This blog speaks about a violent event in my community where a kid was badly hurt.
A few years ago, I was a newspaper editor, working out at the local gym, when my phone went off.
Before COVID-19, the school system my daughter went to had a dress-up costume day.
This is what happened one time.
I’m sharing it again because:
- It’s important to remember.
- I was a reporter and editor then and it’s important to remember that despite everyone’s hate and rantings, reporters are people to and a part of your community.
- Love is important.
- Em (my daughter) is wise.
- Community is important too, and that’s a good thing to remember right now in these scary-weird times.
- We’ve got to remember we can bounce back and love each other and make something better. Sometimes story helps us remember that.
“You have to get to the high school quick,” Bobbi, my office manager at the Ellsworth Weekly said. “Something horrible’s happened.”
I’d been working out at the Y. The high school was down the road a bit and across a main route through our town.
Bobbi sounded worried. Bobbi never sounded worried.
I ran over in my gym clothes. It was about 40 degrees out, but the sky was clear and blue and beautiful.
The alarms were screaming off in the school and students, crying students, were streaming out of the building.
Teachers hollered at them, “Get into the parking lots. Keep moving. Keep moving.”
Some of the teachers were crying, too.
Everything inside of me fell. I hated being a newspaper person because I hated these kind of stories, the tragedy stories.
“He was on fire,” one guy who played soccer told me.
I didn’t ask him. I didn’t ask anyone anything because they were in pain. I just waited.
The boy crumpled. He pressed his hands to his face. “Jesus. He was on fire.”
I hugged him. Then his friends, mostly other jocks, came and hugged him, too.
It wasn’t the only group hug going on. The kids huddled together. Some paced. Others cried, squatted down, stood up. One girl was praying.
The fire trucks arrived, an ambulance, a TV news crew, more newspaper people, a Lifeflight helicopter.
We waited and stared at the high school’s blank, brick facade. We waited and waited and the TV news people started putting microphones in students’ faces. The school superintendent came out. He was crying. He looked at me and cried some more. He was a chubby, jokey guy with ruddy, Irish cheeks. He wore a maroon Ellsworth-lettermen jacket.
He shook his head at me. I didn’t ask him any questions. I could tell by his face that he didn’t know the answers.
I started turning blue from the cold. A TV camera guy gave me his jacket.
“I don’t want to be here,” he said.
I shook my head. “Me either.”
That day, Donny, a boy I knew a bit, a boy who hung out with one of my best friend’s sons, had gone to school in costume for their Halloween celebration. He had made the costume himself with some help from his family. It was a sniper outfit with leaves and camouflage stuff. The boy sitting behind him during assembly allegedly kept flicking his lighter. People told him to cut it out.
The guy with the flame supposedly said something threatening like, “I’ll bet you’ll burn.”
The boy allegedly flicked the lighter up one more time and lit the edge of Donny’s costume on fire.
It was flammable.
Donny ran down the bleachers. Somehow people got him to drop and roll in the middle of the gym floor. Others screamed. Others thought it was a stunt. Others didn’t know what was going on. It’s the same gym where graduation happens. It’s the same gym where all the basketball games are played. It’s a place of community, a place people get together. A place of celebration and connection.
But not then.
The school nurse saved his life. So did the assistant principal. Everyone agrees about that. Donny was Lifeflighted to Boston. He missed months and months of school. He had terrible, terrible burns. When he finally came home, there were parades and balloons and articles. He rode in a limo. He could barely walk out of it and get to his house, but he did.
Donny is a hero for surviving.
So is the community.
And we’ll survive again and again, no matter what the universe throws at us. No matter what we throw at each other.
That’s because we’ll hug each other in parking lots, put out the fires burning in each other’s bodies, sob together, and work hard to make things right even (and especially when) we don’t know how.
We will argue over rainbow sidewalks in town and then make them on school property. We will protest and then make cookies for the people who support the opposite politicians that we do. We will go to local Facebook groups and create communities within community where we will bring food to people quarantining because of COVID, read library stories together, share jokes, share possibilities.
After that incident at the high school, a lot of kids had nightmares, a lot of kids’ lives were affected, especially Donny’s, especially the boy who set Donny’s costume on fire. But gradually, that gym has lost its horror feel, and pre COVID-19, we walked in there for events and games and every time something good happens, our community gets a little tighter, a little stronger.
The gym isn’t being used now because of COVID.
That’s okay. Because it will eventually be used again, reclaimed one more time by a community that evolves, hopes, and persists.
Three years after Donny was burned, my daughter, Em, was dressed up as a penguin for Halloween. Her middle school is having that same costume day, the celebration. So was the high school. If you bring in a can of food you get to wear a costume to school, which was cool.
She was bringing in extra cans in case any of her friends forget.
I asked her why.
And she said, “Because when people need help you give it to them. I like to be prepared.”
Right now, as we face divisiveness, elections and COVID-19, it’s a time when choosing to promote kindness, community, and simple steps like wearing a mask are easy ways to be prepared, to help the people who need it.
Much love to all of you.
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