It happened Wednesday afternoon. I was standing in front of a filing cabinet, sneezing and choking on the dust I was kicking up from long untouched folders. It started first as text messages, but the emails and phone calls started rolling in very shortly after. All the cubes I was standing near began buzzing in unison and the tone of everyone’s voice was the same – something terrible was happening.
There was a shooter in a local school.
This is how I imagine the end of the world will feel. Dystopian novels always get this moment wrong. They act as if we will be completely disorganized and taken by surprise and in a moment everything will end. I don’t think so. I think it will feel exactly as it did the moment I knew something terrible was happening on an unthinkable scale even though I was standing in front of a filing cabinet in a dark corridor in cubeville. I wasn’t in front of a computer, not next to a phone, my cell phone was at my desk and yet I knew instinctively something was happening. It was the sound of their voices, maybe, or a universal telepathic emotional message we send out like a sonic bomb that screams: The world has gone terribly wrong.
I got back to my desk in a hurry and someone was already there waiting for me. “There’s been a shooting at a local high school.” I don’t even know if they said the school name before my brain automatically filled in the blanks. It’s my husband’s school. There is a shooter in my husband’s school. Even when I read the news bulletins, even when I got the text messages proving it wasn’t his school, my body was still vibrating on high alert as if, even across town, he was in immediate danger. But even though my husband was safe, I had coworkers whose nieces, nephews, and grandkids were at that school or one of the neighboring schools which were also in lock down. The effect of this moment was cast wide and we were all caught in it.
I think this is how everyone who has a kid in school when something like this happens must be thinking. It doesn’t matter how many times you are reassured that it isn’t their school, it will always feel too close and the world too small.
The news rolled in like you’d expect. Lots of speculation, some incorrect details, and truth stripped bare by emotion. It was probably over before we even really understood what was happening, but it felt like the event consumed the afternoon hours.
This is what we know, and I’m not even sure after 24 hours of hearts laid bare and vulnerable if we can even believe what we know to be capitol T truth.
He was a student. He’d only been at the school for two months. His father was a police detective. He was reported to be wearing his father’s bullet proof vest and gun. He walked into the main office and shot the principal and the vice principal before leaving the school. Someone from the office ran to the cafeteria where most of the students were eating lunch and ordered all the students into the back of the kitchen where doors were shut and locked. The boy drove a couple of miles to a parking lot where he shot himself in the head.
The vice principal was life flighted to the trauma hospital where she died. The principal remains in critical condition.
Students were released hours later in small groups to parents waiting at a nearby church.
And everyone else was left asking why. Why did this happen. What could have caused it. There must be a reason. We, as human beings, need a reason that evil things happen. We need someone to blame. It’s not like writing fiction where we must make sure our bad guys have motivations and believable, satisfactory reasons for the things they do. Readers won’t believe us if we say the bad guy did the terrible things just because. In real life, the reasons can be marginal and unexplainable or absent and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s the core of the reason why society finds hobgoblins to blame – Rock & Roll, Elvis Presley, Dungeons & Dragons, rap and heavy metal music, violent video games, violent movies, violent books, bullying, bad parenting.
We cannot accept that a seemingly good kid who maybe talked too much in class, was outgoing and funny and well liked, who got caught driving his car on the school track was then suspended for 19 days by the vice principal, would return a few hours later to shoot her multiple times for ruining his life.
We cannot accept this kid stopped first to update his Facebook page before going in.
I think it is especially telling that all the news articles are focusing on one personality trait- he was funny. But he was a funny kid. He made everyone laugh. Damn it but he was so funny. Because being funny is not a character trait we are emotionally able to ascribe to evil.
The aftermath is the worst. There is no one to hold accountable for this event because the student took his own life. I hate that. I hate that the bad guy gets away without being forced to take responsibility for taking a life, for ruining others, for bringing terror and vulnerability and emotional scarring to innocent kids who didn’t deserve it and they will never be able to feel safe at school again. Because the news is going to drag the police officer father through the mud and his friends will be stalked by the press. Because everyone is going to look for a way to explain away actions we don’t understand so we can feel that we can trust good kids as long as we keep them away from the dark influences of the hobgoblin lurking in the shadows.
But bet me money someone’s not going to call for a softening of the punishment codes of the school district. Because we can’t expect teens to be held responsible for their own actions. Because punishments are too hard on teens and drive them to be irrational and psychotic. Because it is the school system’s fault for making the teen feel bad about himself.
The teen even said so on his Facebook update.
Few people will have the guts to say the boy was to blame. That he did this on purpose, he went with intention and carried out the evil act and nothing and no one made him do it. No one helped him steal his father’s gun or break into the car his father had locked up as punishment for driving on the school’s track. Because he did it. He did it. There is no hobgoblin here.
Though we will all remained haunted by one.