I remember May 21, 1998, like it was yesterday. The morning was as any other. In a house with two boys, mornings can be hectic. That day there were the usual hurried steps, scattered breakfast dishes, and rushed goodbyes. My 17 year-old son, Ryan, left with his dad for high school and I had Zachary, my younger son, and his friends who I would drop at the middle school on my way to Maple, the elementary school where I worked. It seemed I was always driving a bunch of kids somewhere. “Taxi mom” was my nickname. As we drove down Main Street, a voice on the radio was talking about “an incident “in the cafeteria at Thurston High. Zachary started to worry. This was before Columbine, so the idea that something that horrible was unfolding was never on our radar. There wasn’t much information available, so I told Zachary not to worry and that I would find out more when I got to work. I dropped off all the kids and headed for work.
Once at work, I went about my job entering data and getting ready for the next reading group. Soon, the staff started talking about a shooting at Thurston High and asking if I knew where my child was. My stomach dropped. The radio had reported a shooting in the cafeteria? I was sure Ryan was safe because he never went to the cafeteria. Within minutes, my principal, Mr. Keegan, called me into his office. I don’t remember what he said, what I said, or what questions I was asked. I simply remember time slowing down and just sitting there and nodding yes, yes, to all the questions. Our counselor was working at Thurston that morning, and had reported back that something had happened to Ryan. That’s all I knew. Mr. Keegan drove me to the closest hospital McKenzie/Willamette not knowing where Ryan was or what shape he was in. Once there all the families where gathering there but no one knew any information. They were taking one family at a time to their kids.
There was a lot of confusion and not many answers. But, Mr. Kegan keep insisting on getting answers. He demanded to know where Ryan was and his condition. I was in shock and just followed. Finally, thanks to Mr. Kegan’s insistence, I was able to see Ryan before they stuck the tube down his throat so he could breathe. He could not talk, but I just kept telling him I was there and squeezing his hand. I told him over and over again that I knew he was going to be okay, but the truth is, I was terrified. The doctors tried to assure me that Ryan was doing great under the circumstances. Still, we weren’t out of the woods. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
At that point, I had to send Mr. Keegan back to school because the staff was having a very hard time dealing with it. I told him to go and that my husband was on his way. As I sat waiting for the doctors to come back, I saw footage from the shooting on CNN. And there, for the whole country to see, was a shocked, blood-spattered Ryan being helped to an ambulance. I immediately thought of my family. My Grandpa Anschutz always watched CNN, so I called my mom to let her know what was happening. I had to call them before they saw this. This would shock them. My dad could not believe that kid was Ryan.
When the chaos settled, and the doctors came to talk to us, they explained that a bullet had gone through Ryan’s right jaw bone and bounced off his neck vertebrae. Luck was with him that day as there was no permanent damage except a little numbness by where the bullet went in. Ryan’s problem, however, was that his throat had swollen, so the doctors inserted a tube until the swelling went down. Ryan spent five days in ICU and could not talk to us. I knew he was in pain from the tube, and it broke my heart that he couldn’t speak.
As a family, we rallied around Ryan. One of us was with him the whole time. My husband would stay while I went home and took a shower, checked phone messages, and returned calls. On Saturday, my husband, family and friends came and moved us to our first new house. I still had lots of packing to do, but it could wait. They moved all the furniture and even set up Ryan’s room to be ready for him when he came home.
I remember calling my mom on her birthday and saying Ryan was going home on Monday! Once the swelling went down and they were able to take out the tube and Ryan could talk right away, but more interested in food, having not eaten for the last couple of days.
Ours is a story of support. The support we received from the community, from doctors, from the school, and from one another. From the moment the shooting happened, so many people were there to help. Those early hours in the hospital were unbearable, and my principal, Mr. Kegan, was an amazing and supportive friend when I needed one the most. The staff from Maple Elementary, where I worked, brought food to our door on a daily basis so I didn’t have to cook. We had lived in a duplex before moving into our new home, and the Ridgeview staff, where the boys went to school, came and helped the Maple staff pack up the rest of the duplex. Then Terry, a community member who wanted to help, got a cleaning company to clean the duplex and get my deposit back. I could not have been more grateful to these people. Their help allowed me to focus on helping Ryan to recover.
It wasn’t just me, the community of Springfield came together to help everyone affected by the shooting at Thurston. Local companies donated various items: food for the families at the hospital, clothing to replace what was lost, passes to the swim pool for a year, gift cards to restaurants and many other things. Each student received different things depending on their needs, for example the title company we used to buy the house donated back their fee, over $500 dollars. The hospital waved what we owed to them after co-pays, as did my dentist. I know some kids got tickets to the Mariners game. There was really an outpouring of love and support like we had never seen.
Tired of staying home and wanting to see his friends, Ryan returned to school one week after he had been shot. I said I would go with him. I was a little scared to send him, but once at school it was very heartwarming to see how much the kids at school cared for him and he was always surrounded by friends. I was at peace and ready to go back to work too.
Before Columbine, before Sandy Hook, before Parkland, there was a school shooting in my hometown of Springfield, Oregon. It was 1998. There was no social media. There was no planned response. As parents, we worked together to get our kids better. We didn’t know how to come back from this, so we just put one foot before the other and moved forward. We came together as a community. We supported our kids, held each other up, and together we healed.