Someone Shot My Hometown
by S. Thomas Drake
Country of Origin: The United States of America
On the morning of July 4th, 2022, I was lying in bed watching videos on my phone when my mom called me. Earlier that week, we had discussed the possibility of meeting at my parents’ house for a barbecue or a short visit, so I didn’t think anything of the call. However, when I picked up the phone, it was immediately clear that something was wrong.
The usual preamble to our calls, the “Hi, how are you? What’s new?” etc., was replaced by a nervous, “Where are you?” After I reassured her that I was safely at home and that my brother had returned to his house in Milwaukee the night before, my mom told me that she and my dad were currently fleeing the downtown area of my hometown, Highland Park, Illinois, because there were gunshots at the Fourth of July parade.
My immediate reaction to learning my loved ones were in danger from a mass shooter was not what one might expect. When I worked in schools, I went to work every day knowing that there was a possibility of a stranger or even one of my students coming into the building with a gun. During quiet moments at my desk, I would think about how I could best protect myself and my students if there were to be a shooting, occasionally glancing out the window to see if there was a safe place to land. When I go to the movies, I prefer to go to theaters with emergency exits in the back, so I can sit far away from the entrance and I know I have a place to go if a shooter were to come in. So when my mom called to let me know there was a mass shooter at the parade, I was scared for the people there, but I wasn’t surprised.
For the remainder of the morning, I continued to lie in bed, waiting for the call that would tell me my parents had made it home safely. While I waited, I constantly refreshed a Google search for Highland Park, desperately hoping for new details to come out about what was going on.
When my mom called me the second time, it was to tell me she, my dad, and a group of paradegoers had taken refuge at the nearby beach, and she was waiting for a friend to come and pick them up. She also informed me in hushed tones that one of the young men at the beach with them seemed suspicious, and had been smiling the entire time they were there. Hearing this scared me, so it’s hard to fully imagine what she must have been feeling at the time. There was no information what the shooter looked like or where he went, and for all she knew another bout of gunfire was about to erupt where they were now. How could anywhere feel safe after what they had just experienced? After that phone call was the first time I cried that morning, thinking of my parents shuffling through a crowd of people just as scared as they were, not knowing if another round of gunfire was about to erupt in their midst.
I was incredibly fortunate to have my parents make it home that day unharmed, a luxury not everyone from Highland Park can say about that day. This didn’t stop me from feeling a profound sense of loss. Members of my old community had lost their lives at the site of so many wonderful childhood memories. Were I to associate words with Highland Park I would have said “quiet” or “safe,” but now I was seeing headlines literally describing it as a warzone.
As details emerged about the shooter, I was shocked to learn he was the son of the owner of a deli that I had frequented for years. I remembered that behind the counter the owner had hung some of his children’s artwork. I wondered if the colored pencil drawing of Iron Man I had admired had been done by a mass murderer.
Never a community to take things lying down, the town quickly adopted the slogan “HP strong” and began multiple initiatives to help the victims and their families get through this trying time. From local businesses to children with lemonade stands, people did their best to raise much-needed funds for hospital bills, therapy, and medical devices that some victims will have to use indefinitely or for the rest of their lives due to injuries. However, as Highland Park rallied, the events of the day began to quickly fade from the consciousness of those unaffected by it.
Mass shootings have become a fact of life in America. There have already been over 300 shootings in 2022, and the sad truth is that more will probably occur between my writing this and when this article is published. It’s impossible for people to fully process each one of these tragedies with the gravity they all deserve. It’s easy for people who are disconnected from these events to think that the effects of a mass shooting only last for the duration of the event itself. However, for people who were there or for the community at large it leaves a scar that does not heal quickly.The last time I spoke with my mom, she mentioned that she still checks the rooftops around her while she is in public spaces since that is where the HP shooter attacked from.
Highland Park residents were scandalized to learn that a website was selling “HP Strong” T-shirts, not to benefit the victims, but to make a profit. The site incidentally has paraphernalia for a variety of mass shooting incidents, capitalizing on the tragedies of not just our community but many.
The Fourth of July parade that the shooter chose to target was a staple of our small town, one that I have memories of attending for years as a child. Now, instead of simply being a time for the town to get together and have some fun, if the parade continues it will be an annual reminder of the tragedy that took place in our town square.
Another aspect of experiencing a shooting in your community is the outside pressure to move on. Whether it’s feeling guilty or selfish for not being as affected by other mass shootings or the toxic positivity of those who didn’t have a personal connection to the attack, I’ve found myself starting to feel crazy for not having moved past it yet. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way as my partner has expressed her own similar feelings. Like me, she also spent the morning worried and unsure if my parents were safe, however, by as early as that evening her mother was making it seem like my partner was overreacting to still be so upset about it. I’ve stopped several times while writing this and had to convince myself that not only am I allowed to be upset about this, but that I should be.
If there’s anything you take away from my experience and those of the people close to me it’s this: As frequent as they are, we should not allow ourselves to start thinking of mass shootings as normal. Other countries seem to have figured out how to get gun violence in check, so it’s clear that there are steps that can be taken to help prevent these attacks from happening. However, people don’t take action to change things they see as natural occurrences. I’ve heard people compare mass shootings to natural disasters which is a dangerously dismissive way to think about the issue. There is no legislation that will stop a tornado, and you can’t regulate a hurricane. People should be able to go to a parade, or to a movie, or to school and not have to worry about being shot, but I do and I’m not alone.
S. Thomas Drake is a former high school English teacher who is passionate about mental health, education, and politics. Through his personal experiences, he hopes to help readers become more comfortable examining their own mental health and to help remove some of the stigmas around talking about it. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, he also aims to explore how public perception of one’s identity can impact the way they view themselves and some strategies for working through hard times.