Marching forward a few steps at a time
One town, one school, one heartbeat. As students, parents, and staff walked into Chardon High School united, those words seemed to take on a new meaning. The Thursday after Chardon’s terrible tragedy, the school planned to have a walk-through of each of the schools in the district, the most poignant being the high school, where the incident occurred. Parents were allowed to walk with students inside the school to comfort them if they felt afraid or sad. No one knew exactly what to expect, however, so students and teachers had many mixed thoughts and feelings as to how it would transpire. Out of the darkness came a symbol of strength and unity—the march and the “taking back” of Chardon High School.
With the exception of the hovering of news helicopters and the sound of footsteps on pavement, the high school students walked from the town square to the high school in silence. The student-organized march began Thursday morning at the gazebo where a prayer was said. Hundreds of students gathered around—all hugging, crying, and exchanging words of support. The sight was truly indescribable. Many expressed how thankful they were to have taken part in the sign of strength, even if they had not particularly wanted to take part at first. “My first reaction was nope, I’m not going, but then when I actually went, it was healing and better to be back,” stated freshman Brittney Wilson. A freshman, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “I was indifferent at first. I didn’t care if I went back Thursday or Friday. I was glad I went; it was nice to see my friends.” From the square, the Hilltoppers walked three-quarters of a mile in the cloudy weather, hand in hand. All across North Street, onlookers could see a long line of students marching toward their final destination, not knowing what would lie ahead of them. “I think us walking down together made us feel united. I felt more confident and more comfortable knowing a lot of the people around were feeling the same confusion I was feeling,” expressed freshman Jodi Gunther. Senior Leah Simkoff agreed. She said, “I know I had the support of all of the classmates and knew that they were feeling the same way I was.”
Chardon High School teachers were proud of the students for taking this bold action and thought it gave the students the power to overcome what they had been feeling. “I was proud of them and they definitely gained strength from it. It showed a lot of maturity and they needed each other. It was a wonderful idea,” mentioned Mr. Brown. Mr. Mosnik said that he did not hear of the plan until just before the march took place. “I was impressed with how the students were organizing themselves and coming together. It could have been really easy to do the opposite and get distant with each other,” he observed. Mrs. Kolcum said, “It was awesome that the students took initiative to organize it.” She also mentioned that it was “very thoughtful.” Not only were the students and teachers observing, but the whole community. Mr. Herner commented on this, saying, “It presented a great picture of our student body to the community.” Along the same lines of this subject, Mrs. Ricci said, “The Chardon students never cease to amaze me with their support and love of each other, the staff, and their school. Their spirit is definitely to be modeled by all who observe.”
The march was only the beginning of the journey, however. The real emotion took place as students and their parents patiently waited to walk inside the school for the first time since the tragedy. It took a very long time for everyone to enter through the doors, and students were very anxious. Senior Tommy Turk said, “I was irritated at the hold-up. I just wanted them to open the doors.” As Chardon High School students waited to enter, school superintendent Mr. Bergant greeted them. It was a very nice way to welcome the students back. After the delay, the Hilltoppers walked in and were surrounded by teachers, police, and other staff, all of them clapping.Wilson said she was “overwhelmed by love.” Still nervous and anxious, students proceeded into the school. However, they were not the only ones feeling the same way. “I was anxious about seeing my students again. I was worried that I wouldn’t know what to do or say. It wasn’t the plan to stand there clapping…it just kind of happened. I felt healing, comfort, and less anxiety as students were finding their favorite teachers and exchanged hugs,” Mr. Mosnik expressed. Mrs. Kolcum said that she was “overwhelmed with emotion” as the students walked in, and it made her “love Chardon High and all associated all the more.” Mrs. Neumann explained that she was “sad, relieved, and hopeful that the students would be able to adapt.” In a way, the school had been taken from the students, but they were taking it back. “They wanted to get the school back for them. No one could tell them they couldn’t come in,” Mr. Brown affirmed. Mr. Herner said that as the students were walking in, he “felt proud to be here” and “felt comforted to be able to hug students.”
The next big step was to walk into where the incident occurred and for students and teachers to go back to the room where they were during the time. Turk said, “I cried. I was a mess at first.” He also said that he “liked seeing the teachers more so than the students” because he had seen his friends the whole week. Anonymously, a freshman expressed gratitude by saying, “I was grateful that I was in my 1st period class when it happened. I felt safe and was grateful I had the teacher I did during the time.” Many tears were shed, but no one was ridiculed, for everyone understood. “My first reaction was of a little shock. It felt strange to be there knowing what had happened,” Gunther said. Mrs. Neumann did not think it was difficult to return, but saw it as a chance to move forward. “I realize that life goes on and it is important to face the first step toward moving forward,” she said. For some, it was difficult, however, but everyone was there for each other, as students and teachers met up and comforted each other. The “numbness” and the feeling that it was a movie were still present, but Thursday helped immensely. The hallways were covered with posters from other schools, therapy dogs were present and being enjoyed by students, and counseling services were there if students felt that it was necessary. Cards were also made and signed for Mr. Hall and Mr. Ricci, the two of the teachers who are considered heroes.
By the end of the day, all agreed that the walk-through of the school made both students and staff more comfortable to return to the “regular” schedule the next day. “Friday would have been totally awkward had Thursday’s set-up not occurred,” Mr. Mosnik said. Mr. Brown thought that “it helped incredibly” and that it “made it much easier.” Mr. Herner added that it was nice “not having to worry about usual duties.” It also gave the students time to readjust and accept the fact that it will not be the same again. “Had we come back on Friday, we would not have had the individual time we needed to share,” Mrs. Ricci stated.
Thursday was the first small step towards a much larger goal—to get back to a new normal—, but even if it was small, it still provided hope. “I don’t think we give the kids enough credit. They dealt with it wonderfully. I’m glad I’m a teacher in the school,” Mr. Brown expressed. Wilson said, “We are one heartbeat and one family, and families stick together.” That is exactly the feeling students and teachers got as they started to return. After the events, Chardon High School has a stronger unity and is considered a family now, even in this extremely difficult time. “I was saddened and angered at how our school will never be the same. However, even in darkness, there is great light. I know in my heart and I trust that the Lord will give all of us strength through His love to carry on with our work,” Mrs. Ricci emphasized. Thursday’s events were really an example of how everyone in the Chardon community came together and gave support in this difficult time, and showed each other that there is still hope.