Melia Kenny/Daily

Content warning: Language of violence, school shooting. 

November 30, 12:50 p.m.

If you asked, I could recall the day, not like it happened yesterday, but like it’s happening now. Like I’m still stuck in that moment.

I can smell the crisp air. It’s cold, but not that cold. I walk to class without having to wear my mask to protect my face from the winter wind. I’m on the phone with my friend, walking to class, laughing. We talked about a story I was writing. It was an ordinary, plain day, one I thought I would most likely forget.

But I never will.

As I walked to class, kids an hour and a half away were running. I enter my calculus classroom — room 2353, Mason Hall. I sit in front of the window and I can see the Diag. It still looks like fall, even though it’s late November, nearly December. I smile. Maybe this winter will be light, I think.

I get the text not even five minutes into my lecture. It was from my dad: 

Active shooter at Oxford High School. We have Abbey. 

Abbey is my younger sister, a sophomore who was at Oxford High School on that cold-but-not-cold November afternoon. I didn’t know then, but she was down the hall from the shooter and had crawled out of the window after barricading the door with the rest of her classmates, running to the Meijer around the corner. She was with my parents before I even knew what was happening. It was a relief. My sister was safe.

But my best friend wasn’t. Not yet.

Her name is Olivia — a senior at Oxford High School despite only being two months younger than me. I sat there, frozen, ignoring the lecture happening not two feet in front of me. I texted her with shaky fingers.

The words I shared with her that day are one of the few things I can’t remember about November 30. Maybe I chose to forget the terror behind everything I said and to forget that feeling I never want to experience again. All I know is that I told her I loved her.

I waited for every text, hanging on the bubbles on my screen. Every minute was more agonizing than the last. I knew she had other people to contact, other people to say goodbye to — just in case — but I didn’t know what was happening. What if the words I had sent to her were the last words I’d ever get to say to her?

I told her I loved her again. And again. And again, for good measure. I told her I loved her until the police came to her classroom and escorted her out. I told her I loved her until she got to the Meijer parking lot. I told her I loved her until she was back at home with her family. 

I still can’t believe I’ll be able to say those three words to her again. I came closer to the last time than I’d ever like to. But I knew that others would never be able to say “I love you” again.

It was real

I lay in my bed.

After I left my calculus lecture, far too early, I met up with my sister. We went to a private place on campus and cried. I called my little sister, Abbey. I didn’t want to hang up. I was terrified she would slip through my fingers like sand, like she almost had.

I was wrapped in the fuzziest blanket I had, trying to comfort myself. I had my tissues beside me. My phone was tuned to a local news station. I had watched my high school from the outside many times — often with a sense of dread as I sat in my car in the early morning, before the first-period bell. But this time was different. I watched a drone fly high over the ceilings I knew so well, I saw the parking lot from every angle. Cop cars and ambulances lined the streets.

I had spent the last few hours convincing myself that this was all somehow a mistake. I knew there were idiots at my school — I convinced myself that one of them had just crossed the line. That someone, in a sick joke, had brought a BB gun to school and pretended to freak all the students out. I had convinced myself that the terror was only imagined — that my family and my friends were not in any real danger. I shielded myself with that fantasy. It was warmer and more comforting than any blanket in my dorm.

But it was all a facade. A facade that was about to be destroyed.

The event’s press conference was held in a parking lot — the Meijer parking lot where students were collecting to be taken home to their parents and guardians after their entire world had shattered. It was an odd thought, but one that stuck with me. Nobody knew that if they just shifted the camera a bit to the right, that they would see a McDonalds. If they shifted the camera a bit to the left, they would see the gymnastics studio where my sisters and I had gone when we were children. I remember my baby sister in her sparkly, turquoise leotard, her big smile on her face. The pain was physical, guttural. I wanted to hold her so bad.

The sheriff stepped up in front of all the cameras and microphones and reporters. I braced myself. I can’t remember most of what he said, but I do remember one thing.

He said that three kids had died.

I sobbed like I had never sobbed before. It was ugly, it was brutal and it came from a part of me I had never encountered before. My school, my home, my community were painted red. I was hit with the brute force of that realization — there had been a real threat. I came a few dozen feet away from losing my baby sister and from losing my friend.

But what really broke me was that someone hadn’t come close. Someone lost their friend. Someone lost their sibling. Someone lost their child.

I lay in my bed, sobbing so hard into my sheets that a dark spot formed underneath me. I was shaking when my phone rang. It was my older sister, Paige. “We’re going home,” she said. I could hear the same shakiness in her voice. “Pack your things, I’ll be outside in five minutes.” I didn’t object. I said “ok” and hung up. I packed my bag, I took a sip of water, I waited until I saw her car pull down the street and park in front of the door.

Then I left. I cried the moment I got into the passenger seat of the car, my older sister saying: “I can’t. I can’t. I have to drive.” But I could tell she wanted to cry, too. I stunted my tears, held them in my throat. It felt good, like I was squeezing a stress ball. The only thing that kept me from barreling off over the edge was the reminder that I would see my little sister again.

The Vigil

Someone handed me a tealight candle and I thanked them. I cradled the candle in my hands, cupping the flame to keep it lit. I smiled and fell back into the crowd.

It was a cold evening, yet the wintry air in my lungs was almost a relief. It was like drinking a cool glass of water on a hot day.

I had returned to campus for my classes the rest of the week. I was sure that if I had asked, none of my professors would have minded if I took a few days off, but what would I have done? Laid in bed and read the news like I was already doing? Sat and sobbed with my little sister as she tried to cradle herself back together?

No. I needed to stay busy.

So I was back on campus. I felt that this was alright, because at least I got to go to the vigil in Ann Arbor.

I was wary of the event. The way I saw it, there were only two ways it could go: It could get very political, talk about laws on guns or how people get access to them, or it could stay neutral and just be about grieving. I was all for the latter, but I thought the first was much more likely. I thought about those kids, my sister, my home. I didn’t have time for much else and I didn’t want an event intended to commemorate to be turned into something meant to mobilize. Still, I brought my roommate to the Diag that December evening, cradling my tealight candle close to my chest.

So many students from Oxford came to Ann Arbor that evening. I was suddenly hugging kids I wasn’t close with, smiling at them through my tears. People would say my name in a strained voice, trying to maintain their ability to speak through their sobs. I didn’t blame them. I was barely able to speak for myself.

But a lot of people who weren’t from Oxford came. My roommate, my sister’s friends, people I had only ever associated with Ann Arbor and the life I had created for myself here were present for something that was distinctly related to the life I had led in Oxford. The two worlds I lived in were colliding. It was a strange feeling.

The vigil started.

Alyssa Donovan and McKenzie Miller, the organizers of the event, were girls I knew. The two of them stood up and spoke on the steps.

I don’t remember much about what was said that night, but what I do remember was the feeling. The heavy pressure on my chest wasn’t entirely alleviated, but as I stood there, surrounded by those also grieving, surrounded by those who were trying so desperately to understand and to help, I felt like I wasn’t alone. I felt like someone had taken the pressure into their hands, and was sharing some of the weight. The pressure was still colossal. I was still drowning. But the vigil made the world seem slow, like the pain was much more bearable.

No politics about gun laws were brought up that night, and I couldn’t help but smile. This moment would be about grief. Grief for the kids who had died that day: Tate, Hana, Madisyn and Justin. Grief for the innocence of the children who had been in our school. Grief for the image of our community as we knew it. Grief for the people we had been before that moment.

As I stood with my friends, the ones I had grown up with, and the ones I had made here, I didn’t feel good. But I felt better. And that was enough.

42-3

It had somehow been days. November 30 convinced me that the world was no longer spinning, and that everything was frozen in place. But it wasn’t. And there were things happening.

I had tickets to the Big 10 Championship game in Indianapolis, tickets to (hopefully) watch as our school became Big 10 Champions. 

After everything, I thought my dad, sister and I wouldn’t be going. It was hard to imagine being happy and excited and enjoying a football game when I was aware that others were experiencing the opposite. I didn’t want my dad to leave my little sister behind for the weekend, either.

But then I saw the patches.

I had heard rumors and seen sketches of the patch before the news had officially come out, but I had scarcely allowed myself to hope that they could be true. However, my phone notified me when the news broke.

That little golden patch with “TM” — Tate Myre — and four little hearts was why I had to go. Because if this game was going to be about them — Tate, Hana, Madisyn and Justin —  I wanted to see it. Not for myself, but for them. I wanted at least one person in that crowd to be someone that had come from Oxford, that knew them, that may only feel an echo of the pain their families did, but at least it was an echo and not nothing.

So my older sister, dad and I drove to Indianapolis for the weekend. We got to the game fairly early and were sitting in our seats when the announcer called for a moment of silence in remembrance of the kids who had been at Oxford just a few days prior and for the kids whose lives had ended that same day. I whispered their names to myself before the hush came over the crowd: Hana. Justin. Madisyn. Tate.

There was a boy and a girl, a couple, in the seat beside me. Just before the moment of silence, one of the boys’ friends said a joke that made him snort loudly. His girlfriend jabbed him in the side. I wondered how he would feel if I were to tell him that I was from there. That my sister had been there.

I didn’t say anything. The moment of silence was not silent, not in the slightest, but it was quieter, and when I blinked it was over. I was unsatisfied.

Well, I thought, At least it was something.

I sat impatiently and waited for the game to start. I wanted a distraction, with some good football and the roar of the crowd to consume me entirely. But I couldn’t. I kept thinking about the patch, and more specifically, I kept thinking about Tate. His older brother, Ty, is my age and had been in my grade in high school. Tate had been just a year older than my sister Abbey. To this day, my breath catches when I think too long about how Ty might feel. I couldn’t imagine it. Knowing my sister had been so close to suffering the same fate had not fooled me into thinking that I understood the depth of the pain he experienced. I think about him everyday.

So, when I saw him, beside his family on the field, there for the coin toss, shaking hands with Aidan Hutchinson, my hands slapped over my mouth. I shook violently as I watched him stand there, trying desperately not to cry, but crying anyways. I stared at the wraps around Hutchinson’s wrists. On those wraps were the words “Play for Tate.” I couldn’t fathom what it would mean for Tate, who had been a football player, devoted to the sport, to have all these people thinking about him. People he had probably watched, maybe even idolized. My heart shattered in my chest.

I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic. I’ve never been one to have a lot of faith in my life. But it was nice, for just a moment, to hope that, wherever Tate was, he could see this. That he could enjoy it.

I watched the game and it gave me what I had wanted — a distraction. The rush of the endless goals slowly carried away my pain, though I knew it would return. The points started to rack up. The final score was 42-3.

I was so swept up in the game that I didn’t even realize until we were in our car, tumbling out of Indianapolis toward our hotel. I was texting my friend, and she pointed it out.

And my heart stopped.

42. Tate’s jersey number. 3. 3 kids, besides Tate, had passed away.

I told my dad and sister, and for a moment we just sat in silence. I pressed my head into the headrest, shut my eyes and just sobbed. I didn’t think about how, or why or what it would mean, but I let myself believe that Tate, Hana, Justin and Madisyn were there that night. That they at least got to see that.

The next day, The Michigan Daily published an article with the headline “In Saturday’s championship, Tate Myre became a part of history.”

I smiled through my tears, again.

The Memorial

There is a sign outside Oxford High School that I can picture without even trying. It says, “Oxford High School.” After 18 years of living in Oxford and four years of attending the school that lies behind it, I have never gotten out of the car and looked at the sign. Never even came within a foot of it.

Until the end of Winter Break.

After the shooting, the sign became the site of the memorial. It took me three weeks of being home to work up the courage to visit, to lay flowers down and let it all flood back. There is a tent over it and a fence all around it. There are signs all along the back for people to leave messages. There are teddy bears covered in snow, still smiling. There are lighters to keep the candles burning. There are flowers, new and old. There are jerseys and T-shirts and pictures and crosses coming not just from Oxford, but from Lake Orion, from Tecumseh, from Clarkston. I’m glad there are signs outside that say, “Love always wins,” because here, that’s hard to remember.

I stand in front of the boards that have been placed up around the sign and the tent. On it, from top to bottom, are thousands of messages. There are prayers, there are shared memories, there are people remembering and people grieving. They crowd together, overlapping and pressing against each other. Handwriting and language styles mix. Colors blend and bleed when they get wet as the snow falls down.

In my hand is a sharpie. My hand shakes as I try to think about what to write. I have been writing for weeks about this. I wrote about the day that it happened, the moment I found out the kids died and it all became real, about the vigil, about 42-3, but here, the words failed me.

I think it was because, even then, I wasn’t sure if my words were worth sharing.

I knew my words were worth writing. Writing had always been a sort of therapy to me, and so when this happened, my first instinct was to write about it. But were those words worth reading? Were they worth sharing? Were those emotions and dark thoughts worth pressing onto people?

And in that moment, with my hand shaking from the nerves and the cold, standing among a pile of love and grief for those we had lost and the people we had all been, I realized they were. My words were worth sharing. Not because my pain was comparable, but because it wasn’t.

If this piece has done even a fraction of what it’s supposed to, and you understand even on the most surface of levels how I feel, I want you to remind you that I still have my sister. My best friend. I want you to think about how this pain, how insurmountable it felt, was nothing in comparison to what the families and the friends of Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana, Madisyn Baldwin and Justin Shilling had to face.

I want you to think about how many people feel the same way as I do. There were so many students in that school that day, their pain and terror and trauma so much more intense and unbearable than mine. They have siblings who share my pain. They have friends who share my pain. Even those who didn’t have someone they’re close to in the school that day lost something — their home as it was. Their community as it was.

I want you to think about the cracks this one event made in a small town where nothing ever happened. 

I want you to think about the pain that spread out from this one moment in time. How all of a sudden a community, a home to so many people, is forever changed. How the lives of so many were forever altered. I want you to think about my pain for a moment, and multiply it by 100. Now a thousand.

Would you believe me if I told you that all that pain is still incomparable to the amount of pain that a single moment, at 12:50 p.m., on a cold-but-not-cold November afternoon, caused?

I leaned forward on the board and found a small space. I wrote: A piece of me will always be here. The piece of me I lost on that day. It is worth losing it.

I still mean those words. If this piece has shown you the pain that these actions have caused, if this pain has done any justice to the experiences of the siblings and the friends and the family of those who were there that day, then maybe you’ll take a very small piece of yourself and leave it with Oxford, too.

We’ll need every piece to come back from this, to get to a place where we can bear this pain. But even the piece you’re giving now, just by reading this, is helping. 

Keep your thoughts with Oxford. With that teddy bear in the snow. With Hana and Tate and Madisyn and Justin. With my sister and my friend and all the kids like her. With the siblings and the parents and the alumni and the community members who are grieving.

Please, I’m begging you. Think about us. See us. We need it.

Statement Correspondent Riley Hodder can be reached at rehodder@umich.edu.