I Survived A School Shooting. We Need To Sensitize Ourselves Again.

Missy Jenkins Smith was a survivor in the Heath High School mass shooting.

I am reminded repeatedly each day that I was shot and paralyzed from the chest down when I was 15 years old. It happened on December 1, 1997, in the Heath High School lobby in Paducah, Kentucky. A 14-year-old boy shot eight of us with a .22-caliber semi-automatic pistol, killing three.

I am reminded when I transfer myself from my bed to my wheelchair in the morning, or when I have to take an hour or more to go to the bathroom, or when one of my two boys needs help and I cannot physically do for him what most mothers can do for their children.

I am reminded when I don't have the strength to wheel up an incline, or when someone parks in the last available handicap spot, or when I drop something on the floor and our dog snags it and takes off knowing that I'll never be able to catch him (it's OK, you can laugh at that image).


School shootings were an anomaly 20 years ago. Worldwide journalists descended upon Paducah and lived among us for weeks. The funeral of the three girls who were murdered aired live on national television. And I would bet I received nearly as many cards and letters as Santa Claus did that month from kids around the world.

Missy Jenkins Smith being interviewed by CNN. Courtesy of Missy Jenkins Smith

Compare that to today. Less than 24 hours after the Sutherland Springs shooting, one prominent cable news organization's website featured just one story related to the tragedy among its top 10 stories — and it was more about guns than about the victims. Sadly, that was a reflection of social media that day, where my newsfeed revealed a lot of typical memes and posts about nothing. Many people, it seemed, had already "moved on."

One way I believe we can sensitize our minds, as uncomfortable as it may be, is to consciously immerse ourselves into what makes us sad or upset rather than building a wall to separate us from it. We need to mobilize ourselves into a position to listen, to empathize, to forgive, and to show kindness, rather than make excuses, look for someone to blame, or wait for someone else to fix things. We should embrace the negative emotions and energy we naturally feel and use them to make a positive difference in someone else's life.

I know a family that was so moved when they saw a homeless person that they now make several dozen brown bag lunches each month and hand them out on the streets of downtown Cincinnati. They could have tossed the guy a quarter or looked the other way. Instead, they have become a small part of a solution to a global epidemic.

I know of a teacher near Pittsburgh who was so distraught over the shooting in Las Vegas in October that she is now doing 58 significant acts of kindness for random people, each one in memory of a deceased victim. She could have aired her anger on social media and left it at that. Instead, she has become a beacon of hope in the midst of a tragedy.

I know of a retired firefighter in New York City who was instrumental in search efforts after 9/11 and still suffers today from post-traumatic stress. Yet, after the hurricane hit Florida this year, he packed his tools and drove down there to rebuild homes for the victims. He had been enjoying his retirement more than a thousand miles away, but followed his heart to help strangers in need.

Missy Jenkins Smith reading to her son Carter.  Courtesy of Missy Jenkins Smith

I just wrote a book titled Lessons from a School Shooting Survivor: How to Find the Good in Others and Live a Life of Love and PeaceOne girl I counsel who has faced tremendous hardship in her life was so captivated by the chapter on kindness that she wrote "Have a wonderful day!" in pink marker on the backs of packets I'd assembled to hand out for a presentation I was giving at a meeting that night. After the meeting, one person asked me who wrote the notes—and I had no idea what she was talking about. The student had written them without my knowledge. Sharing my story publicly can be painful at times, but when that is the result, my heart is filled. 

I realize the negativity we see or experience on a daily basis can be overwhelming, causing us to look the other way or "click" on something else. That's how we become desensitized. We aren't wired as human beings to be able to handle every bit of grief this world thrusts upon us, so we flip off the switch to try to avoid all of it. But we also aren't wired to not "feel." Desensitizing ourselves to everything negative is unnatural, and it often leaves those who need our help in a helpless position.  

Chances are you will read about, talk to, or witness a person today who could use someone's assistance in ways big or small. Challenge yourself to be that someone, to sensitize your mind to their plight and make a difference in their life. None of us can solve every problem or save the world by ourselves, but collectively, with the right mindset, I believe we can.

Missy Jenkins Smith is a day treatment counselor, wife, mother, speaker and author. "Lessons from a School Shooting Survivor: How to Find the Good in Others and Live a Life of Love and Peace," is geared toward teens and features interactive classroom activities at the end of each chapter. It is available at Amazon.com.


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