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“Sean of the South”
By Sean Dietrich
Editor’s note: This column was written May 25, 2022, following the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
A rural school. An overcast day. Mrs. Welch arrived early to work driving her husband’s truck. There has been a lot of rain lately; she almost didn’t get here this morning. Her clay road washed out.
Mrs. Welch parked and stared at the brick building in the distance where she’s been teaching for 14 years. She tried to imagine what teachers in Uvalde, Texas, must have been feeling when their sanctuary was invaded by a lone gunman yesterday. A gunman who killed 19 students and two teachers.
She trotted across the parking lot toward the school, carrying a bulky cardboard box beneath her arm.
Her principal unlocked the door and buzzed her in.
“You found them?” the principal said.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Welch. “I found them.”
Last night at 9:30 p.m., Mrs. Welch had an idea for her school. So she got in her car and drove to her church while still in her PJs. She has a key to her church. Women like Mrs. Welch always have the key to the church.
She dug through the church shed for a box of candles her church used for the Christmas Eve service last year. The candles have flimsy paper guards. The church has septillions of them.
When she walked into the school gym, the school staff had already gathered and was waiting. There was a somber mood hanging over them like a damp towel. These are people who have dedicated their lives to education. Yesterday, in Uvalde County, the sanctity of that hallowed calling was attacked.
The students started arriving. Kids were guided into the gymnasium and asked to remain silent out of respect for the 21 victims of Robb Elementary School. As children filled the bleachers, they were given candles.
Thus it was that 232 students; first-, second-, third-, and fourth-graders; entered the gymnasium and kept surprisingly quiet. These are 232 kids who are never quiet. Not even in their sleep.
“It just shows you what an impact this tragedy has had,” said Mrs. Welch.
The sounds of rustling feet died down when Mrs. Welch took the stage. The same stage where the school holds its spelling bee.
“Can I have everyone’s attention?” said Mrs. Welch, speaking into the microphone.
Everyone got quiet. The staff members lined the cinderblock walls.
“Raise your hands,” Mrs. Welch began, “if you know what happened yesterday in Texas.”
Two hundred and thirty-two hands raised.
“Raise your hands if you would like to pray for the families of the people who died in the shooting.”
Two hundred and thirty-two hands raised.
Soon, representatives from each class were selected by their respective teachers to pray publicly. After several spokeskids from each class were chosen, Mrs. Welch gathered the children onstage.
The lights went off.
Candles were lit. Each candle represented the prayer of a child. Children took turns at the microphone. Here is what they said:
“God,” said a first grader. “Please, um, help all the kids who saw the bad things happen, but they didn’t die, and now they’re really scared.”
“I pray,” said a girl whose copper hair was in braids, “that you please make all the moms and dads to be comforted… Well… I mean… Just help them.”
A boy in a Nike shirt took the mic. “God, make everyone just quit hurting each other, and be, like, friends with each other… Please don’t let people kill, just make us all stop the fighting and killing.”
The school’s SRO officer, a former military man, pinched his nose and began to cry.
A blond girl who was missing her two front teeth said, “Can you make everyone love each other, God, ‘specially the kids?”
A girl with midnight skin spoke. “Thank you for the teachers who died yesterday, who loved their kids so much, God. Thank you for our teachers, God.”
After all prayers finished, Mrs. Welch was about to end the communal prayer when a first grader asked if he could speak. She almost told him to go sit back down. But she couldn’t. The boy wore thick glasses, and his little shirt was tucked into his blue jeans. He held the mic with both hands.
“Jesus, please forgive the man who shot everyone.”
And 232 of God’s children said amen.