Shelly Wheeler was ready when her sons’ school got shot up. She was standing in line at Starbucks when her phone dinged. It was around nine am. Her oldest twin Dylan messaged
Mom somethings wrong were on lockdown i’m ok
Later in interviews, Shelly recalled the next part differently. In interviews with local and national television news crews, Shelly said she knew at that moment her children were in danger. She said it was a mother’s heart. But what happened was she looked at the message and her body and mind paused. The man in line ahead of her ordered his venti americano but she couldn’t move her feet forward to order her usual latte. So maybe she did understand, at a molecular level, that this text signaled a shift in her world, but when her feet would not move and her mouth could not form a word, Shelly didn’t think she was entangled with her sons’ present experience. She thought she was having a stroke. The barista leaned forward a little and asked if Shelly was okay. Before Shelly could will her head to nod or her tongue to work, a woman at nearby table shouted, Oh my God! Oh my God! And jumped so quickly from her seat the chair tipped over. Oh my God, the woman shouted again and then, There’s a shooter at the school!
Shelly turned as though underwater and saw a woman who looked like any number of mothers of teenagers. This woman was already at the shop entrance and then half jogging twenty steps toward a Toyota, key fob in hand, headlights winking. Shelly turned back to the barista whose mouth was open and said, My sons are there. She held up her phone. My twins, she said. Shelly’s legs would still not respond but her thumbs worked again. She messaged Dylan
Put your phone on silent
Tell the others your with
I love you
She messaged her younger twin, Gabe
Baby, are you ok?
She messaged her husband, Don, who was already at his construction site an hour east. Neither Gabe nor Don replied immediately. Shelly looked up to see the barista still waiting, perhaps not for an order but for further news about her boys or the shooting. Another barista called, Jacob, americano. The man and woman in line behind Shelly asked if she needed to sit. That’s what shook her awake again. No, she said, No. I need to go. Thank you. And like that her legs worked and she floated toward the door, across the parking lot, to her sedan. She called her supervisor and said she’d be a little late, that something was going on at the boys’ school. Sirens screamed by. Shelly was split between her body and the space just above. She pushed the ignition start. She used a turn signal to exit her parking spot. At the light she checked her phone but there were no new messages.
By that evening, anyone clicking on an article or news clip about the shooting at Bayfield United High School would see her face, hear her voice and in the following days as she refined her narrative, she would emerge as a representative for the tragedy. Her sons lived and yet she could speak most eloquently about the loss. That morning on the drive across town, Shelly whispered soundbites and dug through her bag with one hand to find her lipstick which she reapplied at the red light before calling Don to tell him he should get in his truck and head home. Don asked was she sure it was a shooter and for the first time since receiving Dylan’s text, she considered the possibility that the lockdown was overprotective. Maybe nothing was wrong. Three years ago when the boys were in eighth grade there was a school shooting in Austin that killed seven kids and she’d watched all the interviews with students, teachers, and parents, and read all the op-eds, followed the trial of a fourteen year old boy who was mad because his girlfriend broke up with him the week before. The girlfriend was among the dead. Shelly devoured the tragedy. She did not understand why anyone was shocked at the tragedy, especially after the photo and story of the ostracized shooter ran on the nightly news. The kid looked nuts.
After Austin, Shelly followed every school shooting, even the under-reported ones like Milltown and Chattanooga where the loss of two and three students respectively did not garner national interest. If Don noticed the tabs on her computer, he didn’t say anything. Shelly joined the PTO and pushed the district to adopt a program that educated the student body about the effects of bullying and funneled troubled students into counseling. At each new school shooting she recognized herself in the semicircle of parents gathered at the fire station or holding candles at a vigil or speaking in the weeks or months after in the halls of state and national government offices.
Shelly said to Don, It’s real. I know it is. That exchange played well when Pepper Nelson of NBC spoke with Shelly while Don was at her side. Don nodded solemnly and said to Pepper, My girl knew and I’m glad I had the sense to listen.
Shelly knew just what to say when Pepper cued the cameraman. Shelly turned her face a little to the right and said it was such a shock that this kind of thing could happen in Bayfield. This wasn’t the kind of place where something so tragic could happen. This was fabulous against the backdrop of the now empty school building whose doors were wrapped with yellow police tape. This was fabulous interspersed with footage of the evacuation of students with hands on their heads, FBI and law enforcement in crouched positions on rooftops, behind cars in the lot. Shelly sniffed a little and said she mourned with the other mothers and fathers. We are all Bayfield today, she said.
That evening at home, jittery from adrenaline and rank from fear and worry, Shelly sank on the couch between Dylan and Gabe and pulled them to her, awkwardly. They were sixteen years old, tall and muscular, probably the kind of students who walked by the shooter without saying hi. The boys let their mother hold them pressed against her breasts. Shelly relaxed her arms and the boys sat up. Mom, Dylan said, I was really scared. I thought I might die. For a moment, Shelly wished he’d said that when Brock Evans interviewed the family an hour earlier, because it was so vulnerable and perfect for the story. If a boy like Dylan could be afraid, what was America coming to? She kissed his cheek, patted his hand. I’m sorry, sweetie, she said. Gabe cleared his throat. Gabe hadn’t talked since she’d picked him up from the football field where the student body congregated after the shooter was apprehended. Shelly turned to her younger son. He opened his mouth as if to speak. She looked just above his head where she knew he was.