June 21, 2022
Yesterday, after presenting to two full rooms of school safety stakeholders about how we can keep students and staff safe during mass casualty events, I drove the 1.5 hours to the place where that didn’t happen. This is my “download” of my experiences, my thoughts, everything. I am putting it out there publicly for a variety of reasons, most of which is that this country needs to not forget how it failed this community and so many others, mine included.
I had decided before I ever even got to San Antonio, where the conference was held, that I was going to take something out to the people working at the Family Assistance Center. My friend Fred Guttenberg always talks about finding the helpers, but I also believe in helping the helpers. No one ever talked to me about vicarious victimization and support until it was too late, but one thing my mother taught me was the value of small gestures, so I figured one couldn’t hurt.
I wrestled with what to get them, knowing they closed for the day at 5 pm to go home to their families and try and find moments of peace and normalcy in a place where neither existed. I wanted to be the one to give it to them, to thank them, so that took pizza out because it would be too late to have it delivered or even picked up. In true Jackie fashion, I overthought it for 2 days before settling on cookies. Cookies make people smile, so I figured it couldn’t hurt.
I googled bakeries in San Antonio and found one with good reviews and nice pictures. I didn’t know if it was on the way or out of the way, but I took my chances. I arrived at La Superior Bakery and told the woman working the counter I needed 6 dozen cookies. (Truthfully, I didn’t know how many I needed but more seemed better.) She looked at me a bit bewildered and told me large orders had to be called in ahead of time.
That moment reminded me of the time I was back in Parkland for the 2 month mark and I realized you can’t buy 17 flowers, just 1 or 2 dozen. My heart broke the same way.
“I’m going to Uvalde and I want to take them to the workers at the family assistance center,” I told her, as I apologized for not knowing, not having planned, and being from out of town. Her demeanor changed to basically say, “Don’t worry, I got you” and she began filling giant box after giant box with an assortment of homemade cookies.
As she was doing that, another woman walked in. She looked tired, like her day wasn’t going to plan. She just wanted some pink cake (she likes the corner pieces) and here I was, holding her up as her family sat in her car that didn’t have air conditioning and she was telling me she hadn’t yet eaten breakfast. I asked the girl helping me if it was okay she stopped with the cookies to help the lady, and I asked the lady to please let me take care of her cake so she didn’t have to be held up longer. She looked bewildered, but eventually let me. She said she would pay it forward, and left the store.
The girl resumed filling the second box and then looked at me, a hint of tears in her eyes, and asked me if I could do her a favor. She gave me extra cookies and asked if I could please put one out for each child at the memorial because she wanted them to have them. In that moment, the cookie lady broke me, but I promised her I would, paid, and left.
It was the best $38 I ever spent. I have a feeling she didn’t charge me enough, so if you ever find yourself in San Antonio, please go support this business and its staff.
It was a really hot day, with the car reading 102 degrees almost the whole way there, and soon the highway I was on turned into a rural road. The residences were really spaced out with lots of farmland between them. As I drove closer to Uvalde, the signs started popping up: #PrayForUvalde and #UvaldeStrong.
Even with all the distance between the communities, you could feel the closeness among them. They hurt for their neighbors.
The closer I got to Uvalde, the more signs there were. As I entered the town limits, it became memorial after memorial, sign after sign. Flags at half-staff.
I also had noticed the road noise as I drove out. The sound of worn-down roads underneath relatively new tires. Not deafening, but loud enough to notice. Yet when I passed the sign that marked the entrance to Uvalde, the noise disappeared, and the silence set in. I know that silence well. I heard it in the Fresh Market when I went to try and buy those 17 flowers.
I got to the family assistance center around 4:30 pm. It is at the county fairgrounds, which looks like any other fairgrounds – a large plot of land with some paved roads and sporadic buildings. I made my way behind the main building at the front to this popup tent with air being blown in through large tubes to try and keep everyone inside cool. The parking lot was a patch of dirt and as my car came to a stop, you could see the dust cloud behind it rise up.
I took the boxes of cookies inside, scanning those around me and feeling both out of place and awkward. A woman greeted me, a big warm smile on her face. I told her that I just wanted to come and give them the cookies because I know they were doing so much to help the community and I wanted to make sure they knew someone outside the community recognized that. I also told her that I grew up in the Parkland area and I knew what happened when people moved on with their lives but that I wanted her to know so many of us didn’t, that we were still there with them, supporting from wherever we were. She gave me a big hug, thanking me, and the tears I willed not to fall started to. The man who was also working the welcome desk came and gave me a hug too. They said they would make sure those cookies made a lot of people happy. I knew it might only be a fleeting minute of happiness, but if I could even give them that, it was worth it.
On my way to the center, I had passed the square in town, a literal grass plot with a fountain in the middle of it surrounded by buildings. San Marcos (TX), where I got my PhD, also had a square, so it reminded me of that. Uvalde’s square had been transformed into a makeshift memorial. Around the fountain were crosses for each victim, adorned with messages of support, teddy bears, cards, candles, and more. This was the first time I had ever seen the crosses in person. The ones in Parkland were removed by the time I got down there 2 months after the shooting. I always read about the crosses Greg Zanis made for the victims, but he passed on well before Uvalde. Others have carried on that legacy for him.
There were actually multiple sets of crosses. A pair of giant angel wings emerging from a heart. Pictures of the victims. So many bears. Posters. I remember the posters and signs hanging on the fence surrounding MSD. Here they were again – community after community standing with Uvalde.
A handful of people were milling about the memorial, taking each token, each picture in. I noticed a lot of the items around the cross for Amerie Garza had things covered in glitter. It made me wonder if this vivacious 10-year-old had loved glitter the way I do.
It was silent, deafeningly silent, except for a few moments. In those moments, the sirens of ambulances wailed, only to be followed by flashing lights as the ambulance made its way down the main road. I wonder how many people were triggered hearing those sirens, being taken back to May 24 when so many of them roared in succession.
I met a man named Gilly, short for Guillermo. He was from Dallas and had gotten up at 3 am that day to drive down. He owns a sandblasting company (I think that is what he called it) and he had made the most beautiful portraits of each victim etched forever into granite (or marble, I forgot to ask). They were magnificent, beautiful works of art you could tell were made with love. They will eventually be part of a permanent memorial most likely. He sat there, staring at this gift he had given the community, before getting back in his vehicle and making the 8.5-hour drive back up to Dallas.
After my mom passed away, I started to see yellow butterflies. I knew, since before Parkland, that yellow was the color of remembrance (another challenge when trying to buy 17 flowers). I was convinced my mom was visiting me as a butterfly. As I stood in that square, I saw tons of butterflies. Yellow ones, white ones, multicolor ones. I wondered if those were the angels staying back to let everyone know they are okay.
My last stop was the school itself. The whole drive out to Uvalde, I had felt an ache – literally, a physical one – in my chest. I knew that feeling because I felt it for months after Parkland, and many days I still do. It is grief, heartache. When I got to the school, it felt like it all came to a head.
I stood in front of this school, its entrance a shrine to the 19 children and 2 educators ripped so violently from its embrace. Children who will never again play on its playground, eat lunch in its cafeteria, or spread laughter through its hallways. Teachers who will never again get to share their love of learning with their students, year after year, shaping so many for their futures.
The school sits on the corner of two streets and is surrounded by residences. It is clearly a neighborhood school. Now it is a reminder of what happened four weeks ago. I shudder to think what the people in those houses must have seen and heard that day.
The school itself now has multiple fences around it and there were 3 state troopers, probably because the school is still a crime scene even though there will never be a trial. Not sure if that is good or bad, to be honest, but either way, how “closure” or the end looks in this was decided for this community by someone other than them.
The memorial was virtual silent except for two things: the sound of the hot wind blowing and rustling all the flowers that laid about, and the sniffles from the people who were trying to hold in their cries. I stood there, trying to take it all in while feeling incredibly triggered because how this looked reminded me of how MSD looked on April 14, 2018, when I was there. Signs of support from other communities. Pictures of the victims. Tokens left by so many.
I am not sure what possessed me to, but I noticed an older woman standing not too far away from me. She had tears running down her cheeks but was also trying to stifle her cries like so many others. I thought she was alone, so I walked over and offered her my hand, and she took it. “I was a fourth-grade teacher here,” she told me, noting that she was now retired. “I felt I had to come back here for those kids.”
In that moment, all the tears I had tried to hold back started spilling. “I grew up in the Parkland area, and I didn’t want you to have to go through this alone,” I told her. We stood there for a few minutes, arm in arm, tears streaming, wishing life had given this community a different outcome. Before we parted ways, she looked up at me, with her tear-stained cheeks, and thanked me for coming to support them. I thanked her for letting me.
I stood there for a few more minutes, struggling. Why do I do what I do? What is it all for if this is going to keep happening? Why has school safety become so politicized and cutthroat rather than an exercise of actually putting kids first? I think I had been struggling with that for the 27 days prior, but with all the media requests and everything else that followed the shooting, I had never given myself a chance to ask those questions and try and find answers for them. The reality was that when the shooting happened, I had to be the professional expert everyone counted on, but standing in front of that school, I had the chance to be the person who was broken all over again by this.
As I got in my car to drive back to San Antonio, I noticed that at the back half of the school, all of the windows were boarded up. So many thoughts raced through my head: was that where it happened? Were the windows gone from the bullets? Were they gone from the parents who were so desperate to save their children, they were willing to risk their own lives? I knew I would never know the answers, but I stared. Those windows would never be covered in art again, never have little faces peering out wondering what was next in the world for them.
I got in my car, tear-stained face and all, and drove out of town, back to “normal”, knowing full well that community would never be normal again. They could never be whole with 21 pieces missing.
The one thing that stood out to me, yet didn’t surprise me, is that the cameras were gone. Of course they were – they always leave. People move on, the next big story comes around, and everyone leaves. The people of Uvalde, like the people of Parkland, Buffalo, and so many other places, they don’t get to do that. So if you have never had to spend every day picking up the pieces of a collective tragedy, consider yourself lucky.
I don’t care who you are that is reading this. Man, woman, Democrat, Republican, gun owner, non-gun owner – I DON’T CARE. What I do care about is stopping this. We should all be able to agree that this is a problem long overdue for solving. We should all agree that people should be able to send their kids to school and not worry if they aren’t coming home – or worse, have them not come home. We should all want to prevent lives being lost every day from firearm violence.
Maybe if we stripped the political and all the differences out of it, and we focused on what we all could agree on, then maybe – just maybe – those children and their teachers didn’t die for nothing. Perhaps that is too optimistic or even a bit “Pollyanna”, but something has to give. This should have ended with Columbine, but it didn’t. Hell, it should have ended with the shootings before Columbine and didn’t. We don’t have to live like this, but we also have to not be willing to accept that we do.