It Did NOT Start With Columbine

I always think it is interesting when I see Columbine.  April 20, 1999 is the first thing on anyone’s mind when a school shooting happens.

Yes, 13 people were killed and 20+ injured there in 1999, and that is horrible just like every school shooting is horrible.

What people completely forget is that 4 students and 1 teacher were killed and 10 others were injured in a school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas on March 24, 1998…only a year before Columbine.

Notice that in this video it says, “This is the third fatal shooting rampage in an American public school in the last five months” (2:30).

Keep in mind, Columbine wouldn’t happen for another year.

Pearl, Mississippi (October 1, 1997 |Pearl High School | Shooter: 17 years old | 2 dead, 7 injured) and West Peducah, Kentucky (December 1, 1997 | Heath High School | Shooter: 14 years old | 3 dead, 5 injured) happened in fall/winter of 1997.

A few months later, two boys (ages 13 and 11), asked to leave class at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. They pulled an alarm that made students and teachers leave the school. As people walked out, they were waiting in the nearby tree line and opened fire on everyone.

I was 13.

I was the same age as a shooter.

I was the same age as the people who were targeted

and this time I was only 50 miles away.

Soon after, students took this shooting (and the others) as an example and started calling in bomb threats on my school and other schools.

During one threat, within a few months of Jonesboro, our teachers had us all stand in the middle of a ball field while the buildings were checked…a ball field against a tree line.

We all panicked.

By the time Columbine happened, school shootings were already a very real thing to me.

Fast forward to April 16, 2010. I fell asleep in my on-campus apartment living room in Jonesboro, Arkansas. By this time, it was my first semester of grad school, and I fell asleep on my couch while studying.

In the middle of the night, I woke up to a gun shot, but I didn’t know what it was until the next morning when two cops knocked on my door and pointed out that my neighbor (in the apartment right across the wall from me) had been shot.

He later died.

Security was increased, and I felt safe on campus. I loved my school and still do. I would walk back on campus today, but my point is…


It didn’t even start with these.

Yet, I hear people say, “Back in my day, this didn’t happen.”

It did happen! There has been an increase, but it did happen! The first recorded school shooting in our country happened in the 1700s!

The real questions are why are we still arguing about this,   #WhyAreWeNotProtectingOurCampuses and why are we not figuring out how to do something about it/prevent it by now?

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The Nutcracker and the Gourd

Once I decided I was moving, I had to tell my students. Now, college students come into a class at the beginning of a semester and leave at the end. Teachers are paid to teach, students pay to learn, and ties are cut once the finals are in. What happens between the first day and the last is nothing more than business as usual.


You see, one semester is roughly three months. That is three months that these people have to look at me and I at them. I taught communications classes and also a course on academic success. My classes discussed things like perceptions, cultures, current events, discrimination, relationships, emotions, navigating college, and how to share ideas. These are fairly deep topics at times. It requires understanding, mutual understand. It means getting to know each other.

As I told them the first day each semester after they had to introduce themselves, “You just introduced yourself. So, now it is time for the tables to turn on me. You don’t know me, but here is your chance. Figure me out. I want you to see me as a person. Ask me anything.”

They were then free to ask anything they pleased. The most popular questions:

  • How tall are you?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?
  • Do you have kids?
  • Where did you go to school?

Students do not learn information if they do not understand the teacher and where they are coming from. I wanted them to see me as a person, see that I wasn’t exempt from questions, and hopefully open the lines of communication. I don’t think students are ever more intimidated about speaking than when they walk into a communications class…oddly enough.

After that first day, I always became “mean” and “intimidating.” I went over information and handed out assignments that I wanted in a particular way. I did not take late work. I counted off for small things like spelling. These things made me mean to them…at first.

After about the second or third assignment, something changed every semester. I’ve had students tell me that I was intimidating at the beginning and that they thought I was being mean for making them do an assignment and being too particular in how it was done.

Then, they say to me, and I have heard each and every piece of this from students, “But then I saw that you were doing it for a reason. You wanted us to succeed. You were trying to teach us a lesson. You were showing us something that you knew was important. I was afraid of your class, but it became my favorite and you became my favorite teacher. You learned our names and talked to us about things. At first, I thought you didn’t care, and that was why you were hard on us…but then I saw that you did everything because you care, not because you don’t. You inspired me. You showed me that I can succeed. You gave me confidence. Thank you, Ms. Emery.”

In the beginning, I was intimidating and mean, and I was perfectly fine with them calling me these things. At the end, they said “Thank you,” and I knew I had done my job. Students don’t learn if they do not feel like the teacher cares and is invested. I showed them by being “mean” in a way they eventually grew to understand.

You see, new faces came in at the beginning of each semester, but I said goodbye to friends at the end. They not only got to know me, but I got to know them. I didn’t get to know them as only “students.” I got to know them as individuals. I knew every one by name.

Students have become friends in my classes. I’ve watched students go from strangers on the first day to hugging each other goodbye on the last day. It’s always been sad when they go. I always told them at the end of a semester that it was bittersweet for me.

“I bet you are glad to see us go, Ms. Emery,” they joked.

I told them, “No, it is always bittersweet. I am always sad to see you go because I know I won’t see you anymore, at least not every day, but I am always so very glad to see you move on because that means you are moving beyond me. You are one step closer to your goals, and I am proud of you for that.” They knew by then that I meant every word.

Past semesters have never felt as final as this last one. Students who have gotten through my classes were always able to visit later on, and they did. They would pop their heads in and sometimes sit in on a class discussion. This semester was different, though. We went along with the usual routine. A new group came in, they thought I was mean and strict, and we got to know each other. This time I had to tell them I was leaving, though.

At the end, one class threw me a party to say goodbye, and they tried to convince me to stay. “Please stay, Ms. Emery. I won’t be able to visit you next semester if you are gone.”

Some cried. Several cried.

At my party, they got together and gave me a teacher nutcracker. One student from another class hand painted a gourd Christmas ornament for me and then left it and a note in my school mailbox.

I tried to remain professional and hold back tears…. but I cried in my car on the way home that day.

I miss my students. I hope they know that I wish them all well and that I keep their gifts in a safe place. Because of them, I have my new home’s first Christmas decorations, and I plan to tell everyone who sees them each Christmas exactly where the nutcracker and the gourd came from.

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A Wedding Like I Had Never Seen

A couple weeks ago, a relative of Carlton’s got married, and I got to go to the wedding. First off, it was beautiful. Secondly, I had never seen a wedding quite like this one.

I said, “Look, babe! Look what they are doing. It’s just like TV!”

Carlton laughed at me.

What were these people doing that was so neat and different to me?

They were dancing!!

I’ve mentioned before that dancing was illegal where I grew up. So, I had never seen the couple’s or the father-daughter dances that were only real to me on TV. If you danced in the town closest to where I grew up, you could be fined. That’s why we had to have prom about 25 miles away from home.

We were told that dancing was inappropriate because dancing leads to sex. Sex is bad. So, dancing was a no-no. Sounds logical, right?

I recently mentioned this to a group of people from church, and the looks and comments I got were hilarious. Jaws dropped. Faces formed into confused expressions.

The wedding dancing was actually nice, though. It began as wedding dancing does on TV. The bride danced with her father and her new husband. Then, the floor opened up for everyone else.

The rest was more on the funny and cute side. Adults danced quite a bit. However, the main people dancing were who? The kids!!

Picture several kids out there dancing any way they want to songs like Turn Down for What. It was a hoot!

They were waving their arms and jumping around. Some tried to break dance like the older people (the 20-somethings) who were not actually break dancing but instead kinda mocking it. The result was usually the kid bending over and touching the ground while turning his body in a circle around his hands. Can you say adorable?

When Cha Cha Slide came on, the kids tried copying the adults and did a really good job. I was impressed. A little bit later, they deciding Ring Around the Rosie was the appropriate move. They all joined hands and turned together in a circle…to Billie Jean. They were laughing and having a blast the whole time.

This wedding dancing was not inappropriate. It was a time for family and friends to get together and have a nice time. It was a time for kids to act silly with their parents and older cousins.

It was lovely. Nothing more and nothing less.

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Falling for Georgia

I began visiting Georgia last year before there was any discussion about moving. I got a MegaBus ticket and rode 8 hours to see Carlton last summer, which was against the wishes of a few family members because buses are scary and dangerous.

Honestly, I sat next to a very nice older lady, and we talked the whole way there. No one messed with me. People pretty much kept to themselves. It was very much unscary.

Carlton picked me up when I got off the bus, and we spent a little time in Atlanta. We saw a big chicken, climbed Kennesaw Mountain, saw a deer on our way down, and looked down on the city from the Overlook at Lindberg building’s parking deck. Then, we took an evening walk in an Atlanta park.

When we got up the next day, we headed to Carlton’s home in Athens because he had to pick up a few things for our trip. On our way to our next destination, we stopped in Savannah, GA.

The trees with Spanish moss were everywhere. Streets were paved in cobblestone, shops lined the streets, and you could tell from looking at the backs of buildings that some were made of old horse stables. Oh, the history!

Speaking of history, there were statues dedicated to historical figures, including one of a girl who used to always welcome the boats with a wave. When the crews saw her, they knew they were home.

Savannah was beautiful, and it made me sing a bit of Relient K. It is definitely a place worth visiting. In fact, we plan to go there again.

From Savannah, we traveled a bit further south to the place we planned to spend the next several days: Jekyll Island! Jekyll Island is an island off of southern Georgia, and it is like a little piece of Heaven on Earth. Well, except for the mosquitoes.

The island does have hotels right on the beach, but we chose to stay in the campground a little further in. While most people in the campground had fancy RVs, we were tenting it all the way. Our tent was set up under mossy trees, and it was next to a small bird sanctuary. I loved hearing and seeing the birds.

The island is very bicycle friendly, but we discovered that renting bikes on the island was not the best option for us. You can only have a bike rented out during certain hours each day, and it costs about $15 per day to rent one. We planned to stay a couple weeks and bike everywhere. Carlton had borrowed a bike from his brother-in-law, but I needed one.

So, we ventured to Walmart to purchase camping supplies, a little pink bike for me (because that was the only one in my size), and I got a boogie board while I was at it. I was the only adult on a boogie, but I rocked it like a kid. The ocean is so much fun!!

That one trip to Walmart was the only time we left the island until we left it for good. The island has a gas station, hotels, a small grocery store, a liquor store, a bait and tackle shop with souvenirs, bike trails, historical sites, a few restaurants, a fishing pier, a sea turtle preservation center, and of course the beach. There is really no need to leave.

As I mentioned, we biked everywhere. One day, we biked eight miles around the island, and we felt like we were dying the next morning. A couple days later, we had somewhat recovered and biked 11 miles around the island. That time we felt pretty good. That day would have been nine miles, but by then I was willing to bike the extra mile each way in order to get pizza. I really like pizza.

One night, we went out to the beach before the moon came out. It was very dark. You could hear the ocean mere feet away, but you couldn’t see it. We looked up and saw the Milky Way. It was magnificent! I definitely recommend doing that once in your life.

We took pictures on our last evening and before leaving the next morning. While we took pictures on our final morning, I looked down and found my first ever sand dollar! Once I knew what to look for (a little ridging in the sand) and enlisted Carlton to help me, we found over 20 within just a few minutes! Several were still alive, and I am not one for murder. So, we threw the living ones back and ended up with about 15 or so.

In total, we spent a week on Jekyll. It was fun, but we were ready to do other things after a week. We headed back to Athens so that he could show me around where he lived.

Athens is a college town that is roughly double the size of the town in which I attended college. Everyone there loves bulldogs because that is the mascot of the local college: UGA.  I walked around UGA while I was there, and it is a lovely campus. We also went on a hunt for the mascots placed around town. There are several.

While in Athens, I saw beautiful houses with obvious Greek influence, Carlton’s church, a tree that owns itself, and I got my very first pedicure. Pedicures are way cool. It feels awesome, and my toes had never looked so good.

Also there, odd things were interesting to this very small town girl. I saw water fountains designed for refilling water bottles. I was used to just holding the bottle at that weird angle while trying to get the stream of water the hit the opening. I also saw randomly placed lending libraries that I thought were neat. Finally, in nearby Commerce, I saw charging stations for electric cars. I felt like I was on the Jetsons.

One day, we decided to leave Athens and take another little adventure. Georgia has a bit of everything. We had been to the beach, so now we had to go to the mountains. We took a day trip to Helen, GA.

While Athens is heavily influenced by the Greek, Helen is influenced by the Bavarian Alps. You can see some of the buildings behind me. The town is a replica of a Bavarian Alpine village, and it is obviously a tourist attraction. The streets are lined in shops, but my favorite thing about this trip was the Chattahoochee River.

You see, I grew up loving a certain song by Alan Jackson. So, when I saw the river, I had to stick my toes in…and then go knee deep. It was way cool. The 5-year-old version of me that used to sing that song and had Jackson’s picture on her wall would definitely approve.

Before we left, we noticed the steamy mist coming off of the mountains, and with that it was time to go back to Athens.

On another evening, we went into Atlanta again because we had tickets to see a viewing of Gone With the Wind at the Fox Theatre. The outside of the building is very pretty. It almost looks like it should be an Arabian palace. On the inside, the ceiling is made to look like a starry night sky. It’s gorgeous!

A few days later, we ventured out again. This time, we drove north into Tennessee. Along the way, we stopped at a reservation, saw a tourist spot that featured goats on the roof, spotted a bear on the side of the road, and reached Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the mountains. There, you are up in the clouds and can nearly see forever.

After Clingman’s, we went on to Pigeon Forge, TN to meet up with my family. I needed to spend a few days with them there and then get a ride back home to Arkansas.

However, I had some big news. I was already in love with a man named Carlton, I had now fallen for a state named Georgia, and I had been asked to move to the Big Peach.

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Atlanta: Diverse and Awesome

My area of Arkansas has always been very…White. There is basically no diversity in the whole town. Unlike me, Carlton grew up in a predominantly Black area of Arkansas. Unfortunately, racism was a pretty big thing while I was growing up, and it still is. I remember my grandmother calling to tell us not to go to a nearby town on certain weekends because the KKK was marching. She was afraid of us going there unaware, getting in the middle of a conflict, and getting hurt. That was in the 90s.

Some areas are still pretty separated, whether intentional or not. I saw people of other cultures, mainly Black and Hispanic, when I would go to towns at least 10 or so miles away. You never heard of homosexuals being in the town because that was taboo, and religion in the town was only divided by protestant denominations, not different religions or lack thereof. I’ll come back to denominations.

Growing up in a place where everything is pretty much the same only made me more curious about what was out in the world. My best friend and I have always been interested in things that are different. So, we were the teens who were reading books on stuff like Judaism… for fun.

I got my first big taste of culture in college though. To me, college was amazing because I love learning about and experiencing different things. Meeting people from different cultures was probably my favorite thing about college, especially grad school. In grad school, I became the minority in my classes. Sometimes, I was the only White female in the entire class. Once, the only other White person in the room was a male student…from Columbia. I thought it was pretty cool.

I met people from Saudi Arabia, India, Nigeria, Nepal, Colombia, Taiwan, and the list goes on. I even had a roommate from China, which was an amazing learning experience. I became friends with all of these people, and I got to learn about different cultures, countries, and religions in the process.

They all got to learn about me, too. I was the one that everyone came to with questions because I guess I always seemed like I knew what I was doing, and it also got around that I was nice and helpful. I was often asked if I would further explain what the instructor had just said, and I was also asked about my culture. We often don’t realize that others are just as curious about us as we are of them, and sometimes in ways we would never think of.

One day, I had a group of students from various Asian countries shyly approach me in the hallway. It’s slightly creepy when a whole group of people start stalking you in a hallway, but once they nudged their chosen spokesman and he started speaking I couldn’t help but laugh. They were very curious about whether people with lighter hair go gray.

Well, of course we do, but it just isn’t as obvious because it blends into the lighter hair until there is enough to make it obviously gray. They didn’t know this because they only had experience with very dark hair. No one thinks of such small curiosities as this, but they are the things I find most fascinating.

Around this same time, a few friends and I ran into a group of atheists. We were trying to decide if we wanted to go to church or to a Bible study at the local library. We chose the Bible study, but what we really walked into was a meeting of the Atheist Community of Jonesboro. Oops…

Should we stay? Should we leave? We stayed, and what was supposed to be a 45-minute meeting turned into over an hour of us all sharing stories and having a Q&A between Christians and atheists.

Speaking with the atheist group was honestly one of the most interesting experiences of my life. I think the same about the time I was invited to a local masjid (mosque) to interview the imam, and I even got to watch the evening prayer. How many Christian women get to do that in their lives?

It is now amazing to me how many people I live around. Carlton and I went into a restaurant a couple weeks ago, and he commented that there must be about 20 nationalities sitting in the restaurant. I looked around and noticed that every table was different. I love this!

I also love that there is more acceptance and unity in Atlanta. For example, our church has guest speakers. Recently, some guests have been rabbis from a local Jewish synagogue, who came to speak about Judaism and Jesus. We also had a guest minister from another denomination, and I hope he returns because he was a really good speaker.

I mentioned that I would come back around to denomination: Denomination was a big deal that sometimes divided people in my hometown. Growing up, I was what my friends called a “mutt.”

I grew up mainly in the Church of Christ, as did most of my family, but I often attended Baptist services with relatives and sometimes Pentecostal services as well. Later, I attended Methodist services with friends, and I am now Presbyterian. So, while I have always been Christian, known what I believe in, and had a great relationship with God, I have also seen the denominational divide.

“Which church do you go to?”… “Oh, you know she is a Pentecostal.” … “Why weren’t you in church last week?” “I went to the Baptist church.” “Oh, well, you know what they say about them?” … “You go to CoC? Well, you should go to our church sometime.”

I’ve even walked into a church I practically grew up in and been looked at like I was a Martian because I hadn’t been there in a long time. When I sat down, people glared at me which made me feel out of place. Someone then turned to me and said that I was taking up a member’s space. It was clear that this was meant to get me to move. I didn’t.

My current city is diverse. My current church is awesome. I love seeing the acceptance of others, and I have heard that the church partners with other denominations and religions to do works in the community. I also heard that, at one time, a local atheist group had no space, so a local church let them use church space to hold meetings until they got their own space. I love this. We are supposed to come together to do good and love each other.

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Atlanta’s Initiation

I guess Atlanta has been putting me through some sort of initiation or something over the past month because Carlton and I have both been sick. I got sick, he got sick, I got sick again and worse than the first time, which basically means we played hot potato with some germs. The past few days have been the first in about a month that I have not been hacking up a lung.

I have been very disappointed in all of this because it meant that I have not yet been able to audition for choir or start volunteering at the church. I mean, who wants a lady coughing germs everywhere to tutor kids?

Another thing that bothers me about being sick lately is that I rarely get sick. Usually, if I do get sick, it is something minor that I have no issues fighting through. I’m not used to being unable to walk around the house without feeling dizzy

I rarely even take medicine. I dislike taking medicine. However, in the past month, we have gone through:

  •  A bottle of DayQuil (I took this, and I HATE liquid medicine)
  • Most of a package of NyQuil gel caps
  • About half a bag of Halls cough drops
  • A whole package of some sort of cough drops with zinc in them
  • A package of Mucinex
  • Half a bottle of Ibuprofen
  • Most of a package of Emergen-C
  • Probably about 2 full boxes of Kleenex and 2 rolls of bathroom tissue because that was often more convenient than searching for the box of Kleenex
  • and I don’t even care to try to guess how much orange juice and Sprite we drank

I’m positive there was at least one or two other types of medicine that we took, but I can’t remember them. One was very similar to Emergen-C, I think.

So, I believe my idea about Atlanta initiation through germ attack. I am now around more people and germs. Also, I decided to move when it was still the season germs take over the world.

If you plan to move, plan to get attacked by your new environment in some way. Your new environment can mess with you in several ways. War of the Worlds had a point.

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Joining Trinity

Carlton moved to Atlanta a few months before I did. He had been in Athens, but his work brought him to The Big Peach. That means he had plenty of time to scout out a few churches before I got here.

When I used to visit, he would take me to a couple different churches he found, but he pretty much had his heart set on one by the time I officially moved. He started attending that church regularly before I got here, and I agreed that it was the one I liked the most, too. So, for the past few weeks, I have been attending Trinity Presbyterian of Atlanta, GA.

Yes, people there already know me by Possum Grape. In fact, last Sunday, I felt a hand grab me through the crowd. I turned to see a man I had recently met, and he said, “What was the name of that town you’re from?” I told him, and he turned to a few other people as he told them, “Yep, Possum Grape. That’s it.”

My hometown also got a bit of attention in our new member’s class as we went around the room introducing ourselves. Now, people say, “This is Miranda. She is the one from Possum Grape” or “You’re that girl from Possum Grape.” I’ve been told that I am the first person to come through the new member’s class from there.

Carlton and I have been doing the classes for the past couple weeks in order to become official members. The classes are neat and very informative. Members come visit each week to give us information about various goings on within the church community.

We’ve found out that the church is involved in missions to places like Haiti and Cuba. They also go on missions to New Orleans to aid in continuous relief efforts after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Trinity is very involved with Habitat for Humanity and other organizations. The church will continue to visit these places and others until they are no longer needed.

Trinity is also involved in other very helpful programs, such as the Agape program, which does several things. For one, it has Homework Buddies, where school children are paired with members in an effort to help the children navigate their homework assignments.

Another helpful program is set up to fight hunger in the local community and beyond. In fact, Carlton and I went to a Mission Momentum Night last week and heard a speech in the likeness of a TedTalk from Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of Atlanta Community Food Bank. He spoke about the importance of the program, gave information about how the food bank was started, and told us how the food bank helps people today.

I’m looking forward to getting involved in some of these programs and learning more about others. I also want to audition for the church choir, which is somewhat intimidating because it is led by Norman Mackenzie. The choir sounds amazing, and I don’t know if I am really that good. However, Mr. Mackenzie dropped by our class on Sunday to talk about things, and it made me feel better about auditioning.

I hope to audition at some point after becoming an official member, which will happen this Sunday!

The membership at Trinity more than doubles the population of Bradford (the closest town to me while I was growing up). Bradford has a little less than 800 people, but Trinity has roughly 2,200.

I look forward to adding myself to the membership this weekend and getting more involved soon.

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