next day and get things back to normal, whatever that was. Our school janitors were left to clean up the lobby and attempt to wash away the stain of unimaginable horror that had unfolded that day. But there are just some stains that cannot simply be washed away. Looking back I think this is very symbolic of how many people (myself included) in our school/community dealt with the shooting in the years to come. With no “road map,” we were in uncharted territory and everyone was doing what they thought was best.
For a long time after the shooting, trying to perform simple, everyday tasks was like performing mental gymnastics. I remember going to school the next day and I had on two different shoes and had forgotten to change out of my pajama pants. I couldn’t look at a box of cereal, milk and a spoon and figure out how to put it together to make breakfast. My mind and body were stuck in a state of hypervigilance always looking for exits and devising escape routes for myself and my friends. I had never suffered a panic attack before and it took me awhile to realize what I was experiencing. Being at school was no longer a place I felt safe, but rather a place where it felt as if my mind had been hijacked by fear and utter terror. The things important to most high schooler students: prom, homecoming, graduation, spring break, etc….were no longer important to me. Everything was a reminder of all that I had lost. My focus became on earning a college scholarship out of Paducah. I wanted so badly to start over in a place where no one knew me as the “school shooting survivor.” Every time someone asked me where I went to school, my stomach would sink because I knew my answer would invoke more questions. I refused to wear anything with my high school name on it just to avoid talking about the shooting. I just wanted to be normal, except normal no longer existed.
It’s been 21 years now since that fateful day. And in that time there have been hundreds of more shootings and thousands more members added to our “club,” a club that no one wants to join. I’ve learned in those 21 years that the road of survivorship is complicated. There are hills and valleys….and just when you think you’ve reach the top another valley lurks around the corner. I’ve learned that trauma is not a journey with a finish line, but rather a road you just learn to navigate.
I never take for granted that I was given a second chance that day that three other girls, including my friend Nicole, did not get. Also, not a day goes by where I don’t remember that if not for Jessica I would have most likely been the fourth casualty that day. I will be forever grateful to Jessica for saving my life. You see, Nicole was my friend, but she was Jessica’s very best friend in the world. They were like each other’s twin and there were very few times one was not without the other. For years I struggled with the fact that I survived because of Jessica’s heroic actions, but yet Nicole died. I felt it should have been Nicole that Jessica saved that day, not me. But Nicole was the first one shot that morning and she was gone instantly. No one, including Jessica, could have saved her. But in my mind I somehow felt, because I had survived, I was responsible for her death. Survivor's guilt has a way of twisting your thinking and giving you the uncanny ability to make everything your fault. Hard work through counseling eventually helped me learn how to untangle the web of lies that the shooting ensnared in my brain and allowed me the freedom to see things from an untainted perspective. Eventually, I learned to give myself the same grace I had always given to others. Doing this allowed my pain to finally serve a purpose instead of an overdose of shame. Slowly over time I have begun to once again collect moments of joy…and as Brene Brown says, “joy, collected over time, fuels resilience.”
Recently, I was appointed to the Kentucky Attorney General’s survivor’s council to assist their office in working with victims of crime. Through this appointment I was given one opportunity after the next to really own my story…each messy part… and stand my sacred ground. I have spoken at the capitol on National Crime Victims’ Rights Day, served as a consultant to help other communities when they experienced their own shooting (one was just miles away from my old high school) and met other survivors who were the same kind of different as me. And just last week I was nominated to serve on the council of the National Mass Violence Resource Center in Washington, D.C. I have also started developing training models for ethical and trauma-informed reporting guidelines for the media. I have long valued the power of story and now as a survivor I feel compelled to find a way to connect the storytellers (media reporters) to those with the story (survivors) in a way that is not at the expense of a survivor.
Doing these small things has given me back a renewed sense of confidence that I thought was forever gone. I have learned to stop standing outside the circle hustling for my worthiness as if to somehow prove to myself (and others) that I belong here. My hope is that in owning my story I can write a brave new ending.