It was the cruelest lottery imaginable.
Parents filled the parking lot outside the high school, waiting for word, desperate for news. Texting furiously. Phones to their ears. Eyes wet, faces red. Hands over mouths. Some had heard from their children inside, and some had not.
Everyone knew one child was dead.
But not who it was.
As soon as word emerged Wednesday morning that there had been a shooting at Freeman High, parents rushed to the school and the neighboring middle and elementary schools. Cars clogged state Highway 27. People parked along the highway and set out on foot. Police car after police car flew by. The parents congregated in the parking lot beside the high school, where a student had shot four fellow students.
The refrain, the undercurrent, the continual comment was: Not here.
Not here, not here – not tiny, bucolic, safe Freeman, where the schools and the store are just about the whole town.
It wasn’t: Not this. No, this we know. This is the now-regular plague, the national cancer, the horrifically unsurprising truth. Children shot at school. We know this happens.
Still, something tells us: Not here.
In the hours after the shooting, with the young suspect in custody, parents and loved ones engaged in a tortuous wait. Weeping, staring, ashen-faced, in shock. Hugging, holding each other. Every phone out, every phone active.
“We haven’t been able to see him, talk to him – nothing,” one woman said into her phone.
Others were luckier, having received texts or calls from their children, confirming they were safe. For those without that solace, there was a palpable terror.
Sarah Chisholm moved to Freeman two years ago from Seattle, looking for a quieter life. Her daughter, Anna, is a freshman, and she has a son in middle school. She got a call from Anna from inside the school, and so she was one of the lucky ones: She knew her children were safe.
“She told me she had heard the shots and she jumped into a classroom, and they immediately locked it down,” Chisholm said.
Her husband is still in Seattle, and he was in the Columbia Center tower, “calling every second,” she said. “We’re just helpless,” she said.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich came to speak to the parents, let them know what he could, tell them when they could see their kids.
After he left, people took to their phones again.
“They’ve got four that they know of right now,” one man said into his phone. “They didn’t specify who. And they have one fatality, too.”
A medical helicopter lifted off from the football field and headed toward Spokane. The parents with elementary and middle schoolers were told to go retrieve their kids, which set off a rush. “I’m just marching through the landscaping!” one woman shouted into her phone as she hustled toward the school.
On Kent Smith Field, another helicopter sat near one of the goal posts. Students gathered at the other end, and some sat in the stands. On the sidewalk between the high school and the lower schools, notebooks and purses and binders were scattered – as though they’d been dropped in a panic.
A comp book. A geometry worksheet. A No. 2 pencil.
At last, Knezovich began shepherding the parents of high schoolers toward the football field to get their kids, 10 students at a time. “If your spouse is here, grab their hand,” he said.
“We have the kids in two separate groups,” he said. “The kids who witnessed things, they’ll be the last to leave.”
As he spoke, a woman began crying, and he walked over and put an arm around her shoulders.
The parents headed toward the field, and before long began emerging with their children. Hugging them. Holding them. Seizing their hands. Kissing their heads. Not letting go.
As one girl came out with her parents, she spotted another family waiting for news and rushed to them: “She’s good,” she reassured them. “I saw her, she’s good.”
More parents were led to the field, while others waited. Some knowing, some not. A strange quiet came over things. You could hear voices, idling firetrucks, a low hum running underneath all that activity surrounding Freeman High School, wrapped in a border of red police tape.
And who knew what horrors inside?
The parents continued making their way to the field, continued the texting and the talking and the weeping and the worrying. And then, even as some of the first families were leaving the field, reunited, an intense wail of grief erupted from the area where parents were waiting.
It went on and on, freezing everyone with the awful knowledge: A mother had learned the worst thing, the worst of all things, and the misery was unbearable. It radiated forth, sinking unforgettably into hearts and minds of everyone in earshot.
A school bell rang, a reminder of a more ordinary day. A young girl – a second- or third-grader – walked by holding her father’s hand.
“Do you think school will be canceled for a few days?” she said.
“I don’t know, sweetie.”
And parents continued to take home their children, to find them and embrace them and take them home.
One by one – except for one.