Back-to-School Advice for Shooting Survivors

I remember as a kid when I used to get excited for a new school year. I would look forward to back-to-school shopping, new clothes, and new school supplies. I would look forward to finding out my class schedule, and which friends I was going to have class with.  

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My heart aches for the students who aren’t going to have that this year. My heart aches for the students who have survived a school shooting and don’t want to return to school. My heart aches for those who have witnessed school violence and are experiencing high anxiety as they are fearful to enter the classroom again.

I grew up in middle-to-upper class suburbia.   Helicopter parents, and chain restaurants. Kids wearing Abercrombie and moms driving minivans. I felt safe all the time. But onApril16, 2007, that sense of safety was stripped from me. I was sitting in class at Virginia Tech when I heard an unfamiliar popping sound that sounded like gunfire. During the next eleven minutes, my classmates and I laid on the floor pushing the desks and chairs against the door while the gunman shot at our door and tried to push it open.  In those terrible minutes, the gunman killed 30 students and professors, and wounded and traumatized many more.  

My recovery journey was far from perfect, but I eventually found my way through the fog. When I reflect on recovery, I realize I learned a lot about counseling, boundaries, confidence, self-care, and feelings. This stuff isn’t taught in school. You learn it by observing those around you. 

For those of you who have survived a school shooting or witnessed school violence, I want to share with you what I learned as you re-enter the classroom this school year.

First, going back to school was harder than I expected. I had a tremendous fear of a shooting happening again. Many people would tell me that it wouldn’t happen again, but I thought to myself, “they don’t know that.” I finally accepted that there is no guarantee it won’t happen again. 

Second, I learned to feeltheuncomfortablefeelings.I felt survivor’s guilt, fear, anxiety, loneliness, helplessnessandself-doubt. I learned thatthesefeelings were tellingme something. They were telling me that I didn’t feel safe. As time passed, I was able to rebuild that sense of safety.

Third, I foundgoodlisteners. My recovery made great strides when I began connecting with others affected by school tragedy. These people helped me feel less lonely. We bonded.  We connected on a level deeper than I connected with some of my closest family and friends. 

Getting back in that classroom will be one of the biggest challenges in your life.  So here’s my advice: Trust your gut. Listen to your feelings. Write in a journal. Talk to your friends. Hugs your friends. Trust yourself. Don’t compare yourself. Ask to step out of class when it feels uncomfortable. You got this!