In 2008, a man walked into my hometown city hall and slaughtered the fathers of friends and their colleagues. The shooter sought revenge on slights brought on him by the city. It was among the first of what would become a country-wide epidemic of mass shootings.
I was joining a friend that night at a cramped downtown bar to drink beer and look at photographs for an event called “Pints and Pixels.” It was one of my first opportunities to learn from professionals and get honest feedback on my work – all of which terrified me. We were shepherded into a tiny wooden attic space with a projector. I watched as the photographers talked about magical words I didn’t yet know. Strobes. Slaves. Scrims. Diffusers. ND Filters. I was extremely out of my depth and desperately hoping no one could see how lost I was. There was a very good chance if I could keep my mouth shut that I would escape the evening with no one realizing how little I felt I had to offer.
During the halftime break of the event, grabbing another gin and tonic, the television news over the bar showed police lights, crowds, and a flurry of reporters. Something had happened. I looked at my phone. Someone was shot. A mayor. “Well, gosh,” I thought to myself, “that’s not good.” With a shrug, I went back to my drink. Surely news would be forthcoming in the ensuing days. There was simply nothing I could do. With that, I casually dismissed the situation.
But soon, more accurate information about where the shooting was, and who was shot, started to permeate the news. It wasn’t a mayor – it was my mayor. It wasn’t a shooting somewhere – it was a shooting in my hometown city hall. This was where I grew up. These were people that I knew. These were family members of friends. This was, suddenly, real. I said, as I hastily made my exit from the bar, that I had to leave because… I stared blankly at the television news and pointed, but no words were coming to me. How do I explain what this means? Finally, I uttered, “This matters to me.” and ran out the door.
My family, and close friends and their families, had been spared, but enough people we all knew were hurting. The city ached and reeled in reaction. Within a week, a parade of funerals began. I attended only one.
A friend picked me up from work as a cold, slushy rain fell, threatening to turn to ice on the roads. A biting wind punished us as we walked from the car to the church. Meeting with other classmates and sharing blank, consoling hugs, we went to the only available space – the balcony.
As the gray rain fell outside, casting multi-colored shadows of raindrops through the stained glass windows, my classmate and his family entered the altar to bid goodbye to their father who had been ripped away too early. As the ceremony proceeded, news crews gathered outside to catch B-roll and interview attendants.
Looking to my left, I noticed a particularly brazen reporter positioned on the stairs leading to the balcony. I noticed him. He noticed me. My friend and I were exactly who he was looking for, and I knew it. We were young, attractive, and vaguely attached to the situation. I tried to beat down my hunger for attention. As much as lights and cameras always pulled my attention, I worked to remind myself that there was something more important happening.
As the funeral ended, the balcony emptied pew by pew, filtering past the news crew. I watched the reporter excitedly fiddle with his microphone. As my friend and I neared, the reporter straightened his back, readying himself to approach us. With a nod to the camera guy, the distance between us closed. “Here it comes.” I thought.
The reporter launched into his question with feigned empathy. “Excuse me, would you mind…” As he looked back to make sure the camera was aimed and ready, my friend made a bold move. Stepping between myself and the reporter, he flatly stated: “There are better people to answer your questions.” Turning his body, he ushered me past the reporter and cameraman, using his body to maintain a barrier.
This moment has always left me speechless. It is wonderful, and humbling, when you learn grace and maturity from your friends – it’s even better when they protect you when you lack those tools yourself.