What We Can Do In The Wake Of The Columbia Mall Shooting

Saturday morning, January 25. I am working on my syllabi for the upcoming spring semester, feeling pretty good at what I have already accomplished. I pour another cup of coffee and begin to look ahead at what still has to be done.

Still so much to do, so much. So much.

At 11:32 a.m., I receive a tweet notification from the Baltimore Sun:

breaking alert shooting


Immediately I forget about the work I need to do for the semester that begins next week and retweet the Sun’s breaking news. I begin scouring the various news sites for information. Twitter. Facebook. Websites.


Finally, news sources begin to broadcast the news that a shooting has occurred. There are mixed reports – all unconfirmed – that there are injuries. Fatalities.

The journalist in me awakens, and I get to work.

I do my best to inform so that others might be safe, broadcasting factual information that others need to make good decisions, to reach family members and friends. I use the power of social media to reach as many as I can, and I am grateful that this technology exists.

But still, underneath that steel, unemotional approach of a journalist, I can’t stop the thoughts creeping in that this is my school’s hometown. The kids I have taught for over a decade work at this mall; my current students and their families shop there frequently. This is their back yard, and tragedy has struck them on a personal level.

The teacher in me awakens, and I begin to worry.

A friend and former student who is an emergency responder texts me that he is en route to the mall, and I realize that my own current and former students could somehow be affected by this. What are they experiencing? Are they witnesses? Is it possible that they are affected in an even more tragic way?

My oldest daughter is their age.

The parent in me awakens, and I begin to panic.

The names of the two victims are released, and we realize that Tyler Johnson, 25, was a former student of ours. Our social media feeds blow up with RIPs and expressions of utter shock. I hear condolences from students I have taught, from friends I know, from acquaintances around the globe who have experienced similar tragedies.

The journalist, the teacher, the parent, the individual within me merges, and I am left to ponder the enormity of what has happened.

I imagine the same has occurred for countless others here in Maryland and across the country. An event like this forces us to remember similar tragedies in our lifetimes, some of them so personal that we are rocked by tremors of those memories.

I don’t need to list them. We do not need to be reminded again how senseless acts can devastate lives over and over again.

Instead, I consider where we are, and where we can possibly go – as individuals, as a community, and as a country.

In the coming days, we will hear national debates rise up about mental wellness and gun control. We will hear arguments to make our public spaces safer. We will hear and experience fears that copycat killers will rise up and seek some kind of sick glory, riding on the coat tails of this tragedy.

But right now, in these hours that follow, the only thing I want to hear is of people pulling together, of a community rising in faith in each other, of a state and a nation putting aside the debates and focusing their spirit and energy on comfort, healing, understanding.

We will all feel the pull to “be” the journalist, the teacher, the parent, the friend. In the end though, we are all just individuals trying to comprehend the senselessness of such moments.

This is what binds us. It’s our choice – right now – to choose to see beyond the debates of what should have been done and what we should do now.

So much to do, so much to do.

But not today.

What we need to do right now is choose to embrace the ones around us – not just in Ellicott City, Mt. Airy, and College Park. If we truly want to find a solution, to make a difference, it begins here.



6 thoughts on “What We Can Do In The Wake Of The Columbia Mall Shooting

  1. With each shooting, my heart breaks over the state of being with this new generation. I really don’t understand. I don’t. I just don’t get it.

    It does indeed awaken each of those “persons” within us: the journalist (or person who wants to know who, what, when, where, why, and how), the teacher (or adult who has mentored these kids), the parent, the neighbor, the friend.

    Thanks for a very personal account of this tragedy. God bless those in your community.


    • Thanks, Michael. There are times, like right now as I think about getting ready for school tomorrow, that I cannot be awake enough. It is one thing to be strong for my students; it is another thing entirely to realize that such terror knows no boundaries. God bless those in all of our communities.


  2. Thank you VW. Your post on FB around 11:30 made me drop everything and call my family in Ellicott City to make sure they were safe (they were, but a family friend was on lockdown in the mall). You have a wide reach of connections so I’m sure I was just one of many you helped by sharing information.


    • Thank you, Carla. I appreciate your words. I am glad that I saw others doing everything they could to use social media to inform and warn. As I continue to work on Fossil Five, such experiences do have an effect on the direction of this piece. As I have told you and the others from the start: This is an evolving work in progress that has something important to say.

      But right now, I’d rather be a dumb, unlearned fool if it meant such tragedies never took place. I’m just sick with all of this.


    • Laura, I keep thinking that each tragedy will be that tipping point, but it isn’t. What is the bigger concern now, I believe, is that a door has been opened for such acts to be committed without any great thought anymore. Much to discuss and debate in the coming days, but I feel like the redefining of “normal” is bigger than a single issue like guns or even mental wellness. The once-known accelerators of such heinous acts have dissipated into more common feelings coming from a well of “general unhappiness.” The extreme way in which individuals react now to situations in their lives is truly alarming; the best we can do is love, provide hope, and protect.


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