Tragedy to activism: One year after the Oxford school shooting

On November 30th, 2021 a mass shooting at Oxford High School took the lives of four students: Hana St. Juliana, Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, and Justin Shilling. Six students and one teacher were also injured and nearly 1,800 students were left traumatized.

We, Natalie Schiller and Rachel Wozniak, are both survivors of the Oxford School Shooting. In the months following the shooting we have been working to heal our emotional wounds. While they are starting to scab over, they are constantly being ripped open again and with each mass shooting in the news. Again and again we are met with broken hearts and “thoughts and prayers.” This is not enough.. We need change.

Through our pain, we have found the courage to fight the epidemic of gun violence in our country. We hope to share our story of our experience, and how it guided us toward our goals in activism.

TRIGGER WARNING: This piece mentions and describes mass shootings and struggles with mental health.

November 30, 2021

It passed in a blur. I remember rushing out of my house that morning before school, quickly hugging my parents goodbye. I remember sitting in my history class, next to Justin, unaware it would be the last time I would see or joke around with him. I remember the sound of gunshots echoing through the halls and my teacher slamming the door shut. I remember frantically pushing desks towards the door for a barricade as my classmates screamed and cried. I remember texting my mom, “I love you,” and her begging me for information when I had none to give. I remember praying my brother was alive in the classroom two doors down from me. I remember a stapler being shoved into my hands to use like a “weapon” as a bullet went through my classroom door. I remember finally getting out of the school and trying desperately to find my mom or dad as ambulances whipped past me and helicopters flew overhead. Worst of all, I remember waiting. Waiting for news. Waiting for names: Tate. Hana. Madisyn. Justin. My heart broke every time.

Every single day before school, my dad would say “have a good day” as my little brother and I walked out the door. It was an unconscious “You too” that slipped out of my mouth as I grabbed my coffee cup from the counter and hurried out the door. The day went by as it normally would. Time was ticking by, work was being procrastinated, and I was laughing with my friends. Before 5th hour, my friends and I split up in the hallway and said our normal “See you later”s and “I’ll text you”s. I sat down in my class and got situated. The next few moments went by in a blur. Gunshots in the distance. Screaming. Running. I remember pushing through the glass doors and meeting the cold wind. I remember stopping a few steps out of the door. My brother. I frantically checked my phone; I saw a text from him. He was in a classroom, safe. The next few hours went by in a blur. News channels broadcasted people injured. Was it 1? 10? 20? How many people died? 0? 5? 10? No one knew. We waited and waited for the dreaded texts and calls to come through. 4 children had died. Madisyn, Tate, Hana, and Justin. They were gone from this world, just like that. From that moment on, I knew that my life, my community, my world, would never be the same.

The Aftermath

Rachel & Natalie:
In the weeks following the shooting we felt utterly lost. We couldn’t eat. We couldn’t sleep. We couldn’t laugh. And yet everyday we had to pretend like we were okay. After 42 nearly sleepless nights we returned to a school environment with classmates and teachers. The day was filled with hugs, therapy dogs, and lots of anxiety.. It was rough, but we persevered. Two weeks later we went back to the high school for the first time. Again we were met with more hugs, more dogs, and even more anxiety. Going to school became physically and emotionally exhausting. Every day we put on a brave face for our little brothers. Every day we had to go to school, knowing that 4 students never would again. Every day we had to stare at the empty desk next to us in history class that Justin sat at. Every day we woke up, went to school, and were terrified that it would happen again.

The days passed slowly and I was restless. I wanted to do something. Something that would help me move forward and process what I’d experienced. My government teacher, Ms. Jasinski urged my best friend and me to use our anger to fight for change. At first I was confused, how could I do anything? She told us about an organization called March For Our Lives that was organizing a lobby group to convince legislators to pass laws to help prevent mass shootings. We went to Lansing in February with March For Our Lives and lobbied for legislation. Later that spring, I led a new group of lobbyists and met with more representatives. We asked for safe gun storage and mental health services in schools. We cried, we yelled, we urged representatives and senators for change. Some told us no; but some told us yes. They cried with us. They grieved with us. They promised to fight with us. We still await that promise to be fulfilled but I have hope. And I will continue to fight for all the kids who cannot.

I did my fair amount of sulking in bed (which was to be expected) but I also got to spend a lot of time with my cousins. I would hang out with friends and we would talk about our stories. We tried to bridge together gaps in time and storylines in the media that just did not make sense. I could not bring myself to watch the news on TV. I remember the fact that they repeated the gunman’s name and blasted his picture over and over again, and that was not what I needed to see. I could not watch the court hearings and press conferences. It was all too gruesome and felt even a little insensitive. In the last few months of my senior year, I had no emotional availability left for anything else. It wasn’t until the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas that I realized I needed to put my pain to the side and do something. I could not sit back and watch more children be murdered in their schools. It was time for me to join in the fight.

One year later

After graduation, we were relieved. It was all over. We could go to college and leave behind the tragedy in Oxford. However, leaving our town and forgetting our past was harder than we could have imagined. Our brothers, our friends, our teammates were still there. We still had a duty to fight for those we left behind. We still had a duty to fight for schools who will still yet undergo mass shootings.

Natalie’s sister, Lauren Schiller, laid the groundwork for a new student organization at Hope College called Student’s Demand Action (SDA) last spring, an organization dedicated to preventing gun violence. We knew that this was something we wanted to be a part of. At home, everyone was so focused on the shooting: keeping the students safe at school, providing mental health services, creating non-profit organizations. The transition to a new school was shocking. No one really understood the trauma that we faced, nor were there the numbers of support that there are in Oxford. We joined SDA with the hopes of spreading awareness of gun violence to students at Hope College to gain traction for a movement towards preventative legislation against gun violence.

Through our suffering, we realized the only way to get through the grief is to help others along the way. We challenge Hope Students and faculty members to do the same. We ask that you use your life experiences and your struggles to find your purpose through activism. If you are interested in joining the fight against gun violence we ask that you join Students Demand Action to prevent any further tragedies like Oxford High School experienced.

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