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Content warning: Mentions of gun violence, school shooting.
I grew up in Oxford, Michigan. For better or worse, this town is my hometown. I used to complain about how boring it was, how nothing ever happened. We all did. God, how I wished that hadn’t changed.
On Nov. 30, 2021, an Oxford High School student brought a gun to school and opened fire, injuring 11 people and killing four students. The events of this tragedy took place in under 10 minutes. Within those minutes, my baby sister and the rest of her chemistry class were ushered out the window and down the street to safety. Luck feels like the wrong way to describe her relationship with these events; she was not lucky to be merely classrooms away from such violence.
But I was able to go home and hug my sister that night, when an unforgivable number of families were not able to do the same. Their loss is one I cannot fathom, and one I will not try to claim or portray through my words.
As someone who attends school in the U.S., school shootings, with such precedents as Sandy Hook and Parkland, are no longer surprises. But they all leave their impact on us. Each time, I mourned for the losses and felt close to the pain of the loss of those students.
After the Parkland shooting, which took 17 lives, many other students at OHS and I gathered before school to honor and grieve those lost. Splattered across the news and social media, it is easy to feel like you understand the impact, the reverberations of these sorts of events.
I never quite expected a school shooting to happen in my community, and I naively thought I had an idea of what it would mean to experience it personally. I was wrong.
Plenty has been said about those 10 minutes, and even more about the events leading up to them. Far less has been said about what happened to our community afterwards, but it is something that often comes up in conversation with my family. Throughout the weeks and many conversations with my sister, we have come to see patterns in the often ignored feelings and moments, and these are what I want to share with you.
They don’t talk about what it means to experience a tragedy as a community.
Minutes after it was announced in the press conference that three people, students, children, had died, I began making calls. In the dim light of my apartment, the blinds drawn and my roommate held close, it still didn’t quite feel real. Scrolling through Instagram and my contacts list, I placed calls to any name I recognized from high school. To anyone and everyone that I could get ahold of who had family or friends in our high school.
One of the first people I called was a girl I had known since kindergarten but hadn’t spoken to for over a year since leaving for college. We were friends in the way kids are in a small town; we grew up together yet were never that close.
“Hey.” Her voice wavered as she accepted the call.
“Kyle?” Her brother. Tears falling down my face, I couldn’t bring myself to ask.
“He’s fine, he’s OK,” she sobbed. “Abbey?” My little sister.
“She’s OK, she’s OK.” The sobs overwhelmed us both.
What stands out most about this call — a moment I have often thought about since — is our parting words.
“Paige?” she asked, still hoarse, voice quiet. I remember being huddled like a ball on the couch, hunched tight around my phone.
“I love you,” she said, much stronger now, adamant.
“I love you too,” I said, pushing as much feeling as I could into the words.
Driving home that night, I would call many more people who I hadn’t spoken to in years. College had caused us to drift apart, but one moment had yanked us back together, the shared trauma taut like a string between us. It was a pain that stretched between us, an unimaginable pain, but it was one we shared.
These bonds stretched from the physical into the digital realm, too. For days, weeks, the tragedy overwhelmed my social media feed. But, more than the activism or awareness I expected, there were posts meant to support the community. Resources, donation links, vigils — these are the posts that connected us in the time afterward.
The University of Michigan also held a vigil in the wake of this tragedy. For nearly an hour after the main event, I stood in the cold in front of the Hatcher Library, talking with girls I never thought I would speak to again and some I barely even spoke with before.
But that night, we were closer than ever. We shared the stories of our family or close friends’ experiences during the shooting, shedding tears together. We remembered the good times at OHS and laughed together. It was painful and it was healing and it was connective.
I now see a duality in that evening. The pure community juxtaposed with the lingering trauma. A collective love and a collective pain.
Similar events, aimed at community grieving and then later, healing, were held throughout the month in Oxford. My sister was reluctant to talk about her feelings, but those events were the only things which got her out of the house those days, the only things which put a smile on her face.
At the end of winter break, I finally made it to the memorial that had been curated outside the high school. I was shocked to see the number of signatures and tokens that had been left — not only from our community, but from schools and organizations across the state, across the country. Over a month since the tragedy itself, standing under the tent erected to protect the memorial from the snow, I was again flooded with that same sharp feeling of shared love and pain.
I don’t have a word for it other than ‘community.’ That is the feeling, the pain and love twisted together into a rope that I can almost feel tied between me and everyone else who calls Oxford home. Experiencing a tragedy as a community means feeling a portion of the pain of hundreds, thousands. It also means feeling the love. Both forever intertwined.
They don’t talk about what it feels like for that pain and community to be catapulted into the spotlight.
As someone who wants to pursue a career in journalism, I have a complicated relationship with the events that will be described below. I want to believe in reporting the truth in a just and fair manner by uplifting marginalized voices. Being from a town at the center of national news made it difficult to maintain these beliefs, but it also inspired me to hold them ever closer.
A close family friend is an editor for a local paper and sometimes contributes to the Detroit Free Press. Hours after everything, she spoke to my sister in an interview, knowing my sister would be comfortable with her. So, my sister’s name as a student and witness was in one of the first articles to be published surrounding the tragedy.
The calls came before me and my middle sister, Riley, even made it home that night. NBC. Good Morning America. A representative from a news network even followed my sister Abbey on Instagram — all looking for interviews, all of which we rejected. Abbey laughed every time a new call came in, but I could tell she was spooked.
The night of the tragedy, we were sitting down for dinner, the kitchen lights bright against the dark of an early winter night outside. Moving around each other, we filled our plates and glasses, chattering quietly. Then amid the movement, my dad’s phone rang, a shrill invasion of sound. He paused and answered, thinking it was yet another call from an unknown number. The phone to his ear, we could only hear his side of the conversation.
“OK. I’ll ask her. Do you have a number I can get back to you with? OK.”
Our meal interrupted, we all waited with bated breath to see who had called now. With a stunned look on his face, my dad put down his phone and paused for a moment.
“That was Anderson Cooper,” he said quietly.
And the truly funny yet unsurprising thing is, my 15-year-old sister from a conservative town didn’t even know who that was. Didn’t know that she had just been asked to speak live on CNN.
We eventually decided she would speak to them. She said Cooper was kind and respectful and his agent who contacted us was patient and explanatory. But in the rabid way they hunted down our phone number, found my sister and my family, they proved themselves to be like scavengers, searching for a tragedy to paint across headlines. It left me feeling raw and exposed, our personal pain plucked for millions to see.
This is just one of many experiences that made it clear that we would not be allowed to mourn in private.
Losing this privacy is seeing the governor of your state give a press conference from the parking lot of your local McDonald’s. We knew this location was especially chosen so that you would be able to see the high school on top of the hill behind her: hours after the shooting, that is as close as you could get to the school. Someone not from Oxford would not have been able to tell, but we could. Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s whole performance felt strategic, like I was finally seeing behind a curtain.
Losing this privacy is also the news vans parked around town for days after the shooting. Creeping up the neighborhood streets behind the high school. Crowding the houses of the victims. I did not feel seen, but watched. And though this was a different kind of grief, that was nowhere near individual, it was still ours and not theirs. Their presence was suffocating. I wanted to push them out of town, like pushing against the walls as they close in on you.
Pictures were taken of mourning families and distraught children and attached to articles — many without consent — which were posted everywhere. I can attest to this because my own organization did it to me. The Michigan Daily Instagram posted a photo of me sobbing in my friend’s arms. Not only did they not ask if they could post it, I did not even know the picture had been taken in the first place.
I still love and believe in The Daily because we have had conversations about this moment and how to be better in the future. I truly believe that we will learn and grow as an institution because of this.
But, the media’s exploitation of our pain and tragedy extended beyond pictures. It took mere days for stories to begin to suggest that the administration of the school had been negligent or complicit leading up to the event. And days after that, the headlines were generalized to include all high school “staff.”
Our community was shattered, our hearts broken and we were mourning. But in the media’s image, the people of Oxford stopped being real people. We were being portrayed as either martyrs or complicit; complexity, nuance, mistake, humanity were all lost. The news’ nature of pointing fingers, seemingly for a click-bait headline, felt like a punch to the gut.
As someone who previously engaged in plenty of online conversations about events like this on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, I never considered that I was doing any harm. I see now that uplifting voices justly also means giving space, time and understanding to those affected by tragedy. It means always accounting for complexity and sometimes waiting for the voices to speak to you.
It is a special type of pain, I think, to lose agency in the detailing of your own trauma. Having our story on a national stage, but feeling like our voices have been robbed. I wanted to share this pain with my community and feel how it connected us, but I did not want to share it with everyone. I barely felt ready to talk to a counselor, and yet so many community members were practically having microphones shoved in their faces, the news demanding their voices without pausing to ask if they were ready to speak.
Opinions, plans of action, accusations were all demanded of members of our community. The public had already come to their own conclusions, but we were still processing, recovering, grieving.
I felt watched, picked apart, exploited. Like a bug under a microscope, they poked and prodded to see what would hurt.
They don’t talk about this because they are already talking over us.
They don’t talk about how quickly people forget.
As much as I hated being in the spotlight, there was another kind of pain, a collateral pain in so many people forgetting so quickly. This is not an accusation; I am certainly guilty of moving on quickly from others’ traumatizing events in the past. The tragedy news cycle can be overwhelming, upsetting and detrimental to mental health. But for those inside it, the subjects of those headlines, it is impossible to move on from. And I had never realized before how much that could hurt, to be standing still while the world keeps moving.
I returned to classes two days after the tragedy. Back at home it was all everyone was focused on: conversations were somber, stories from those involved were shared, silences lengthened. But on campus, no one was really talking about it. It was so jarring to return and discover that everyone else’s worlds hadn’t changed. Experiencing such a special sharing of pain within my community to only then be cut off from those bonds hurt, in a quiet, isolated, dissociating way.
Slowly this absence of mention trickled to other areas. The #OxfordStrong posts stopped flooding my social media. The news stories stopped coming in. The casual mentions stopped being peppered in conversation.
But my little sister’s winter coat was still locked in an active crime scene.
The high school students didn’t return to school until late January, but the news outlets had already stopped paying attention to our town. Instagram stopped paying attention. Everyone stopped paying attention. As much as I hated all the noise, I also came to hate the silence.
The rational, compassionate part of me doesn’t want people to continue to carry this burden or this pain. But a small, jealous, terrible part of me does want them to hold on. Because Oxford is still hurting and it will be a lifetime before we can let go.
Returning to campus after winter break reaffirmed this pain. At home, blue and gold ribbons — OHS’s colors — are still tied around the light posts. The “Oxford Strong” signs still stand, despite the snow. In Ann Arbor, I was terrified to start new classes and go through the classic ice breakers: name, year, hometown, major. I was so ready for the awkward silence, the stilted apologies and well-meaning questions. Those did happen, and despite the awkwardness, the recognition was nice.
But more often than not, the conversation continued without a beat.
In my history class.
“I am from Oxford, Michigan.”
“Oh cool! Is that near Detroit?”
In the newsroom.
“I am from Oxford, Michigan.”
“Oh! We used to play against you in football!”
In my English class.
“I am from Oxford, Michigan.”
“Oh, sorry, I’ve never heard of it.”
And it became clear very quickly that, as much as I was dreading the awkward recognition of people who could never really understand, an equal pain existed in the blankness behind their eyes. I could say those words and they would pass without a blip in their memory.
I have talked to others from Oxford and this has become a common experience for many of us. We are not sure which is worse.
The pain continues to hit me when I least expect it. I can feel the tears coming now as I write this in the newsroom, and all around me are people laughing, working, stressed, happy. I don’t begrudge them this, but every time my eyes return to this page the noise becomes a bit of a ringing in my ears. And I know when I finish writing this for the night, I will call my sister and cry.
It felt like whiplash to go from so much attention to complete lack of recognition. We didn’t want to be watched anymore, but we still wanted to be seen. We wanted them to stop talking over us, but we still wanted to be heard.
“I am from Oxford, Michigan.” It is a statement written — painfully carved — into our souls now, in ways we never expected.
I do not want to assert that people carry this pain forever, that is not the intention of this piece. I strive only to give a little bit of perspective, a look into the inside. Experiencing this was a unique form of trauma, one I am still only just beginning to understand.
It is the pain of being alone. The pain of hurting alone. The pain of having to do homework the day after your baby sister escapes a shooting. The pain of every accusing headline written by people who will never understand. The pain of driving away from your heart every time you leave your hometown. The pain of wanting to hug my baby sister when the tears come and not being able to.
But it is also the comfort of standing in the cold of a memorial, surrounded, while the tears run down my cheeks. The joy of remembering my hometown while on the snow-covered steps of Hatcher, candles glowing on the steps. The eternal gratitude of sending an email to thank my old chemistry teacher for getting my sister out of that window.
The connection of a community, like a hook in my heart, painful but grounding.
Daily Managing Editor Paige Hodder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.