*For our non-fiction unit I wrote about my personal account of living in Idaho when there was a mass shooting in my hometown of Highland Park, IL*
The week leading up to the Fourth of July of 2022 I had made a point to tell everyone that I would be wearing any color except red, white, or blue.
It had been about two weeks since I had a notification pop up on my phone “BREAKING: Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.” An immediate and confusing sadness fell over my body. Surely it couldn’t be true.
My home state of Illinois had laws in place; the new Federal law which now allowed states to restrict abortion, was moot Illinois. At home, abortion would still be legal. I wasn’t sad for myself in particular, but sad for women, and for our country. How were a group of wrinkly lawmakers able to decide what I can and cannot do with my body?”
On July 4th, my anger with the country was at a high. I would not be wearing red, white, or blue. I woke up to the warm sun shining through the window in my small dorm room in Idaho. I was working there for the summer, in a little mountain town; filled with river raft guides, ski bums on their off season, and a lot of Mormons. My roommate, who was also my best friend, was already gone for the day. She was scheduled to work the morning shift, and me, the night.
I picked up my phone as I did every morning, to check my messages, and watch Tik Tok until I had to get up and ready for the day. As I scrolled, a message rolled down from the top of my screen. A text from my high school best friend, “There was a shooter at the HP [Highland Park] fourth of July parade. 9 people shot. From top of Uncle Dan’s.” My stomach dropped.
Highland Park, Illinois is a town located about 25 minutes north of Chicago right on Lake Michigan; it’s about as suburbia as suburbia can get. It’s home to many upper-class families, one high school, a quaint downtown, a few beaches, and community camaraderie. It is also, my home.
Driving through Highland Park, there are friendly seeming stop signs and stop lights. There is the pancake house on the corner where my family would always cram into the too small green leather booth. The ice cream shop where my friends and I would go for a sweet treat and run into our entire graduating class. The cobblestone town square where everyone would gather on summer days to hang out with friends, listen to local bands, or on the Fourth of July, to watch our town’s long-running parade.
Growing up, the Fourth had always been a joyous holiday in my house. My parents would take us to the parade where they sat in the blazing sun as my siblings and I scavenged the streets for the jolly ranchers tossed out during the parade, chip clips, and merch from the local grocery store that we would inevitably end up throwing away. We’d head back to our house where we had a large breakfast and then put on our suits and drive to our aunt’s house where she hosted a pool party for our extended family full of hamburgers, ice cream, and sparklers.
When we got older, my brother, sisters and I all worked at least two summers at our local Park District as camp counselors. One of our responsibilities was to work at the town parade, whether it be leading campers or guiding the floats en route. Someone from our family was always at the parade.
The most me-gift I have ever received was a pink shirt on my 9th birthday. It was had the word “TALK” written three times in cursive, in different shades of pink and bedazzled. My family would always say that you could never trust anything I would say, if there was one thing about me, it was that I loved to talk.
Anything I heard, I would spread. No fact checking, no follow up questions, just talk. In first grade, I saw two kids hanging out on the playground, I told everyone they were dating. In third grade, I heard a teacher was going on a leave of absence and I told everyone that meant she was pregnant. Fifth grade came, I heard another teacher was moving away, I told my parents she got fired. Some would call it lying, but I genuinely just loved to talk about anything and everything.
So, when I heard this news, I very carefully crafted a message to my family “There was a shooter at the HP Fourth of July Parade supposedly, did anyone hear about it?” I calmly wrote, assuring myself that this couldn’t be reality. Why would something like this happen in my hometown, I thought to myself.
I assumed my family would respond something along the lines of “Shut up GG, we know you just say anything you hear but do you research, it isn’t real, this isn’t something to joke about.”
However, my mom promptly responded, and it was not the snarky response I imagined, she had heard the same, “On it. Check out the Chicago sun times.” “The Chicago Sun Times???” I thought to myself, “how in the world is my small hometown front page news for the Chicago Sun Times?”
I still couldn’t bring myself to believe it, I got out of bed and went next door to my friend’s room. I walked in and said, “I think there was a mass shooting in my hometown,” and then sat on her scratchy carpet in silence for the next thirty minutes.
A jumble of thoughts sped through my mind. I kept repeating a checklist of where everyone was. My parents were at their friend’s lake house. My oldest sister was at her house in Maine. My other sister had spent the weekend with her boyfriend in Michigan. My brother was home, locked in his room playing video games. Izzy was in Israel, Kylie in London, Megan in Austria. Rachel and Mari were home, but neither of them attended. Parents at the lake house, Grace in Maine, Ellie Michigan, Emmett room…I repeated it over and over. How was it that this was the first time in 20 years no one from my family was at the parade?
I returned back to my room, my thumb couldn’t refresh the browser fast enough, the small mountain town internet could hardly keep up. I anxiously awaited updates, from the news, from family, from friends. There had been nights over the summer where I longed to see my sweet little hometown. But not like this. Not when I’m sitting in a place thousands of miles away, and seeing the pancake house, ice cream shop, and cobblestone town square on every national news site with the ticker tape reading “BREAKING: 7 dead, dozens injured, shooting at Independence Day parade in Highland Park, IL”.
I sat in my bed motionless. Waiting to see the names of the victims, and for responses back to messages I had sent to distant friends to assure they were okay. I was scheduled to work in four hours, and though I wanted so desperately to call off, I knew that no one there understood.
When my best friend returned from her shift, she said we should go run some errands to get ready for the night, to take my mind of things. We drove down the road to the town’s small center, one we’d driven so many times. Music played loud off the cassette tapes loaded into her vintage Cherokee, like we did every day, but this was not every day. I stared out the window at the mountains, my mind erupting with thoughts and simultaneously blank. There’s no guidebook on how to be when there’s a mass shooting in your hometown, all I felt was lost.
The four hours before my shift seemed to pass in minutes, before I knew it, I had to pull myself together to work. I splashed water on my face in attempts to bring myself back to reality, brushed my hair back, pulled up my black skirt, and buttoned up my gray shirt.
As I walked to work, I passed cars with flags hanging out the window, people drinking in truck beds, and red, white, and blue everywhere. I didn’t understand. How did no one care?
When I arrived at work, I was sitting at a back table, mind, and face completely blank, when one of my coworkers, a young Mormon girl from Idaho, opened her phone.
“Did you guys see this?”
“What” I replied, barely glancing up from the silverware I was rolling.
She turned her phone “BREAKING: 7 dead, dozens injured, shooting at Independence Day parade in Highland Park, IL”, in large red bold letters across the top of the screen.
“Yeah,” I choked out. “That’s my hometown”.
“This is why I hate Chicago,” she responded to me.
I couldn’t even muster words. The eruptive thoughts continued, “Highland Park is not Chicago” “There is no correlation between this, and our proximity to the city” “Every city has violence, why do people always mention violence whenever I say I am from near Chicago”. But I didn’t feel like fighting with someone who had no comprehensible grasp of what I was going through.
My boss came around the corner. The young girl said to him “Riley did you see this? This is Georgia’s hometown.”
My boss looked at me, patronizingly, “you must be proud.”
Proud? I felt completely numb, I didn’t know what I felt but surely, I did not feel pride. In the moment, I couldn’t tell if he thought this was some kind of joke. That the state of our country, the irony and yet complete non-surprise of a mass shooting happening at an Independence Day celebration was comical to him, it was not comical to me.
To me, to be an American is the fear that every day when I go to school, I plan an exit route in case of emergency. And every day that my sister and mom go to their jobs as teachers, I worry and hope that the next school shooting headline isn’t going to be their school. This was my fear well before the shooting in Highland Park and will continue to be well after. It was incomprehensible to me that someone else wouldn’t feel the same way. And maybe I could’ve understood, he was older than me, out of school, he didn’t fear for his life when he sat directly in front of the door in a classroom. But this event wasn’t even a classroom, it was a wholesome parade, one eerily similar to the parade he would be attending that night, and yet, nothing. Not an ounce of remorse came from the words he spoke to me.
I walked to the bathroom to splash my face once again, hoping to wake myself up from this nightmare that I was living. I looked at myself in the mirror, “They just don’t get it” I said out loud, “you didn’t get it when it was any other town”. I pulled myself together and walked outside to go pick up my dinner before our restaurant opened for the night. When I got to the small brown cottage that we called the Chow Hall, my friend Ethan was also picking up his dinner. He was from a town about 30 minutes to the West of my hometown, he said nothing, just embraced me in a large hug. My tough act lasted all of about three minutes, because the second he embraced me, I began to bawl. The first time I had let out a single tear all day, it was the first time it felt like someone understood.
Ethan walked me back into the restaurant and went up to my boss to ask if there was any chance, we had enough people to cover the night without me. He explained how unwell I was and how if they could make it work without me, they should. My boss said, “Were her friends or family there?”, why did that matter? I thought to myself, but I couldn’t mutter any words. Ethan spoke for me, telling him that it didn’t matter, “have you ever gone through this? You don’t know what it’s like”, he said. They let me go home.
With the continued acts of invalidation, I worked all day to compartmentalize my feelings. It wasn’t here. No one here knew what was going on. I wasn’t there. It was the first time in over 20 years that anyone from my family wasn’t there. I was lucky. I would act normal and tomorrow when things had settled, I could be sad, but only by myself, because no one else seemed to think this was a big deal, so why did I think it was a big deal?
I remember my walk back from work very clearly. The parade was going on in town, so the cars with flags, loud music, and celebrators had moved there and the road was empty. I had my hood up and I blubbered out tears. All the tears from the past eight hours were coming out like a faucet you can’t turn off. It was then, that I received a text from another home friend. “Bobby Crimo, arrested while heading North on Highway 41” accompanied with a picture from my high school yearbook, Crimo’s photo right next to one of my friends.
When I returned back to my dorm room, I sat alone in the dark, curtains closed, the only light radiating was from my computer screen where I had the news on one tab, and search results about the suspect on the other. I was finally alone, I could finally be sad. And I was, for hours. My roommate returned later, and sat with me while I cried, but even she didn’t fully understand what I was going through. I so desperately wanted to be curled up on my couch at home next to my mom, while my family filled the living room, but that wasn’t an option. The only options I had were to mope alone in silence or surround myself with my friends in attempts to distract myself.
I felt guilty for feeling so sad. I was extremely lucky. I didn’t know any of the victims personally, maybe I had loose far-off connections to a few. Some family friends had taken hits of shrapnel and gone to the hospital, injuries sustained as they fled, but they were safe.
I decided to try to distract, to go back to compartmentalizing because I felt that I didn’t have a right to be as distraught as I was, but of course I did. Part of me felt it was easier to distract myself, letting my body absorb the shock only in small doses when I gave myself the opportunity to feel. It seemed easier this way, it was the only way I think I was able to get through it without going through a complete breakdown.
I put on black shorts and a green top, my friends in Idaho convinced me to go to the local street dance the night of the shooting. even though I was going, I had no intentions of celebrating. Everyone gathered in the street, drank, and danced while live music played, and later fireworks went off. My best friend told me that if I went, she would leave with me as soon as I wanted to.
I stood in the street in Middle of Nowhere Stanley, Idaho. People I’d only met a month ago partied I attempted to force myself to feel joy for the 4th, all while my friends from home friends texted in our group chat about how tone deaf it was that people were still out celebrating, or how dare people go out after these events. There I was, out.
People who had seen me violently sobbing in the Chow Hall and at work hours before talked to me as if nothing had happened. I painted a smile on my face, and lasted about an hour, before it was time to go back to my dorm.
The next few days blur. I spent a lot of time alone; it was the only time I let myself feel. Though even when I was with friends, I still felt alone. This is no spite to them, because if I were in their shoes, I likely wouldn’t know how to act either. Granted, I had seen headlines for years of Parkland, Buffalo, Uvalde, Sandy Hook, and I felt sad for a second, but it was just the norm. For them, Highland Park was just another one of the towns to add to the ever-growing list.
As weeks passed on, I had lingering sadness. When I arrived home after my summer away, I visited the memorial lining the streets of where the massacre had occurred. I cried with my mom, sisters, friends, and other family members to try to understand my feelings about what had happened. I would be lying if I said to this day, I don’t think about it often. I went to a music festival a few weeks ago, 8 months since it occurred, with my best friend who had been in Idaho with me. Green Day was performing, and they had these acute fireworks that sounded eerily similar to gunshots, I twitched every time they went off, and my best friend glanced at me each time, a silent acknowledgement that a sound like that should not be used in a country where mass shootings have slowly become the norm.
Independence Day is seen as a way to celebrate our freedoms, when we finally became our own “Great” nation, and yet to me, and I think many others, this is far from where Independence Day lies now. Though I didn’t lose loved ones that day, I lost the safety, security, and innocence of my home, stripped from me and many others due to a senseless act of gun violence. And two weeks prior, I had also been stripped of my security and right to choose that if I ever were to become pregnant and want to terminate it, I would likely not be able to. In either regard, the helplessness, and no option to feel safe in a place you grew up with the highest admiration of, is heart-wrenching, and terrifying. If my home isn’t safe, and my body isn’t mine, then what are we celebrating? At this point, is there really anything more American than a mass shooting on Independence Day?