Hoping it will never be the last hug
By Sarah Weinhaus
With a smile spread across my face, I prepare to blow out the candles on my eighth birthday cake during October of 2012. My mom stands behind in admiration, with her arms wrapped around me.
They would all be in high school today. Some of them freshmen, some seniors, maybe they’d be graduated and enjoying their first years of college. They’d be learning new things. Leading social lives, learning to drive, and applying for their first job.
But those children who were killed at Sandy Hook will never do so.
Just as the teens killed at Oxford high school will never experience another football game or pep rally. They won’t graduate college, get married or have children of their own.
November 30, 2021, began an ordinary Tuesday at Groves. That 7:30 a.m. first bell and the sleep-deprived students moped their way to various first hour classes. The day continued as expected until around 1:30 PM, when students’ such as myself catch word of the ramble among our Snapchat Stories. Black screens with a line of text written across reading the phrase ‘prayers for oxford’ were being posted by the minute. These types of posts with minimal context always present an array of questions. The number of scenarios as to why we should be ‘praying for oxford’, was beyond me. A school shooting always held its spot at number one on my list of possible tragedies at a school; it is just the way I’ve grown up.
The city of Oxford wasn’t a location I was familiar with, but clearly it was close to home considering students in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, Michigan were taking the time to advertise their thoughts. I figured I would hear about it soon enough if it really was that impactful.
At that time, I truly had no idea that Metro Detroit would become such a staple in national news. By the end of the school day, the buzz of the shooting at Oxford began to swarm. Local Michigan schools, sports teams, organizations and more began to release different statements regarding the event. Photos of the alleged shooter’s Instagram feed were exposed. People took to social media, voicing their concerns, the rumors they’d heard, and prayers in a time of complete chaos. By late afternoon, the shooting at Oxford Highschool was front page on all major news sources. Word travels quickly.
The fact that Oxford is so close to where I live made the phrase “you never think it can happen to you, until it does”, all the more realistic. Various friends of mine living in different states around the US sent texts voicing their concerns for my safety, thus validating the feeling.
“Hey, I know there was a school shooting near you so I was just wondering how you’re doing. That’s probably so scary,” Jamie Marks, a close friend of mine from Maryland said.
It was a diminishing feeling having to reassure my out of state friends that Oxford was not in fact my school and that I was ok. So many students did not have the privilege of responding that way. It was just four years ago when seventeen Marjory Stoneman Douglas Highschool students were fatally shot in Parkland, Florida. The Parkland Shooting became known as the deadliest school shooting in US history, even surpassing Columbine. Florida is a place I vacation often, and consider a second home. I vividly remember frantically reaching out to family and friends living in the area when word spread of Parkland. Although none were impacted directly, the fear of being in such close proximity to something so tragic is an overwhelmingly agonizing feeling. Never in a million years did I ever imagine I’d be on the receiving end of similar text messages.
A dark cloud was cast over our larger community of Oakland County. I couldn’t stay off of my phone. I spent a large duration of my day anxiously awaiting more updates; who, what, when, where, and why. My Instagram feed was sympathy post after sympathy post. Heartwarming graphics people had created to express their support for the Oxford community. Every twenty minutes there was a new update. First, the name of the shooter was released onto the media, then the death toll. Soon after a Tik Tok video was posted showing students inside a classroom during the shooting. You could feel the fear of the students through the screen. It was hard to stay away, especially when wanting to be in the know. My eyes stayed glued to my iPhone, thumbs rapidly typing as I texted friends, craving more details. Minutes turned into hours; refreshing the screen awaiting the newest updates.
A graphic designed by senior Lexy Rosenwasser to broadcast Grove’s love and support towards Oxford after the shooting. The image was sent to the Groves Student Congress group chat on December 1, and soon could be found posted all over the Instagram’s of fellow Groves students.
My mom returned home from work around 5:30 that evening. It was almost difficult to look her in the face. I didn’t want to tackle the thought of something so tragic, and knowing my mom, her expressions and attitude would force me to. There was a bubble, an elephant, in the house. It was just a dreary atmosphere. The situation was so close to home. She hugged me tightly. Threw in an extra squeeze but didn’t say much, just expressed her sadness. There isn’t much you can do other than dwell on the feeling that early. Everything was so new, all you could do was process. It wasn’t until later in the day when the four victims' names became mainstream that it hit hard.
I was positioned towards the left side of my bed. A large, fluffy pillow was propped behind my head, and I lay horizontal across my duvet. My door was cracked slightly open, and I could see straight into the bathroom. The rest of my family was beginning their bedtime rituals, such as my younger brother Matt; an eighth grader at Berkshire Middle School. My attention was shifted towards my mom entering the room. She maneuvered her way through my clothing-covered floor to the side of my bed. Her smile was creased downwards. I perked up and she grabbed me, pulling me in for yet another tight hug. This time she was crying. I felt her jerk against my shoulder as she began to sob. Matt ran into the room and my mom’s stance widened, arms opened, to welcome my brother into the hug. We patted her back, comforted her in a time of high emotions.
“It’s just terrible,” she whimpered.
I didn’t even begin to think about the parental perspective until now. The fear parents have when sending their children off to school every day. Absolutely no control over what happens. When something does occur, as a parent, you really can’t do much except stand outside and pray that your child exits the school on foot, and not on a stretcher.
The hug lasted a long time, for a hug at least. We just sat there, arms wrapped around each other, in silence. She pulled away, and I wiped her tears off her cheek. She expressed her gratitude for our safety, and devastation for the families of the children at Oxford. As a student who attends school every day, I find it difficult to watch my parents fear for my safety over something that shouldn’t even be in question. My mom grew up in a generation where this wasn’t an issue, and it’s disappointment, sadness, and anger which fuels these emotions among my parents and so many others.
It's devastating whenever I receive word of another school shooting, but what's even more devastating is that the news doesn’t even phase me. Ever since I’ve been a student in the United State’s school system, gun violence has been a relevant discussion. In elementary school the only tragedies I ever focused on, if necessary, was something in history books. I was really interested in the Titanic, or the destruction of Pompeii, educational issues; I wasn’t super intrigued by modern massacres that clouded the news. I had bigger things to be enthralled over: my next playdate, or studying for the spelling bee. I was living as most younger kids do, so when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred, it was difficult for a second grader, such as myself at the time, to fathom the circumstances. The date December 14th, 2012 has for some reason always stuck with me, a core memory of sorts. I was at a friend's house and we were perusing YouTube on her iPad, that's when the "suggested" bar began to showcase live breaking news stories. Curiosity overcame me, and I tapped the small image panning the entrance to the elementary school.
Immediately, a pair of bright blue eyes stared right at me, her wavy blonde hair framing her button nosed face. Then, the video panned to his bubbly dark eyes, his luscious red hair. He looked spiffy in his plaid button down and had recently lost his two front teeth based upon the larger gap in his bright smile. I will never forget the faces of Emilie Parker and Daniel Barden. Their faces were among some of the first of the twenty-seven victims I saw broadcasted across the news. They were so young, so full of life; just like me. That is one of the factors that is most unsettling to me now. It could’ve been me. Hearing about the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut was one of the first times I felt a serious pit in my stomach. The feeling hasn’t left me since. It was a turning point in the discussion of gun violence. As if the death of adolescent teens wasn’t enough, we now had children losing their lives. No method of defense-nothing. So small and helpless. When I returned home that evening, my mom gave me a hefty hug.
I can’t help but think back on those times and compare my once naïve thoughts to the reality of a situation. I shut out my parent’s discussions. I'm sure that they did talk about the shooting openly in the house that week, but I wasn’t engaged in the conversation. I didn’t feel the need to be, as I wasn’t super engaged in the media at that time, none of my classmates were either. I didn’t have much to offer in the conversation, it was just a blip. Plus, that was our parent’s job. One thing that I take away from that day though, other than the faces of the children my age who had just passed, would be the emotion my mom expressed when hugging me so tightly. She lectured me on what to do if I were ever in that situation, and told me how much she loved me. A tear rolling down her face amidst her fear-stricken expression. I just sat there and took it. I felt the palpitations of her chest against my shoulder, as my slouched posture wrapped my arms around her torso. Her hands trembled and her breaths were longer and choppy, the human embodiment of stress. Thinking back, it was clear she needed this relief, that made the situation all the more real. That day was yet another reminder to hug your kids a little tighter.
My brother and I pose on the front steps of our former Bethesda, Maryland home for the first day of school on September 1, 2013. Matthew’s grin resembles his excitement for the beginning of Kindergarten, and my smile from ear to ear embodies my eagerness to take on the third grade.
The feeling post-Oxford was such a moment of Deja Vu. December of this year marks ten years since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. My mom was, yet again, squeezing me tightly, this time over the death of students my own age, and this time, hugging my 14-year-old brother Matthew as well. He was still attending pre-school at the time of Sandy Hook while I was embracing the second grade. The Sandy Hook students and I were the same age then, and my brother and I are all the same age now as those victims at Oxford. The victims of both shootings and I grew up at the same rate, and we all should’ve continued to grow at the exact same rate together. We’ve reached the teenage years, and our parents still worry about our safety on a daily basis; much more than one would think a parent should.
Ironically, students now must put on a brave face and comfort our helpless parents even though we are just as frightened. The fact that school shootings spanned my childhood to my senior year of high school is gut wrenching and something I hope my children will never experience. I would like to think that one day I will be able to send my children to school and not have to wonder if I am hugging them for the last time.