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When Tragedy Hits Home — Standley Lake High School

I set off on this snowy, brittle afternoon to pick up my K-8 kids from school. The roads were smeared with dirty ice and winds shoved the van. It felt precarious, like the whole day, a slick white tightrope between home and my kids, elsewhere. I was glad to get to them, to bring us all under one roof safe again, until tomorrow. I’ve said this before, and the time has come to say it again:

It shouldn’t be an act of courage to send your kids to school.

A song came on the radio. It was John Mayer’s No Such Thing. It’s about high school and not fitting in. It’s about having hopes beyond being Prom King and Queen. It’s about biding time.

I wanna run through the halls of my high school
I wanna scream at the
top of my lungs.
I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world
Just a lie you got to rise above.

No Such Thing, John Mayer.

I drove slowly and thought about how my kids—HEY!—just this morning, ran through the halls of their high school and people screamed at the top of their lungs. That there is the real world, folks.

A 16-year-old boy set himself on fire in the cafeteria as the school day started. He left a suicide note at Facebook, determined to die. He survived, but there were flying rumors and a reasonable belief he perished. My 16-year-old daughter texted from outside the school before the horrible truth was revealed. First, it was fire alarms. Then, she described fire trucks arriving, including two which made wrong turns.

LOLL, she texted, unaware of the nature of their errand.

Later she wrote They blocked it. Then The way out ;_;

This was the first hint it was something serious. Tears, 2014 style, typed by my girl. My heart fishtailed. After texting back and forth, we learned school was cancelled, then, the shock. Kids (it was thought) set themselves on fire, she wrote. I told her not believe it. Remember, it’s a rumor, my fingers advised even as I felt like my legs were melting into the floor.

My big kids arrived home, separately. My daughter was brought home by a friend, my son, found by my husband. I asked them what they knew. Both said two kids set themselves on fire in the cafeteria. I told them it was one kid, and it appeared to be a suicide. Later, we learned he survived but was in critical condition. We talked, but they were mostly quiet and dove into distractions. It was difficult to know what to say, how much to say, how to even approach them. Will what I say make it worse? How can I possibly make anything better by spouting off pop psychology tidbits that are always trotted out after school tragedies:

“How to talk to your kids about (fill in tragedy).”

I have the feeling the people who write those blurbs of advice have never stood, looking up at their teens, and had to talk about something that happened in their actual school. It’s always been across town or across the country. Distance buffers and cushions. Oh, those poor people. Heck, I’ve said it and sent up prayers. But when it happens in a mundane place where you warmed burritos in the microwave and saw the kid’s face in the hallway, well. What the hell do you say?

Do you push it? Do you give them space? What if they think about it too much? What if they don’t think about it enough? Is it okay to hug them and simply say you don’t know what to say? Adults like to swoop in for soundbites, concerned head-tilts, pats on the hand, and sincere promises the door is always open but we are just as freaked out as the kids. Be honest. Be honest. Be honest! Still, kids look to us for strength and strong we must be.

Today has been consumed by these questions, even as I drove to get our younger kids. I had to decide what to say to them, too. Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain came on. For a moment, I bristled until I was involved in a complicated traffic maneuver (I had to back up our giant van, nearly blind, because of a bottleneck). By the time I parked along the street, it was thankfully over.

That’s when I wept. For the boy, for his family, for the kids who saw, for the kids who ran. For my kids at home staring at their laptops when I left. The Smith’s How Soon is Now? wailed on. Stuttering guitar, high school me, high school everyone, I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does. I rode it out. Normally, I wait for the kids to find me parked along the street. They always do. But.

When the song ended, I stepped out of the van and walked into the snow, turning white.

Taken this morning, right after waking up, before.

Please keep kids in your thoughts, in your prayers, on your radar. Keep the doors open.

(UPDATE: Tragically, Vincent Nett died at the age of 16 of his injuries.)

11 comments to When Tragedy Hits Home — Standley Lake High School

  • Much love to you, your amazing family and the community that must be so fragile right now.

  • Julie Marsh

    What can I add but an underscore to what you’ve written so well.

  • Daria

    When you figure out what to say, will you share? I feel like this is a possible learning moment, an opportunity to have a conversation that my kids may some day remember when it counts, but what to say? How far to push? No idea.

    • Gretchen

      That’s the thing. I’ve always read those articles and blog posts, watched experts on the news, but when it is *your* kids and you have to talk about what happened at *their* school, it’s different. They will be confronted with reminders for the rest of their days at the school. It doesn’t end when the news stations are over it and have moved on to the next thing. While the world at large will forget, it could be a daily struggle. We’ve always emphasized they can talk to us. Our love is unconditional, and that means unconditional.

  • I’ve been thinking about your kids, their school, and the student in the cafeteria since you posted it this morning. It was just over a year ago that Jason had to tell his students that one of their friends had killed herself that morning, and then only a few weeks later tell the news again. I just asked him about it again, and he said that in that awful experience the thing he learned is that you do talk to your students about their own pain, their own depression, and whether or not they want to hurt themselves. It’s impossible to make sense of what other people do, and most kids don’t want to talk about it, but sometimes they just need to know that an adult is paying attention to that hurt.

    Praying for your community and for you.

    • Gretchen

      Thank you for sharing this, Stephanie. I remember when they happened and I remember being shocked at how young the kids were. Despair is not an ageist. This is good advice and I’m grateful to read it.

  • Joy

    My default is to just hold my kids and cry with them. Sit in the silence if they need to be quiet. Let them talk, rant, weep, whatever without trying to fix it or find a way to tie a bow around it. I let them see my own grief because they are watching me to see how adults handle this stuff and I want them to know that grieving is legitimate work and we need to do it or we won’t be healthy. It’s so hard because it makes us feel vulnerable, but I think being real is the best. Even when real means afraid, angry, and sad.

  • So, so awful. There are no words to explain this. Alec wanted to know the one question I couldn’t answer, “why would a kid do something like this”.

  • Lucretia

    Beautifully written Gretchen.
    Trying to explain how someone gets to that point when you hope that your child will never understand? Becomes an impossible task.
    I think you said it best with “It shouldn’t be an act of courage to send your kids to school.” But it is these days, isn’t it?

    I’m so sorry for everyone involved.

  • edj

    So so sorry.
    I think, from dealing with nothing like this but with other kinds of tragedy, that the key is to always be open and listening because eventually they will talk about it. But it takes a while.

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