Covering School Shootings

I didn’t grasp how real the shootings at Northern Illinois University were for at least an hour or so after learning of the situation. Five fellow students had been shot and killed in a classroom I’d been in dozens of times. I knew it, but I didn’t feel it.

Acting as the editor of the daily campus newspaper, it seemed too easy, sending reporters here and there to cover the various aspects of a developing story. Fielding hundreds of calls from the national media, one after another, while our building’s fire alarm system blared in our ears, didn’t even seem particularly difficult.

Then I called my mom.

As I was dialing and as it was ringing, I didn’t figure the conversation would be anything more than telling her that I was OK, but busy, and had to get back to work. Upon her answering her phone, I realized she hadn’t heard the news. In a flash, I understood how lucky I was to be able to tell her I was OK even before she saw the news of the shootings on her local TV news evening broadcast.

Then I realized there were parents out there who still hadn’t heard from their children on campus, and who were probably going nuts trying to reach them.

Then I realized there were parents out there who would never speak to their children again.

That's when I lost it, crying into the phone, thankful to be talking to my mom yet painfully sad thinking about parents who would have to face the ultimate tragedy of losing a child.

For the hour or so that passed between the shootings and that phone call, adrenaline had kept me focused on being a journalist. Talking to my mom hit me like a freight train. All I wanted to do for the moment was hug her and lose myself in the serenity and security only a mother can provide.

In a matter of 30 seconds I had gone from a capable, collected and competent young journalist to a 22-year-old wishing he could hug his mommy.

I don’t remember how we finished the conversation, but I went back to work. And somehow the work made things easier. As sad as I’d felt just minutes before, I was relieved to get back to work; to be in the position of providing my peers and their parents answers as this story developed. I knew the overwhelming majority of my fellow students were on the highways and interstates en route to their homes, but the people I wanted to be around were all still in town. Still in the newsroom, working and healing together.

I don’t think my mom will ever truly know the side of me that allowed and motivated me to commit myself to that story on that day. To her, I am happy and content being the first son who’s just making it in this world all on his own. But to myself, I’m just another young journalist doing my best under some tough circumstances.