Not just the smallness of the town or the high school, but the smallness of the actual, physical place where it all occurred. It’s tiny. Being there and seeing it brought home just how tiny it is. And being there, and walking into and out of the cafeteria at Chardon High School, brought home just how horrific February 27, 2012 had to have been for anyone there who experienced it.
I’d been to Chardon High School many times, but I was never inside until the fall of 2012, months after TJ Lane opened fire on his fellow school mates in that cafeteria, killing teenage students Daniel Parmertor, Russell King and Demetrius Hewlin, and paralyzing another, Nick Walczak, for life. Lane shot them, and two others who escaped with minor physical injuries, with a .22 caliber handgun while they sat in that small cafeteria waiting for their school day to begin, or for buses that would take them to specialized classes.
He shot them up close and personal, because in that community, in that school, and in that cafeteria specifically, there is no other possible way to do it.
I’d seen football games in the stadium behind the school and had either dropped kids off or picked them up at the school on more than one occasion. But high school volleyball meant visiting the gym to watch. And that tiny cafeteria is attached to that small gym by two wide doorways and it serves as the refreshment stand at Hilltopper athletic events.
People have a way of interjecting themselves into tragedy and loss. It’s hard to say why they do it, but a guess is some do so for coping and some for attention. I don’t know if this article is the former or the latter or maybe a bit of both. That interjection is always easier when there’s the safety and comfort of distance involved. But for many in northeast Ohio, and specifically for those who have grown up in and around or on the borders of Chardon, that distance didn’t exist in this case. Paducah, Columbine and Red Lake? All tragic but none that shattered the illusion that it couldn’t happen right here. They were all in places far from home and that distance contributed to a certain detachment that those deadly shootings were likely carried out by kids different from those who live here.
The Chardon shootings shattered that illusion. Suddenly that interjection was all too real and all too uncomfortable. Those kids were not mine, but Chardon is us. It’s not a selfish interjection in this case, the more I think about it. Forget just being in the same athletic conference and feeding the same amateur sports clubs and teams. Chardon is the Maple Festival and softball tournaments at Eagles Field. Chardon is where people from adjoining communities like Leroy Township and Concord go to do their grocery shopping and to grab KFC. Not only were these murdered kids the ages of our kids but these kids were friends, acquaintances, teammates or relatives of our kids. Their parents are our friends or our brother’s friends. Their cousins are classmates or teammates with our kids. That comfortable distance, that buffer zone we prefer when we opine on these tragedies was breached. It was far more personal.
But never more so than when standing in the very space where the shooting occurred.
It’s not hard to understand why. You’re in a gym and in a cafeteria with your kids, watching your kids play against kids who were there that day and you’re buying a water or a candy bar in a room where someone else’s kids were brutally murdered for no apparent reason.
It’s not a big leap to visualize the same situation at Madison High, Painesville Riverside, Mentor or Euclid. It’s not hard, except that it’s absolutely terrifying, to inject your son or daughter into that very situation in their own school cafeteria 20 miles northeast of Chardon High.
What the Chardon shootings did was bring home an awful helplessness that we as parents prefer to ignore. The fact we know that bad things happen every day or that cars and teenage drivers don’t always mix well is one thing. You accept this while shoving that knowledge and unspeakable fear back into the far recesses of your mind so you don’t drive yourself and your children absolutely crazy every time they walk out the door.
We understand, even if we don’t accept, the fact that those kinds of accidents happen. But it’s really hard, if not nearly impossible, to accept that some deranged asshole with a rotten upbringing and access to a handgun can walk into what’s supposed to be a safe environment and end or permanently alter your child’s life on a random February morning.
That’s the reality that Chardon hit us with three years ago today.
The community of Chardon and the school administration has done all it can do to re-create a normalcy for its students, their parents and those who visit for events such athletic contests. But you can never walk in there if you know what happened and not be affected. You cannot step into the cafeteria or look into it from the gym and not think about the chaos, fear and suffering that took place. There’s an almost unspoken understanding that it should remain unspoken, a nod to letting it lie and getting on with things.
And as a visitor and an outsider there’s almost an obligation to comply with that sentiment. It feels impolite to even think about it, much less discuss it openly.
I want to respect that “implied request” for normalcy. I want to show respect for the kids whose lives were taken that day and also acknowledge and respect the loss those parents will feel every single day of their lives. But I don’t want to forget it, regardless of how awful it was. I don’t want to forget the horror of the situation and I don’t want to forget how communities came together afterward in their support. I don’t want to forget the pride I had in how the Madison Blue Streaks hoops team honored the athletes and kids from Chardon.
Forgetting the event, forgetting the aftermath and forgetting the response would be minimizing the loss of life and the loss of innocence of that day. An event like the Chardon High School shootings tears away and destroys our sense of order and our beliefs. Something impossible is happening based on the rules of society and the belief that schools and classrooms are “supposed” to be safe. When they no longer are, there’s disarray, disbelief and confusion. What we believe sacred and take for granted has been turned upside down. That’s traumatic. And there is no rationalization for the event. There is no justification. Too many things are out of our control. As has been said elsewhere by people much smarter and far more eloquent than I am, despite our attempts to impact our environments, our environment has a far greater impact on us.
No, dealing with that trauma and the unthinkable events that took place in the Chardon cafeteria isn’t about forgetting it and going back to whatever was normal before the event as quickly as possible. Not for the kids who were inside that morning or their families. Not for any of us. It’s more about absorbing what happened, sorting it out as an individual, understanding that your world has changed, and ultimately moving forward with that understanding that things will never be the same.
Forward is good. Forward is healthy. But every time I’m in that cafeteria and in that gym, I can’t help but look back. And looking back a few years later, it’s still hard to comprehend that such a minute amount of space could be the setting for that event. And it’s an event that had, and continues to have, a profound impact on the people both directly and indirectly involved in, and affected by, what took place there that morning, three years ago today.