In my last post, I talked about one of the dynamic speakers we had at our safety conference. As I mentioned, he left an impression, and gave me lots to think about.
But the emotional pinata had only taken a few whacks at this point. I had no idea it was about to be flogged until it hemorrhaged its contents all over me.
It was time for the next speaker.
A man by the name of Frank DeAngelis took the podium.
You might not recognize that name at first. But it may ring a bell when I tell you that Frank DeAngelis was the principal of Columbine High School from 1996 – 2014. And it was on April 20, 1999, that two of his students carried out one of the largest school shootings in US history.
For the next hour and a half, we relive the terror of that day through Frank’s eyes. We listen to his horrific account of watching students be shot and killed. Of facing the gunman and hearing glass shatter around him. Of seeing a fellow teacher distract the shooter long enough for him to hustle other students to safety, and of hearing the gunshots that would silence the voice of a dear friend.
We hear the anguish of the first responders, frustrated at their inability to do anything but wait outside, knowing what was taking place as they watched helplessly. (They were forbidden to enter the area until it was secure; that protocol has since changed.) We can only imagine the tension – and relief – as the surviving students meet their parents at a nearby elementary school, and the unspeakable grief of those parents remaining when they are informed, by heartbroken officials, that no more students will be arriving.
Frank’s life was spared that day – but it was forever changed. It goes without saying that the trajectory of his life was knocked completely and permanently off its path. And the nightmare didn’t stop when the shooters died. There were students – and families – to support, and a school to run. And there was additional fallout: He was named in several lawsuits – when you’re grieving, you need a place to hang the hat of blame, and a lot of parents threw berets in his direction. His marriage didn’t survive, and he is working to rebuild the relationship with his daughter, who stood aside as Frank poured his life into the needs of his students.
But then we began to hear a story of rebuilding, community, and hope. We hear how, through time, faith, support, and an unparalleled strength of character, Frank and the community began to heal.
I was fortunate to be able to talk with Frank later that evening. A small group of us shared life stories and laughs over drinks later that night. He’s a very congenial dude, really charming, friendly, and genuine. Very Italian, by the way. (He’ll tell you that in the first five minutes you speak to him.)
And human. Very human.
I won’t begin to call Frank DeAngelis ordinary. No one who positively impacted the lives of so many young adults – who genuinely CARED, and continues to care, about each and every person impacted by this horrific event – who helped rebuild a community – can be called “ordinary.”
But he was certainly a regular guy. And one day, a terrible, terrible thing happened. It would have been understandable if he’d left his job at Columbine. But he stayed until every student who was enrolled in 1999 graduated. (And a couple more years for good measure.)
Nowadays, in “retirement,” he advises on matters of school safety.
And he offers a message of hope.
I spent the next day of the conference involved in active-shooter training.
As you can imagine from the subject matter – it was a pretty intense day. We analyzed case studies, listening to the 911 calls from the March 2009 Carthage, NC nursing home shooting. We watched the video of the Bay District School Board shooting from December 2010. (Yes, the entire thing is on video, because they routinely televised these meetings locally.)
And then we watched Run. Hide. Fight.
If you haven’t watched this video, you probably should. (And spoiler alert – there are people with guns shooting down people without guns. Don’t say I didn’t warn you; watch at your own risk.)
I’m severely disturbed that we live in a world where safety professionals are advising us to watch things like this, and to have “active shooter” drills in the workplace. But just since that training day, we’ve had two more incidents hit the headlines: Kalamazoo, MI the day after I left, and a workplace shooting in Hesston, KS last Thursday.
It’s hard to deny that we need to prep employees for this, just like you might practice a fire drill or tornado watch. But I can’t say that one can ever truly be prepared for anything like this.
We’re told to train our employees to run – get out – if they hear gunshots. Study your workspace and think about where they’d hide if they couldn’t escape. Plan for what you could use to barricade the door. What you’d fight with if cornered. Play dead if you have to. Lie in a pool of someone else’s blood so they think they’ve already shot you.
Sometimes, the world is truly terrifying.
On my way home last Friday, I got the message that a dear friend’s husband passed away suddenly. He leaves behind a young son, and the sweetest, dearest woman on the planet will now be faced with reconstructing her life without the husband she obviously loved very dearly.
He was just a couple of years younger than me.
The following Monday morning, I was advised than an HR friend had lost her battle to cancer.
She was talented. Witty. Spunky. She personified “scrappy.” An animal lover. A beautiful soul.
She’s my age.
Two young, strong, vibrant lights, extinguished forever.
Most of the time, we take living for granted. Every day, we expect to wake up in the morning. (Slowly, and reluctantly, but we do eventually reach the generally recognized state of “awake.”) We go to work with the understanding that eight (OK, ten or twelve) hours later, we’ll be returned to our families in pretty much the same shape we started in, albeit a bit tired or cranky. Later, we eat dinner and go to bed, with no doubt about repeating the routine tomorrow.
But sometimes, on a very ordinary day, a terrible, terrible thing happens. On average, 550 people per year will be murdered at work. Nearly 90 people per day will be killed in a motor vehicle accident.
And if that doesn’t get you, there’s always the Big C. If you go to this page, you can pull some interesting stats:
In 1975, for ages 20-49, there were 137 cancer deaths per 100,000. In 2012 there were 157. Is 157 a big number? No. But it is a 15% increase.
Let’s look at the under-20 set. Thankfully, there aren’t a lot of children dying from cancer, but even one is far too many – especially if it’s YOUR kid. During this same time period, the incidence rate per 100 went from 13 cases to 17 1/2 – a 35% increase.
Sonofabeach96 wrote a post the other day about this very thing.
Right now, I feel like I have things sorta figured out. That concerns me, as that’s when life tends to kick you in the nads….
That said, if life is all ebb and flow, yin and yang, and good times, bad times, then will, or when will, my other shoe drop?
Once in a while, life slaps you right in the face with the fact that it can be unfairly random. You can do everything right – exercise, eat right, live peacefully, and take every safety precaution – and you still might draw the short stick.
I mentioned my friend died from cancer. Lung cancer, to be specific. I know what you’re wondering, but please, please don’t ask me if she smoked. What the hell does it matter? Will it bring her back if I say “no”? Will it offer YOU some sort of comfort, knowing you’ve never smoked, and allow you to believe it can’t happen to you?
Because it can.
Or something else can.
Today was not my day. If you’re reading this, it wasn’t your turn, either.
So what am I doing with my life? Why, I’m weighing myself daily while measuring every bite I take and beating myself up when the food I dare to eat inevitably displays itself on my thighs.
For what, exactly? Am I hoping for a smaller coffin? Do I want to be a slighter target for a gunman, or have the ability to hide in a smaller space?
Do I really think that will make any difference?
Shouldn’t I be focusing on the business of living?
It’s certainly food for thought.
I’ll be sure to ponder this while counting calories burned on my treadmill. And, ya know, I’ll be dreading getting on the thing…but I shouldn’t be taking it for granted.
For now, I’m doing my best to throw a little kindness out into the world, trying to chuck good vibes out where I can. In the airport last week, a lady was a bit rude to me – her kid rammed my chair while I was eating, and I’ll admit I gave him the stinkeye. She got a bit mouthy – and while I have no doubts about my ability to defeat most opponents in a verbal showdown, I opted to remember how frustrating it can be to have an energetic young son, and decided to pray for patience and peace for her.
Sure, I could have sparred with her, but what good would it do? You’d just have two angry people instead of one – and there’s enough hostility in the world already. Right?
And in the middle of the week, I had just started my 35-minute commute (OK, it’s more like 40, but I start the day as an optimist) when someone ran a stop sign. I blared the horn and slammed on the brakes, leaving an enviable patch. Thankfully, I missed solidly T-boning her – but not by much.
Quickly, I made the decision not to be angry. It was clearly a mistake. (She looked VERY surprised. Stop signs are subtle, sneaky things, sprouting up randomly in places they’ve never been before.) Haven’t I made mistakes before? Abso-freakin-lutely. And I’d want to be forgiven. I prayed for focus and calm for her and went on my way.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still capable of getting plenty angry – both at others and at myself. I’m not some peace pioneer – not by any stretch.
But, while I can’t be the sun, I can certainly try to shine a flashlight into the dark, dusty corners in my quest to find the good things about this sometimes bleak, scary planet.
And if anyone comes out swinging, I’ll whack ’em in the cranium with the blunt end and run like hell.
Run. Hide. Fight.