This piece is a firsthand recounting of the school shooting in Aurora, Colorado, that happened in 2021. The author wrote it a week after the tragic event. We ask that you use your discretion.
You think you can handle it. You can prepare and know the routine. You can lock the doors and shut off the lights and huddle on the ground. You can instruct your kids to turn off any noises on their phones. To remain quiet. To stay away from doors and windows. Locks, lights, out of sight.
But then it becomes reality. And your fearless leader comes over the loudspeaker, and you can feel her voice tremble in your bones. “This is not a drill. Take cover in your rooms. Lock your doors. Turn off the lights.”
Something like adrenaline rushes through your veins. But not the adrenaline you feel when you are going on stage to speak in front of a crowd. It’s the adrenaline that is preparing you to face whatever is on the other side of that locked door should it somehow open. It numbs you. You can’t feel anything in your body other than your pounding heart, and all you hear is your breath against the cold concrete beneath you where you lie curled in a ball. It’s your lunch break, and you are facing this alone under your desk, the chair pulled in so it looks as if the room is abandoned and empty. Your students are out there in someone else’s hands, and it hits you like a wall of bricks. It’s out of your control.
Your friends at school start to text you: Are you safe? Are you breathing OK? Are you hidden?
I text my mom, my partner, and my brothers: “Something bad is happening at school. Can’t talk now, but I love you guys so much, and I am going to be okay.”
It feels like it’s been hours of pure fear, although it’s only been 10 minutes. You find out through franticly hitting the refresh button on your google search that it’s a shooting. Three teens shot in the parking lot on the other side of the building, transported to local hospitals. Their condition and names are unknown. It might be your student that you said goodbye to 30 minutes prior.
You start to shake. Not a nervous tremble—a full-body crescendo. You cry the gut-wrenching tears that consume your body in a way you’ve experienced before in the form of panic attacks and bipolar depression. But these tears are so different. It’s not about you anymore. It’s about your students, about your friends on staff, about the community and the innocence lost this afternoon.
Safety feels like a privilege.
I wish this wasn’t the truth, but it is. I would like to say that senseless violent acts like these shake me into some sort of heroic action. I want to come out stronger and more determined to lead and educate others on gun violence and the snowball effect that poverty has on the collective well-being and mental health of my community, but instead, I can’t find the right words. I freeze. And I stay frozen. My stare is empty and hollowing to the core.
A week has now passed, still frozen in my own skin. One minute I feel fine, I feel like myself, I can handle things. I can make breakfast, I can go to the grocery store, and I can even watch TV. But the next minute, I’m back in a ball, physically shaking and trying to release the anger and sadness and grief and confusion that crawl right beneath the surface. I’m back under my desk alone with just the question of: “How could I have prevented this?”
I know that I did nothing wrong, that this is so much bigger than me, but I want so badly to find some sense of control in what happened. I need to be strong for my students, but I feel weak and incapable, overcome with the emotions of being a vulnerable human facing trauma.
This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. And I can’t change a damn thing on my own. I need help. To teach your kids, your friends, your loved ones that violence is not the answer. It is never the answer. Teach them that their purpose in life is so much more than putting the end to someone else’s dreams and ambitions. Because that one bullet hits so many more people than the target it is intended for. This has to stop. And it starts with me when I face my students in person on Monday morning and continue to listen to their stories and their hopes and fears and their struggles, and I tell them how much I love them and believe in them.
Because it starts with love. It ends with love. The only way out of this mess is love. Love your neighbor. Talk through differences with your enemy. Work through the pain. Love yourself enough to put down the weapon.
We need mental health resources and people to care about the safety and well-being of one another. We need those in power to problem-solve and find ways to be proactive about eliminating violence and not just reactive when tragedy strikes. Because I care about my students more than you will ever know, but I can’t do this alone.
Resources on preventing and addressing violence in schools and youth:
You are not weak for wanting or needing support. If you’re seeking professional help, we encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at [email protected].