STEM: Fear and Strength
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
I suppose you could say my two sons are devout Christians. They go to a Christian Church on Sundays, and my oldest son James-Christian works in the Church on most Saturdays. While I don't attend church, I continue to teach them about the religion and specifically the impact Jesus has had on the world, and still does. They each have their own Bible and read it often. God is a normal and casual part of our daily conversation.
As a student of the Buddhist philosophy for over 30 years (although admittedly I am a lazy Buddhist) I also teach my boys about Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. While James-Christian measures at the top of the charts in intelligence, he has struggled at times with anxiety, ADD, and even depression. He is registered in the 504 Program at his school, which is a program for children with disabilities. So recently, I’ve begun teaching him how to meditate the Zen Buddhism way: Zazen. He’s reacted very well and seems to find peace and comfort in it. He said he was surprised at how calm it makes him feel. Which is kind of the point.
James-Christian still has things that occasionally flare up associated with his anxiety. Recently he has been picking his fingers to the point that they are infected. Bad! To the point that one finger nail is now permanently disfigured. I kick myself for not seeing it sooner. I did take him for a Doctors’ visit last Friday, who quickly wrote a script for a 3-times a day antibiotic. Actually, the doctor seemed very concerned about it. Part of the challenge going forward is to some how prevent him from mindlessly continuing to pick at his fingers, possibly making it even worse. The agreed upon best way to do that, short of pharmacological applications (and of course psychotherapy) is to occupy his hands. He sometimes uses a fidget spinner, or a fidget cube. Recently one of his teachers told him he couldn’t use it because he was making noise and a possible distraction for the other students.
After weighing my options, I ordered some prayer beads for him from online. It seemed like killing two birds with one stone to me. Something for his hands to do, while maintaining alignment with his religious practices of Christianity and his philosophical exercises of Buddhism.
On the morning of Tuesday May 7, the Amazon box magically appeared on our porch as we’ve all become accustomed. I opened the box and was pretty satisfied with the Agate beads strung together to form a necklace, or bracelet depending on how you want to use it. I was so excited about it, and knew James-Christian would be too, that I called his school to see what time he took lunch. I wanted to bring it to him. It was about 11:30 and he was already at lunch, so I told the girl on the phone I would stop by in a couple of hours anyway and drop it off to him. Unfortunately after I hung up, I went back on my laptop, building my political campaign website and forgot the time.
A little after 2:00 we heard an army of sirens shriek by the house. Kathy commented about it, but I didn’t really think much about it. Less than a minute later, Kathy received a text from a close friend telling us there had been a shooting at James-Christians’ school. I wasn’t sure I heard her right. At "OUR" school? STEM school? STEM is full of self-proclaimed nerds. That could never happen there. Immediately Kathy went into panic mode. We decided I would go to STEM and Kathy would go to Max’s school, about six miles in the other direction. I grabbed my shoes and headed out the door while simultaneously googling anything I could find about it. Sure enough, I remember seeing the search results come up: "School shooting at Highlands Ranch STEM school". OUR school! MY BOYS school!
It hit hard! I was in shock, angry, and intensely focused with a purpose, all at the same time.
For several years now, I regularly carry a 40 caliber Walther P99 semi-automatic pistol in the Rover. It’s legal to have one locked in your car in school parking lots, but I still always park on the street just so I’m not on school property. I’m not a gun nut (although I am a firearms expert) or conspiracy freak, but the world in which we live certainly makes it seem feasible that there could come a time when I might wish I had it. I’ve become a creature of habit every time I pick up or drop off the boys, scanning every person and vehicle I see. I’m not fanatical about it, and honestly never really expected to see anything. I guess it's just become a habit. I can't help thinking if I had just taken the beads to him like I said I would I could have maybe stopped the shooters. I would have gotten there at the exact time the shooting began.
I’ve spoken to both my boys over the years about the violence that seems to keep happening on school campuses. Their schools all have lock down or lock out protocols in place, but we have our own conversations about it as well.
I tell my boys that there is evil in the world. But most people are good, as are we. I tell them it’s our job to be strong and good, and do the right thing, and good will always prevail. Even if we don't understand some things along the way. I know it’s a lot to take in for little boys. They're only nine and eleven. My boys know that they are never alone, rather they have God with them at all times. We talk about this often. Of course, I’ve always assumed that my boys would never actually experience anything as traumatic as a school shooting. But it just seemed prudent to try and have them mentally and spiritually prepared for it if it did happen. Or even to cope with hearing about tragic events, maybe at other schools. Maybe even their friends’ school.
As I drove the relatively short few miles to school (which now seemed like an eternity) I thought about what I would do if James-Christian was injured, or even killed. I’m a pragmatist. I know it could have been the case. But I started running the numbers, the odds of it being him. Of the 1600 students, what would be the odds it was him. I thought of all the infinite number of events and steps along the way that would have had to unfold in just the right sequence for my son to meet tragedy at the exact moment of this instance in time. A right instead of left turn here, a go or no go there. I told myself that if it were him, I knew God had a plan and reason. Then I immediately felt guilty for hoping it was another innocent child, instead of mine. I kept choking up as I drove, searching the radio for any information. It had just happened, but eventually I found an AM station talking about it. At this point they were saying at least one student was injured. (Maybe dead, I can’t remember)
As I approached the two-block radius of the school, there were police cars blocking the road to go any further. I swerved and made a U turn about them and headed to another route. Around the back of the school, but still a couple of blocks away, I just missed a turn to a street I had never been on before. I did a tire screeching U turn over a medium, plowing over hedges and saplings to get back to where I now thought I needed to go. Of course, there were numerous other vehicles frantically doing similar things. Even this far away from the school, it was pandemonium.
Eventually I came in the back way and was stopped by dozens of other parents’ cars blocking the street, now about a half a block from the back of the school. I drove up without hesitation and wedged my car sideways on the sidewalk and got out. There were already several dozen people standing in the street, literally every single one of them on their phones, as they looked toward the school.
As I approached the crowd, I realized they were all just stopped and huddled at a particular corner intersection. I looked around and there were no police, or tape, or anything else preventing someone from proceeding. I guess they just collectively migrated to that spot. I continued to walk past them closer to the school. As I approached directly in front of the rear of the school, I could hear the loud speakers blaring something about “hide, cover”. I saw about 7 SWAT/police. All fully tacked up. Some green, some black. All with weapons ready. I noticed movement on the roof; presumably snipers. One SWAT caught the corner of my eye as he ran towards the school back entrance.
I was now in front of the west side of the school and the nearest cop saw me and headed toward me. He said something about stay back, or danger or something. I wasn’t going to get in his way, but I also told him I wasn't going to move from behind the parked car on the street I had just come up to. He seemed satisfied with that, and walked back away.
A minute later, another civilian came up behind me, and asked what I knew. His voice cracking, I knew exactly what he was feeling. I told him not much.
The same cop came back after talking on his radio and said the children were being bused to the Northridge Rec Center. I said, “where the hell is the North Ridge Rec center?” (I think I had been there before, but my mind wasn't as clear as it should have been) He just repeated himself and walked back to his station. I turned around and headed back to my vehicle.
From the moment I got within two blocks of the school, my phone stopped working. That is, I couldn’t make a call or text, and google search didn’t work. I don't know if it was bad reception in the area or if the overload of everybody on their phones somehow overwhelmed the system. Kathy was picking up our other son Max, at his school at about this same time. Six miles away, it’s actually in a different school district. While they were on lock down for a short while, the students there were let out at the normal time of 2:45. I would try to text her, and after several failed attempts, one would go through, and she would do the same back to me. I asked her in text where the rec center was. When she said off Broadway, that was good enough, so I headed that way.
Reroutes and traffic delays caused by panicked parents, as well as street closures by the police, turned the half mile trip into over 2 miles. As I got nearer, there was another long line of cars with desperate parents trying to turn into the rec center. A cop was at the front of the line, and as he spoke to the drivers one at a time, they were making a U turn on the 7-lane street. When it was my turn, he was extremely polite, but said the pickup location had been changed to some other Elementary School about three blocks away. Again, I didn’t know where it was, and again, google was out, so I just followed the other cars.
As I got to within a block of this school, the same scene of events played out. I parked jagged on the sidewalk and started quickly walking the last block, which was filled with anxious parents and their erratically parked cars. As I approached a police officer standing in front of the school, he said we had to go the rec center. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “I literally left there 90 seconds ago, and they said to come here”. He said he was sorry, and it was a fluid environment, and they were doing the best they could, and that we were to go back to the rec center where I had just left.
I had no idea where I was. The streets in that area aren’t a simple square grid. Made up of large loops, dead ends, and zig-zags, it seemed as though I was trapped, not knowing the way out. After a short distance, I noticed people jumping out of their cars and quickly walking to a common area. I lowered my window and asked if this was near the rec center. The man said it was; through a treed area, around some shrubs, and down a side-walked trail, dropped you off at the back of the rec center.
As I descended the sidewalk into the back parking lot, I knew I was in the right place. More than a dozen or so news trucks with cameras, more police than I could count, and hundreds of parents with the same worried look on their face. We were all instructed to walk into the rec center and toward the gymnasium.
It was now about 3:20. We first got word of the shooting around 2. I seemed to be the only person who didn’t have cell service, but I heard people saying as many as 6 students were injured, maybe one dead. For nearly an hour and a half, I didn’t know if James-Christian was alive or dead. Although I would choke up every now and then, I tried to keep my composure as best I could.
Surprisingly, most of the parents now were calmly talking to one another and seemed much more relaxed. I realized later that was because most had heard via cell phone that their child was OK. At the exact moment I walked through the front door of the rec center, my phone was able to accept a call and it rang. It was Kathy. She was telling me something about getting her ID from the house, and casually made reference to speaking to James-Christian. I stopped her mid-sentence and asked her to repeat what she said. “You spoke with him? He’s alive?” She said, “Yes, oh my gosh, I thought you knew. I thought he had called you over an hour ago.”
I lost my composure and cried with my face buried in the corner of the entry room as strangers rushed by, and I got confirmation that I hadn’t lost my son that day.
After that I went into the gymnasium and it became a waiting game. And total chaos. Every few minutes, a Police Officer would make an announcement update. With no loud speaker, the 800 or so parents packed into a normal sized gym couldn’t hear half of what he said. It was pretty bizarre. With that many people jammed in the relatively small space, the gym quickly became an oven, with no circulation. Hours passed. They told us the students were being bused over from the school and they would soon start calling names for them to be reunited with their families. Eventually we were instructed to form a line with other parents of the 6th graders.
Immediately in front of us was a young couple and their 13 or 14 year-old son. We chatted about it all, and then I asked the young boy where he went to school. I was surprised to hear that he was a STEM student. I asked what he was doing in line, as opposed to a room waiting to be picked up by his parents. He immediately started to tell me his story.
He was in class right next to the first shots. Almost immediately he and his classmates saw an opening and fled out a back door and ran toward a Starbucks. (That's called Self-Evacuation these days) As he ran for his life, he caught a glimpse of his friend with blood on his right shoulder from injury. He said they just ran! As fast as they could! He told me this story as his young parents stood there next to him, quiet, as we all were waiting in line to get his younger brother and my boy. I don't think they really knew what to say about it.
I was struck by the innocence of this boys’ eyes. Young and fresh. Too young to be describing something like that. I lied and told him that I was sure his friend would be OK. His eyes held something else. A deep quiver inside, a hurt, like a little boy that had seen something he shouldn’t have. Something he'll never be able to un-see. I didn’t know him well enough to hug him.
Finally at around 6:00 p.m. we entered a room where James-Christian and his class mates were waiting inside. They all seemed to be fine! Actually playing and talking like at any other school event. I choked up a little bit, gave him a little hug, and we started walking out of the room. As if we were picking him up from piano lessons. After showing the proper ID and forms to police, we were released from the building. We came around the outside corner of the building to be met with a wall of TV crews with cameras on tripods, police cars, trucks and vans, and lots of parents hugging their kids. It was tragic and beautiful all at once. Tears of joy on faces now replaced the rain that had just stopped, and the sun was now shining as it does only on a beautiful Colorado spring day.
James-Christian seemed totally cool about it all. I thought about the possibility (probability) of him being in a mild state of shock. As we walked the two blocks to the car, he actually said, “I can’t believe I was in a school shooting!” almost as if it was something to be proud of. He's 11. As we made it to the Rover, he said he was really hungry and wanted to stop to get something to eat. I said, “Are you sure? Don't you want to go home?" He was quiet for a minute and said maybe home was best. Actually, all seemed eerily normal. Like we had just come home from any other day of school.
When we got home, he wanted pizza from Dominos.
About an hour later, out of nowhere, he started crying. It was starting to sink in. I held him as I choked up a little as well and told him I loved him. Even now, it hits me. He buried his face in my side like he’s done a thousand times before. But this time was different. My innocent boy, just like thousands of other innocent children across the country, had been through something no child should ever have to experience.
As the evening progressed, he would alternate between crying, and just being very quiet with his face buried in a pillow on the couch. He would walk up to me and flop with his face buried in my side. I would hug him and tell him he was home safe now. He said he was so worried about his class mates, and the kids that were injured. He said he felt so bad for his substitute teacher, that she had to experience this on her first day. “Can you imagine that being your first day of your job, Dad? I feel so bad for her.” I said it was a bad day for sure.
That night I slept with him in his bed. He didn’t want to be alone. As we lay in the dark next to each other, we began to talk about the shooting. At first, they thought it was a drill. Then he heard loud bangs, that he thought was someone hitting the metal lockers in the hall. It never even occurred to his innocent little boys’ mind at that point, that it could have been gun fire echoing down the hall. Which it was. Someone was dying with those noises. He said someone tried to open their class room door several times but it was locked. A little while later, 6 or so “army guys” broke through the door with tactical gear, weapons ready and flashlights on, yelling “everybody put your hands in the air.” They knew it was real then.
I asked him if he or the other kids were crying or were they scared. He said when they broke through the door everybody started crying a little “because we were really scared then Dad”.
As they ushered the kids out of the school with their hands on their heads, they stepped over broken glass and debris thrown about. One room was full of mangled tables and overthrown chairs. They marched through the front of their school we've walked through hundreds of times, now torn open with shattered glass and twisted metal frames lying around a jagged opening.
While he was recounting this story, I asked him something about where they were in the room, in proximity to the door. He casually said they were in their hiding place. I asked him what he meant. He said the room has a designated hiding place for just such events. I think when he told me that, it affected me more than other parts of the story. The fact that they have a “hiding place” and my son, like other kids, is so casual about it. Like it’s just a normal part of their life (which I guess it is) brought me to tears. The vision of innocent little babies huddled together “hiding” at the mercy of being found, with no defense, is one of the saddest things I can imagine. But it’s the reality of the day. Just as there is innocence in the world, so too is there evil.
There are those who will attempt to politicize this as another example of the need for gun control. (Whatever that actually means) As if the human beings that perpetrated the act are near blameless. I’ve written in the past about the illogicality of taking guns away from someone like me, because of something a bad guy does. I still feel that way. Back ground checks? Fine. Training? Sure. But I believe what needs to be addressed is what’s in a person’s heart, more than what’s in their hand.
I’ve handled firearms my entire life, starting as a boy. I’ve never even considered harming another human being except in self-defense.
It doesn’t take much effort to go to some blog, or Facebook, or twitter, or whatever, and find posts of people not only condoning violence, but egging others on to do despicable deeds. Just a few days ago a Pennsylvania politician videoed himself chasing an elderly woman and two young teen girls as he harassed them, calling them bigots, racists, and other vile names. As they tried to walk away and asked him to stop, he became more aggressive and chased after them, threatening to publicize their address so others could harass them at their homes. Their crime, in his eyes, was quietly praying with rosary beads in front of an abortion clinic. He videoed himself doing this and WAS PROUD OF IT! He was proud of this behavior and posted the video online himself! This is a public servant we're talking about.
I am thankful my son is alive. I am incredibly sad and sorry for the loss of the parents of the student who voluntarily gave his life in an attempt to protect others. I’ve never met these people, but I believe their young son may have saved my son, and others’ sons and daughters.
Whatever the cause. Whether an overall societal degradation into a demoralized condition that fuels hate for those with opposing views, an accepted permeation of obscenely violent and lifelike video games, or a bizarrely proud indifference to human decency (or perhaps a combination of all of the above) we have been wrought to an otherwise unrecognizable state of an unacceptable societal condition. This must stop. We must all make it stop. We must all work hard to get back to being a better people. Somehow along the way, it seems to have become OK to be nasty to one another. Somehow it’s become acceptable to hate with a passion our fellow man, just for having a different view or opinion. It seems we’ve lost common decency for one another, and maybe even ourselves.
I realize this recent tragedy involved guns. But I have guns and don’t kill people. Most people that own guns don’t kill people. How and why did these young people get to a point in their minds where they actually thought it was a good idea to kill other innocent people. Their brothers and sisters. Their countrymen. Whether using a gun, or car, or bomb, or poison, why do so many desire to do evil? There is a sickness in the hearts of some. We must work to change it.
Later that evening James-Christian and Max were wrestling on top of each other as they have done their entire short lives. They have always been inseparable. They were born on the same day, exactly two years apart. People often think they are twins. This evening they spoke to each other without words as I’ve seen them do a thousand times before, probably unable to put their thoughts into words even if they tried. I watched them from the other room as Max flopped on James-Christian, as he tickled Max into a silly uncontrollable fit that only a 9-year-old is innocently free enough to experience. They both laughed and screamed like little girls as their rough-house bonding reassured each other that they were back safe and sound just as they should be. I think that’s more powerful than anything I could do.
I’m glad they have each other.
I’m glad I have Kathy and them both...still.
I couldn’t bear it any other way.