This is not a story I ever thought I would have to write. One week ago, on Friday, October 24,2014, a fourteen year old boy asked his two male cousins and three female friends to meet him at a table in the Marysville Pilchuck High School cafeteria at lunch. He walked up to them, pointed a .40 caliber Beretta at their heads and fired. Authorities say he then turned the gun on himself and died at the scene. One girl died in the cafeteria, another died two days later. The third girl died exactly one week after being shot. The two boys are still hospitalized, one in critical condition, the other improving. Their recovery will be slow. If they recover at all.
We, the alumni, community, family and friends of Marysville Pilchuck High School feel much the same.
This is my high school. I know every inch of the campus like I know my house. When I heard about the shooting via social media just after 10:30am, I knew exactly what the scene looked like: lunch would have just started, the cafeteria would have been full. I could imagine the screams and the sound of chairs being pushed back and people running and yelling. I knew how many lives were changed everywhere on that campus in such a short time.
No child should ever watch another person die. No child should ever have to drop to the ground or cower in a closet. No child should flee their school in fear. No child should ever have to ask why over and over again knowing there will never be an answer.
My heart breaks again every time I think of it.
The Marysville community is a relatively small one and tightly knit. My mother and her brothers were MPHS graduates and so were my cousins and my brother. That isn’t uncommon in Marysville – generations still live in the area, children attending the same schools as their parents, sometimes with the same teachers. I know the families of those most directly affected by the shooting – not personally, but well enough to know they are good people, active community leaders and caring parents. We all want the same things for our kids. This tragedy has left us all reeling.
Much has been and will be said about the hows and why’s of this event. People will use it as a point to prove their various agendas. Others will say snarky, mean things which is what finally made me sit down and write.
This is a community that cares about its people. How we have behaved as families, alumni and community members throughout this tragedy speaks volumes about us. This boy who shot his cousins and friends grew up in this supportive community and yet he still committed this crime. It scares me to think of it, because if he could do this, then there is no easy answer to preventing it in the future.
I was a MPHS student almost 30 years ago. It was a rural school, serving the families of farmers and Boeing employees and paper and lumber mill workers. Back then, it was surrounded by cow pastures that earned us the nickname of “Cow Pie High”. Many of the boys I knew hunted and had guns of their own. One of them, a star football player, accidentally shot himself in the foot cleaning his. But no one would ever have dreamed of shooting a person. It isn’t guns that are the problem, at least not in this situation.
This recent shooter, unlike others, was not a “troubled kid”. His family didn’t neglect giving him the kind of love you would give your own children or grandchildren. I am sure his parents weren’t perfect, but they probably didn’t screw up any more than I did raising my kids. He was well liked, a football player and recent a Sophomore homecoming prince. He had a bright future ahead of him. Police reviews of his phone and social media accounts have revealed that he had his heartbroken in that way that fourteen year old kids think they will never recover from. His posts on social media talked about making people “sorry” and that he thought no one knew how badly he was really hurting. Even though he posted his feelings on such a public forum, he still felt alone and unheard. He wasn’t experiencing something unusual, heartbreak is a normal part of the human experience. But isolation isn’t. Somehow he felt so alone in his pain he took desperate measures. He never knew his pain was just part of growing up.
This is not to excuse him of his crime. But what has been done is done. We will never have someone to punish. No one will apologize. All we can do now is look at how — and if — we can keep this from happening again.
I asked the young men who work with me, all of whom knew someone who was in the cafeteria and saw the shootings that day, why no one paid any attention to those social media posts that in retrospect were asking for intervention. Their response: “We see stuff like that all the time. People just say stuff, they don’t really mean anything by it.”
Have we have cried wolf so often no one listens when the wolf is real? What has happened to us that we can’t type out a simple “Dude, you okay?”
The problem is not guns. The problem is us.
We are all sometimes guilty of creating drama for attention. More often, we turn our backs on others out of laziness, fear, arrogance or ignorance. We do not affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person — even when we disagree with them. We don’t reach out to people because we are too busy or we believe we should mind our own business. We label people in need of help as lazy, sick, or weak instead of in need for the moment. We tell them to get on with life instead of acknowledging their difficult feelings. Expressing emotional pain is socially unacceptable, it isn’t “cool” to make people feel uncomfortable with our vulnerability.
This has to stop.
Our children have grown up too fast and have been subjected to more violence than I ever was. Because kids seem okay with things, we can forget that they are still kids. Fourteen is terribly young. Kids feel especially alone when they think everyone else copes better than they do. When they think they are failing our expectations, they bury their feelings and play tough. They may keep up appearances with their peer group, but really, inside they feel isolated.
My now-grown kids will tell you that there have been many awkward conversations when I have insisted on breaking through that isolation. The young men and women I have had the pleasure of mentoring over the years will tell you the same thing. Even when they don’t seem to want to listen, they need to hear you share your life so that they understand they are not the only ones to have had that experience or to feel that way.
The outpouring of care and concern for the Marysville community has been incredibly healing. Tragedies like this bring us together, allow for us to give and receive support. Lets keep this love keep flowing. Lets keep being there for each other. Keep talking to kids and to each other. Hold on to the threads of community we have renewed and grow them. Lets not focus on what makes us different, on what disagreements we’ve had, or what side of the political/social/economic fence we are on. Ignore the big-mouths who want to make this a reason to divide us. We are all the same.
Hug more often.
Chose compassion over cynicism. Dare to care.