11 days after the STEM Highlands Ranch School shooting, we hadn’t stopped since the event. Vigils, gatherings, prayer groups and conversations with other shocked parents were the new normal.
May 18, 2019 Elliot and I were at Jaden’s School of Rock concert. As the band played, some feedback made a sharp crack. Elliot immediately went into a panic response and we had to exit the hall. We went outside calmly and sat down on the sidewalk, legs and arms crossed in the “Cook’s Technique” to activate our parasympathetic nervous systems. Breathing deeply, we calmed the body down and checked back into our surroundings.
Our hair danced along a breeze as rain drops join us about the concrete. Weeds swayed and popped along in patches amongst the concrete. We are safe, the mind can understand this fact, the nervous system, however, must catch up.
This is the new normal. For now…
3 days later, we enter the house, our aging dog falls three times in the distance between the kennel and the sliding glass door, and then collapses as she attempts to potty in the grass. And it all falls apart…
“No! No! No! No! No!” Elliot’s shrieks of horror erupt as our family dog hits the grass. It’s all just too much. Her knees buckle as she buries her head in my chest. I hold her to the world around her as it spins and falls apart.
“I’m not ready…I’m not ready.” She has never known a world without Ojo, one of our two family dogs–both suffering. One from old age, the other (Juno) from cancer.
It’s all just too much. She sobs and shakes for some time and eventually, it spills out, “I just wanted to get through math class…”
“I just wanted to get through math and go home…”
I’m heartbroken. I am her dad and I just can’t protect her from this. I can’t save her.
Our son, Jaden is a stoic young man. 6’1”, 155 pounds with crystal blue eyes that see everything; ears that hear everything. He is unassuming; shares very little but feels very deeply.
“I’m not doing so well, my mental state just isn’t right.“ I am shaken by his clarity of thought. He’s having nightmares now, and our hearts break. “I don’t feel right, and I know I don’t feel right… I just don’t know what to do about it. My head is all confused…“
The afternoon was nearly over when I realized that my chest has been tight all day long. Anxiety welled deep inside of me. I know this to be the effects of trauma, and I surrender. “Be still, and know that I am God“ Psalm 46:10
May 2020 – That was a year ago, and much has transpired since those early days after the STEM School Shooting. We have had a community of family and friends rally around us, our church family has held us up in prayer and fellowship, we committed to moving through this together with God at the center, and we all immediately sought clinical help to work through the effects of our respective traumas.
I have received over 20 hours of EMDR therapy, thanks to The Marcus Institute for Brain Health and Headstrong, helping me untangle what came up in the wake of this event.
Today, the healing continues, imperfectly, but not alone. You can hear my children share their hearts on this matter in this five minute Mission Roll Call Be A Leader video. They held their heads high and after we filmed this together, Elli looked at me and said, “empowered…that’s how I feel knowing that our story may help someone.”
Today, Elliot is a burgeoning young chef at Thunder Ridge Highschool, aiming to begin the Pro-Start Culinary program next fall, in her Sophomore year. Jaden is preparing to graduate from STEM School Highlands Ranch and launch off to college in the Fall.
He was accepted to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, AZ for the Simulation Science, Games and Animation program. Though college was not in his plan for 2021 a year ago.
From those early moments last year to today, he has grown so much in such little time. Below, I share an excerpt from his college essay that speaks volumes about our cherished STEM School Highlands Ranch Community, the belonging these students feel, and how much I have learned about resilience from Jaden.
In the essay, he was asked to “tell Embry-Riddle about an accomplishment and how it affected his future goals”. He shares his thoughts below.
Middle school for me started out with learning about myself. What I quickly realized was that I was a “Nerd” that enjoyed playing board games and doing intellectual stuff that people at public schools don’t appreciate. I never was the kind of person to enjoy sports or talk to every person on campus. I didn’t fit in, which made going into school everyday a struggle. I was getting bullied by anyone who remotely thought they were better than me…the constant stream of insults really shattered me, so my family and I decided to do something about it.
After taking a tour of STEM they (my parents) decided the school was a perfect fit for me, but I was still the new kid on the block. I started to feel more like a STEM student after connecting with new people (through common interests and games) and making friends, but this wasn’t the only problem I had when moving to STEM.
When I moved to STEM in 2016, I had little experience with computers… so I started learning how to use computers, type semi-fast, and use a computer to do work. Freshman year I took the intro to programming class and it was my favorite class and I was excited to go to it every day, so Sophomore year I took Game Design 1 and Game Design 2. This sparked my love for coding and set me on a path to pursue a career in coding, but I didn’t really know that then. This period of growth re-ignited my personality and allowed it to grow into the person I am today, a Senior who values friendship, logic, intellect, adaptability, and development. This problem pushed me to realize that I wanted to go into Game Design and Software engineering which follows me today and is what pushes me to go into these fields.
The thing that I love the most about games is their ability to bring people together, but all of my passion and resilience was tested last year on May 7th. On May 7th around 2:00, 2 armed students walked into STEM School Highlands Ranch and tried to murder their peers. These people changed the lives of many friends of mine and other students, but in a way, it changed me too. At the beginning of this year, I was determined that these events wouldn’t hold me back and keep me from what I wanted to do. Before the shooting I didn’t think I was going to college. In fact, I was scared, but after the shooting, I knew there wasn’t anything I couldn’t overcome. Then earlier this year, Embry-Riddle came to my school and I knew it would be the right place for me. I also had a GPA increase and I set a new personal record or PR in cross country because this experience made me determined to do better.
On to the next hilltop, son. You will never walk alone. Godspeed!
My children remind me everyday that resilience awaits on the other side of hardship. That healing is a journey, not to be taken alone. That courage comes in more forms than we think of at face value. And that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
I pray you will remember these the next time things fall apart.