“The darkest roads lead to the most beautiful places.”
–Kendrick Castillo’s senior quote
This was not the post I planned for this week. Today would have been Kendrick’s Castillo’s last day of classes before graduation from STEM, a K-12 charter school in my hometown. Twenty years and fewer than ten miles away from the 1999 Columbine massacre, one child was murdered and eight more injured in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. On the day of the Columbine shooting, I remember watching the television monitors of the software company where I worked, waiting to learn if my co-workers’ kids were okay. On the day of the STEM shooting, I waited by the phone to learn whether my friend’s son was safe.
One could say a shooting like this isn’t supposed to happen here. In 2016, MONEY magazine dubbed Highlands Ranch the healthiest town in the nation. In 2018, MONEY and Realtor.com named Highlands Ranch one of the best places to live in the country. In 2019, U.S. News & World Report ranked Douglas County, the home of Highlands Ranch, as the nation’s healthiest community. Littleton, the home of Columbine, has repeatedly been ranked a top place to live, including by Wallethub in 2018. But our area has also been plagued by shootings in recent years, with three other school shootings in nearby Centennial, Bailey, and a second school in Littleton, the Aurora theatre shooting, and other shootings at churches, a medical clinic, and a big box store.
Yes, it’s true that our first responders had trained for a day like Tuesday and thankfully responded swiftly and effectively to the crisis at STEM. So did the teachers, other school employees, and roughly 1,850 students, including 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, a young man interested in robotics, who had an internship lined up for the summer, and who wanted to study electrical engineering in college, according to various news reports. In every photo I’ve seen of Kendrick, his smile lights up the whole photo. He gave his life this Tuesday protecting his classmates. Kendrick, Brendan Bialy, and Joshua Jones charged and tackled the shooter. As the days progress, we are likely to hear more stories of student bravery.
Support from surrounding organizations and businesses was swift and profound. Our Northridge Recreation Center workers reunited distressed children and parents. As far as I can tell, every house of worship in town has hosted at least one event and several have set up crisis support services. Local businesses have offered free or discounted food and counseling for those affected. Community members have offered food, childcare, and support, including support from survivors of other shootings. None of that takes away from the loss of life, from injury, or from the emotional pain of what happened.
How does this relate to my writing? As a young child, I sought refuge from an unstable home life through stories. As an older child, books helped me to survive loss. Books took me to wonderful, far-flung places, and I was a voracious reader, visiting the adult stacks of the library even in grammar school. I was hungry to learn how the main character survived her circumstances. How did she overcome her situation? I turned to books not for escape, but to make sense of the world.
School was also a refuge, with structure and caring teachers who responded to my desire to learn. It takes a village to raise a child, as the saying goes. I am grateful for the many teachers who made a difference in my life. Mrs. Johnston in 2nd grade, Mrs. Benedetti and Mr. Frascella in 7th, Mme. Chalupa for all four years of high school, and Ms. Dorish with whom I studied Honors English and completed an independent study in Impressionist painting were my early champions of reading, stories, and artistic expression. There have been many other teachers since. They taught me to explore the world through reading and writing, and that we can author our own lives.
I am fortunate that I was able to learn how to take care of myself and to succeed in the world. But what about the kids for whom school is no longer a refuge? How do we make schools safe for them, safe for all kids?
As an adult, I grew to understand what I intuitively grasped as a child—that writing can promote healing and that literature promotes empathy. In a study with 1,000 participants, researchers at the New School for Social Research in New York showed that reading literary fiction boosts a person’s ability to understand people’s emotions. Other studies have reached similar conclusions. If only I could write the story that would help us find our way out of this dark place.
I settled in Highlands Ranch after a long health battle, having moved here from Centennial after a few years on the east coast for a healing change of scenery. Today, I am grateful to be part of this vibrant community that has been quick to respond to the suffering brought on by the STEM shooters. I also can’t help but wonder about the twenty years between Columbine and STEM. In that time, we’ve witnessed so many shootings across our nation. How can we still be here? How can I do more? As a society, we have much work ahead of us. We need to figure out how to prevent future incidents like these. I suspect a cultural overhaul is needed, one that affects our words and actions each day, one that requires vigilance and tenacity, one that requires empathy. In the words of Zig Ziglar: “Building a better you is the first step to building a better America.” Let us make trudging this dark road count. Let us find the beautiful places Kendrick Castillo envisioned.
Thank you to all the STEM teachers, first responders, and other helpers for your efforts. For everyone who is grieving now, I offer my condolences and support. We will crush this darkness.
If you or a loved one needs help coping, I am not a doctor nor am I offering medical advice, but here are some resources that may help:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
If you are in distress or need resources for your loved ones, click, call, or chat. Hotline resources are available in English and Spanish. 1.800.273.8255
National Association of School Psychologists
This group has age-designated resources for parents as well as for education professionals to prevent, prepare for, and recover from trauma, including school shootings. Resources are available in numerous languages.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
This program offers resources for teens, young adults, family members, LGBTQ, law enforcement, and others. Text NAMI to 7417 or call 800.950.NAMI Monday – Friday, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm ET.