I’ve been thinking about my “hometown” recently. I put it in quotes because I’m not really from there. I was born in another state, and didn’t move to Hometown until I was seven years old. We had no family in the area; no history. So I was always aware that I wasn’t quite as much from there as most of my classmates.
Then at age 18 I left for my first year in France, straight after graduation. No email, no texting, and trans-Atlantic calls were rare and expensive. Add the occasional French postal strike, and it was a pretty clean cut from my friends who were off to their new adventures in college.
So, I only spent about 11 years there as part of the community, and in spite of fond nostalgia, I don’t have very strong roots in the area. But I looking back, I see that I was part of the community, and that place had great effect on who I am today. The drafty 19th-century house on 10 wooded acres was where I developed and honed a love of nature and an appreciation for the change of seasons. The small shingle-sided church is where I grew to understand what Christ’s message meant to me. The main square with the historic courthouse and confusing traffic patterns was where I had my first kiss and my first job. And the ugly, sprawling brick high school was where I learned lessons about everything from physics to friendship.
I have vague memories of many of those years, which doesn’t help me feel any more "from” there--but of course there are those that stand out. The Maple Festival, the county fair, learning to drive. The picture above is in the cafeteria where I watched those solid pillars do the wave during an earthquake my sophmore year (in a part of the country that’s not supposed to have earthquakes!) It’s where I caught my boyfriend senior year, sitting with the girl he’d been rumored to be cheating with. The gym right next to it is where he tried to make up with me during the homecoming dance a month later.
It’s also the cafeteria where a young man shot and killed three of his classmates this week.
We never thought Chardon would ever be famous. If it did, it would be for some athlete who went pro, or maybe…no, we never thought anyone would ever hear of it. When people ask me where I grew up, I tell them “near Cleveland,” or “northeastern Ohio.” What a nightmare to have your small town rocketed to fame by joining a growing list of school shootings.
So it’s been a complicated week for me. I can’t say I’ve spent a huge amount of time meditating about it. I don’t really have any direct ties there anymore. My parents sold the farmhouse and moved south almost 15 years ago. I haven’t lived there full-time for almost 25 years. Any of my friends I’m in touch with is living elsewhere, and don’t have children in the school system.
Still…watching the news coverage has been tense. The names—German, Slavic, Italian—are the same kinds of names in my yearbook. A kid with the last name of Mueller was interviewed, showing a tiny spot on his ear that was winged by a bullet. There was a Mueller in my graduating class—are they related? The students were hustled out of the school across the street to the elementary school. The photo of police officers searching their bags before they could enter was particularly shocking to me.
What is this place? I know these buildings, am comforted by the sounds of the names, smile at the ever-present snow blanket. But bag searches? SWAT teams? A National Guard helicopter on the front lawn where I watched my brother play soccer?
It’s so easy to picture what happened—I know the layout of the place, where the teacher must have chased the shooter out the door. I can imagine the students running out the opposite door—I know this place. And yet…this place has moved on.
Inevitably have come the online calls to “lock him up,” the probing into the shooter’s troubled family life, the arguments about his access to guns. And as I read the hateful messages, it helped me understand something.
The guns have always been there. Chardon is in the country; hunting isn’t something you talk about or question. Some do; some don’t. Whatever. There have always been the rednecks—or, as we called them, hicks. Folks who wanted little to do with society’s norms or rules. But there was enough room for everyone to live their own way, for the most part.
No, that much hasn’t changed. It’s the world around Chardon that has changed. To these students, there have always been school shootings. Columbine happened 13 years ago, when TJ Lane was three years old. Growing up while constantly bathed in a wash of information, connected to desperate, depressed and attention-seeking teens, this behavior seems more and more like a logical reaction to kids in extreme mental states. When I was growing up, it was sex, drugs, maybe suicide. Today we’ve added another violent act to our repertoire of calls for attention or help.
I’m not going to point fingers or share my feelings about who should be blamed, punished or treated sympathetically. It doesn’t involve me, and I don’t know all the facts. What I’ve learned from this week is that the small town I grew up in and left has not stayed still in time. Like an old boyfriend who goes on to marry, have kids, divorce, lose a job, Chardon has moved on, for better or for worse.
It’s time to acknowledge that I’m not from that Chardon anymore. The small town I know exists today only in my head, in my memories. It’s still with me, and always will be…but these days, I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina. And I’m okay with that.
I’m the one on the left…red and black, Hilltopper pride.