Surviving a School Tragedy and Returning Back to Class
October 18, 2018
October 18, 2018
I remember as a kid when I used to get excited for a new school year. I would look forward to back-to-school shopping, new clothes, and new school supplies. I would look forward to finding out my class schedule, and which friends I was going to have a class with.
My heart aches for the students who aren’t going to have that this year. My heart aches for the students who have survived a school tragedy and don’t want to return to school. My heart aches for those who have witnessed school violence and are experiencing high anxiety as they are fearful to return to school this year.
I grew up in middle-to-upper class suburbia. Helicopter parents, and chain restaurants. Kids wearing Abercrombie and moms driving minivans. I felt safe all the time. But on April 16, 2007, that sense of safety was stripped from me. I was sitting in class at Virginia Tech when I heard an unfamiliar popping sound that sounded like gunfire. During the next eleven minutes, my classmates and I laid on the floor pushing the desks and chairs against the door while the gunman shot at our door and tried to push it open. In those terrible minutes, the gunman killed 30 students and professors in the building, and wounded and traumatized many more.
My recovery journey was far from perfect, but I eventually found my way through the fog. When I reflect on recovery, I realize I learned a lot about counseling, boundaries, confidence, self-care, and feelings. This stuff isn’t taught in school. You learn it by observing those around you.
For those of you who have survived a school shooting or witnessed school violence, I want to share with you what I learned as you return to the school this year.
First, going back to school was harder than I expected. I had a tremendous fear of a shooting happening again. Many people would tell me that it wouldn’t happen again, but I thought to myself, “they don’t know that.” I finally had to accept that there is no guarantee it won’t happen again.
Second, I learned to feel the uncomfortable feelings. I felt survivor’s guilt, fear, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, and self-doubt. I learned that these feelings were telling me something. They were telling me that I didn’t feel safe. Even though I hadn’t been shot, I had been hurt. As time passed, I was able to rebuild that sense of safety and acknowledge my own wounds.
Third, I found good listeners. My recovery made great strides when I began connecting with others affected by school tragedy. These people helped me feel less lonely. We bonded. We connected on a level deeper than I connected with some of my closest family and friends.
If you have suffered a traumatic experience in school, getting back in the classroom may be one of the biggest challenges in your life. So here’s my advice: Trust your gut. Listen to your feelings. Write in a journal. Talk to your friends. Hug your friends. Trust yourself. Resist the urge to compare yourself to others. Ask to step out of class when it feels uncomfortable. You got this! And remember, you are not alone.
Lisa Hamp, national speaker and safety advocate, is a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting that took place on April 16, 2007. With her classmates, she built a barricade to prevent the shooter from entering their classroom. She struggled after the shooting and developed an eating disorder to cope. Eight years later, she sought counseling and began her recovery. Today, Lisa speaks and writes about her experience during and after the Virginia Tech shooting to help others. She shares a raw and powerful personal story, as well as lessons learned from the Virginia Tech Tragedy, to first responders, psychologists, community leaders, and many others. Her work has been featured in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Campus Safety Magazine, and the Domestic Preparedness Journal. Lisa has a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Virginia Tech, a Master’s degree in Operations Research from George Mason University, and a Master’s degree in Economics from John Hopkins University.