Newsletter 73: What It’s Like When There Is a Shooting at Your Old High School

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here is a newsletter from September 2017. It is about the shooting at my high school in Mattoon a year ago. I suspect by the time I finish typing out this sentence there will be another mass shooting in the United States.

There was a shooting at my high school this Wednesday. At this point, Americans have gotten accustomed to the photos of students huddling outside a high school, terrified, comforting each other. It’s shocking to say that, but it’s true. I remember watching Columbine — an incident so searing I was still writing about it a decade later — and being unable to process it for weeks. But then came Red Lake and DeKalb and Blacksburg and Santee and oh god Sandy Hook, the worst thing I can imagine, just the worst the worst the worst. Now they are so common that they have their own running Wikipedia page. There have been five this year, including two in the last week, after one in Rockford, Washington; there were 16 last year; there were 20 in 2015; there were 36 in 2014. Think about that: Someone taking a gun into a school and shooting people has become so commonplace that there were three every month for a year and no one even noticed. Can you name a city that has had a school shooting incident since Sandy Hook? Well, there have been 87 different ones since then. You don’t even look up at the TV when news of one comes on anymore.

I am as guilty of this as anyone. But it is one thing to not notice the images of scared students outside a high school. It is quite another when it is your high school.

The teacher’s name is Angela McQueen. You can see her in this picture, standing next to MHS principal Michelle Sinclair and superintendent of schools Larry Lilly. Ms. Sinclair taught me algebra. Mr. Lilly coached my baseball team.

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The shooter, a skinny blonde freshman who has been in high school for exactly one month and has just forever changed his own life and the life of anyone who has ever known him, came into the cafeteria shortly before lunch. It was an excused-absence day at the high school, so there weren’t nearly as kids there as usual. There are rumors that the kid was bullied, but it’s never wise to put much credence in rumors in the first hours after a tragedy. All that matters is that the kid brought a handgun into the cafeteria and began firing.

According to the Mattoon Journal-Gazette, the first newspaper I ever read and the first media outlet to ever publish a word I wrote, the teacher, Ms. McQueen — whom I will surely call Ms. McQueen if I ever meet her even though I’m two years older than she is — was standing about 10 feet away from the shooter. According to a witness interviewed by the paper, “McQueen grab[bed] at the shooter’s hands from behind and push[ed] them up toward the cafeteria ceiling … bullets were fired into the ceiling as a mass of students scrambled to get to safety.” One of those stray bullets — it is odd to refer to a bullet fired as a gun as a “stray,” as if it were abandoned and forgotten as opposed to performing the exact purpose it is designed to perform — hit a fellow student. It entered his wrist and then his chest and exited through his back. It missed all vital organs, somehow. He’s going to be OK. His father told the paper from the hospital that he was praying for the shooter and the shooter’s family.

Ms. McQueen held the shooter down until the school resource officer arrived and subdued him. Police arrived shortly after. He appeared in court yesterday. His identity is being protected by police. He is 14 years old. I wonder if I know his family.

I am always wary of taking larger lessons from incidents like this. That a 14-year-old has such easy access to a gun is disturbing to me, and should be disturbing to anyone, but I’m always not exactly inclined to have that be my first takeaway after something so personal happens in a town I care about, to people I know. Those are larger questions, important questions, that need to be addressed in a macro sense, though they surely will not be. (This Tweet remains true, eternally.)

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But I doubt that conversation is much interest in Mattoon right now. It’s a community still in shock. It’s a community that has been through a lot, too much, in the last 30 years. It’s a community that just wants to hold its kids tight, that doesn’t want to let go. You find such goodness in the wake of events like this. People shed most of their outer junk and remember that we’re all in this together.

I was just telling someone last week that even though I’ve been gone from Mattoon for 24 years now, it still, today, is the one place that feels like home. It’s the place I sleep more soundly than anywhere else; it’s the one place I feel like I can catch my breath. I know all its flaws. I know its limitations. I miss it daily.

As circumstance would have it, I’m actually going to be in Mattoon next week. I’m even supposed to give a speech. I don’t think I have much I can tell them, though. I think I’m just going to listen to my friends from home. They have lot more to say. I have a lot more I need to hear. I just want Mattoon to be OK. Ms. McQueen is a start. There are many more like her there. There are many more like her everywhere.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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