It felt vaguely familiar, that complicated feeling that settled around me when a manhunt shuttered our Erie schools and hundreds of others Wednesday morning.
From two sources this feeling came, and neither childhood incident triggered school closures — deer hunting season and inmate escapes.
Regarding armed people, my siblings and I wondered why wearing orange sweatshirts wasn’t enough of a safeguard to go outside. Regarding dangerous people, why couldn’t we just stick around the barnyard?
My mom and dad just said, “No.” As in no business as usual on these days, period.
Well, a child’s imagination goes places when feet cannot.
So, in the case of inmates on the lam, we pictured a person hunkered down in our field ditches or hiding in our hay barn. And we wondered what crime they committed, how they escaped, and why they would bother with us anyway?
We squinted into the woods then, looked through the trees. And all of this lying low and pondering armed and/or dangerous people produced in me a lasting complicated feeling best described as wistful frustration around what happens when one person’s liberty becomes another’s restriction.
This explains why decades from now I suspect my three school aged sons will remember Wednesday — a fresh spring day — more than any other with the exception of graduation day because it benched 400,000-plus students along with school faculty and staff.
Benched them better than the worst blizzard.
Perhaps, like me, a complicated feeling will cling to them around who is free and who is not free and why circumstances conspire at times to create confusion around this status.
This was the case Wednesday when Sol Pais, a suicidal/homicidal Miami Beach High School senior, flew from Florida to Colorado this week. We explained to our boys that she bought a pump action gun in Littleton, and that our governor and our law enforcement agencies across jurisdictions believed she might use it to extend the shadow cast by the Columbine High School massacre 20 years ago today.
I support the school closures out of an abundance of caution and am thankful for such a coordinated law enforcement effort — one of many hardwon lessons drawn from the aftermath of Columbine in 1999.
But it struck me that one person, such as Pais, however unwittingly could keep hundreds of thousands of others from their places for nearly 24 hours.
So we focused on discussing the ripple around one with our kids — that while one person can deliver all kinds of trouble, one person can also bring all kinds of peace. Not necessarily by winning a public office or performing heroic acts.
But by filling an ordinary role. By being a friend.
Just one true blue friend will do, we told the boys. One good friend is enough to remind you to be honest, to try again, to laugh at self before laughing at others, to ask hard questions, and to practice sharing tangibly and intangibly every chance you get.
This year, as a seventh grader, my oldest son, Carl, 13, probably wouldn’t write a list like that to define a great friend.
But he understands deep down that good buddies bring out the best in him, and laying hold of that appreciation helps all of them pick their way through adolescence, through the isolation that Pais — a teen so far described as an inscrutable loner — complained about in the writings thought to be hers.
Perhaps in her apparent social desert her serious mental health challenges worsened until she felt poised on the rim of a black hole. A nihilist only looking down.
As of this writing, the day after the manhunt concluded with her suicide, I am sifting through this news of human misery and coming to grips with another complication — the awkward juxtaposition of public relief in Colorado and private grief in Florida where Pais’ family and community evaluate relationships with her and each other.
And I am hoping that this incident with all its fresh regret brings fresh resolve around why one person matters so much.