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The STEM School shooting, one year later: a reflection

<h6>Rooya Rahin / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Rooya Rahin / The Daily Princetonian

A week before May 7, my friends and I gathered in the parking lot next to our high school for our final assembly. The air was buzzing with excitement: 123 seniors announcing our future plans and college decisions, counting the days to the last day of school, to graduation, to move-in. We shifted from leg to leg on the hot asphalt, snow still on the grass, celebrating four years of being together as a class. We played silly games, laughing at inside jokes, plotting senior pranks for the rest of the week. In 13 days, we would no longer be high school students.

None of us knew our world would end in a week.

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On May 7, two students entered our high school, STEM School Highlands Ranch, and opened fire at our peers, killing one student, Kendrick Castillo. On May 7, our entire world shattered in mere moments.

On May 7, 2019, I wasn’t there.

I was not a full-time student at STEM, as I participated in concurrent enrollment, although I was often at the school. Classes had nearly ended at the college I attended, and I was prepared to spend the next week toasting to the end of high school with my friends. I had planned to visit them each day, popping in during study halls and planning to get together after classes.

That Tuesday, I wasn’t there. I had a doctor’s appointment. I went to visit an old professor at the college. I made plans to get coffee with my friends after class. We never got coffee.

At 2 p.m., my mom got a voicemail from the school, announcing that there was a lockdown at STEM due to an active shooter in the building. Her face went white, pure fear replacing any sense of ease.

Leaving me at my appointment, she rushed to get my brother when evacuations began. I don’t think she’s ever driven faster in her life. I sat, hands shaking, in a too colorful, too cheery doctor’s office, politely waiting for my blood draw to end, praying that my brother, my friends, my teachers were safe. I texted my friends, making sure they were okay, and answered texts from family making sure I was okay.

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I learned that news travels fast, fast enough that the national news stations were reporting it by the time evacuations had begun. I tried to get in touch with my brother, 14 years old and in the middle school section. I nearly cried when a friend texted me that they’d seen him, and he was safe.

By 4 p.m., they had evacuated everyone. My mom kept calling me, on the verge of tears because the roads were overrun with active police, firefighters, and ambulances for several blocks, and no one could get to the main road near the school. I still regret not being with her then. My mom needed me then, and I wasn’t there.

The Uber ride from the hospital to the recreation center where my brother and friends had been evacuated was the longest of my life. The driver turned up the radio as the crackling voice reported the news of the shooting at my high school, saying, “that shit’s crazy.” I said nothing, because what was I supposed to say? I was afraid that any words I said would be accompanied by tears, and I wasn’t ready to cry.

I hugged my little brother as he came out of the center with my mom. I hugged him so hard I think I might have left bruises. I found every one of my friends and made sure they were safe. I checked in with classmates I haven’t spoken to since middle school. The shooter’s name, one of our peers, came out of our throats like acid, spat out in shock, anger, and disgust.

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We stood together and prayed. We cried together when we heard the news that our classmate, Kendrick Castillo, had been killed while attempting to disarm one of the shooters. He was the only one to lose his life that day, in a sacrifice that verily no one in our school or even our town will ever forget. If we forget his sacrifice, we will have done Kendrick and his memory the greatest disservice. 

There is a certain disjunction to being the victim of a tragedy that you did not witness. Platitudes are never enough, sorrow feels dishonest, and yet grief and anger are all consuming. They say anger is the second stage of grief, but I went to anger first, as all hope of denial was shattered from that very first voicemail.

Anger burned in me from the beginning, spreading inside me until all I wanted was to scream until my throat became hoarse. There’s still anger that pricks up every time I hear about another shooting at another school, bringing back all the rage I felt that day. 

There is no FOMO when it comes to a tragedy, no “I wish I was there,” because you don’t wish, you never wish. There is a longing for understanding, for a way to better help the people you care so deeply about when you have no knowledge of what they’ve been through. I still don’t understand what happened that day. I know what happened, have read too many news articles for my own good, heard firsthand accounts from my friends, but I do not understand. It was the day I learned that knowing and understanding are not the same, and nothing can make them so.

In my own search for answers, I’ve found very little in the way of words. As a writer, I grasp for words as my first defense. When it comes to tragedy, there are never enough words and never the right words.

Instead, I found answers in the form of actions. In spending time with the people in my community and my circle who need it. In holding my friends close and reminding them that I care.

A local church opened their doors for students as a place for us to come together, to pray, seek guidance, and hold each other. I’ve never been one for church, but my friends and I visited every day, sipping Sprites in a corner while staring at our shoes. Counting the number of crosses on the walls. Crying on one another when the deafening silence became too much to bear.

We attended vigils together in honor of Kendrick. We celebrated him and his memory. We walked together to his memorial service, watching as a procession of Jeeps, his favorite car, graced the service. We learned too soon what pallbearers were; our peers learned too young what it is to be one. We all held hands through the service, praying for our fallen friend, praying that our community would overcome the grief that pervaded everything like a fog that would not dissipate.

I will never understand what my friends went through that day, but I can let them know that they don’t have to shoulder the burden of grief themselves. That grief and anger and despair exist not only on individual planes but on a mass echelon, where a community experiences those reactions together.

Once again, this year, on May 7, we are faced with crisis. We are faced with unimaginable death and despair; we are faced with grief and hardship. In this crisis, our community is the world, and our battles during this crisis, however separate and disproportionate, are also conjoined.

When John Donne wrote, “No man is an island,” he was not referencing school shootings or pandemics, but he had tapped into an integral piece of human nature. We need other people. Having been now in two crises in two years, I can tell you that I could not have gotten through it without a supportive community.

I have forgotten a lot about the past year, but I have not forgotten the friends who held my hands as we cried, the teacher who held my chin and looked me in the eye and said, “you will overcome this,” my family members who talked me through grief and hardship.

This crisis is only beginning. The full magnitude of COVID-19 is unknown, and its effects will surely resonate in the world for the next decade — or longer. Although we are apart now, what will get us through this crisis is people. Humans require connection, comfort and hope, everything we get from hearing a best friend on the phone or FaceTiming grandma as she bakes a pie.

Hold your loved ones close, call your friends, check on distant relatives. Talk to people you haven’t seen in six months, in six years. Life is so uncertain. Our days are numbered with an expiration date that none of us know, and there is nothing we should take for granted. 

Our world will get through this tragedy, albeit with too much death and too many scars. For most of us, there are few ways we can help. While our doctors and nurses are on the frontlines, while essential workers stock the shelves to make sure we are fed and have resources, we can only sit at home and watch. We can only lessen those burdens by making sure the people around us don’t have to carry them all alone.

One year ago, the world shattered inside my community and slowly but surely, we have begun to pick up the pieces. We will do so again.

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