Perception is reality. I understand that, which is why I have true empathy for the parents and children who believed they were in danger.
To the parents genuinely (genuinely is the operative word here) concerned about the safety of your children: I’m so sorry for your worries. I’m just so sorry for your pain and fear. But, please, please, please let the schools administration, local law enforcement and county administration investigation and threat assessment be enough. It was investigated, significantly, for days. Your children are safe.
My child was not expelled. My child was not arrested. However, my child will never step foot into that school again. If your worry was my child being at school, then you will never have a worry regarding that again. He will never be at that school, the school he has a right to be attending right now, ever again. Contrary to the mounds of misinformation being spread, my child wasn’t at school on Friday, as a precautionary measure. I suppose the “confirmed sightings” were simply just another white and nerdy kid, living his quiet life of academia.
I have always found my strength from being unequivocally open, honest and true to myself.
Imagine. You’re a teenager. Your birthday list consists of college text books, Greek philosophy books and some gift cards to your favorite restaurants because you also love to talk, socialize and debate with some friends and family. As you grow into high school, you find more friends who enjoy what you do, but your circle is small because there’s not many high schoolers who want to spend their time talking about intellectual depths of the world - most adults don’t want to either. You excel in school, and, by excel, I mean a 34 on the ACT, 5s on your AP exams, taking a course load stronger than other student in the entire HS, objectively. You went to debate nationals. Sure, sometimes you still put on a shirt inside out because your sweet brain makes you oblivious to some of the little things. You’re thriving and loving a quiet little life, focused on colleges and finding the best place for your academic goals. You’re unequivocally unapologetic about who you are. Some people don’t like you just because you are you. At such a young age, you learned resilience and strength because of it. You speak your mind, and, sometimes come across as harsh. Sometimes, you say unkind things. You are a pretty typical teenager with an exceptionally large intellect. You are a constant breath of fresh air and kindness to everyone who knows you.
Fast forward to last weekend. You have yet another tournament. It was great, and you even made it to finals on one event! Your adrenal has been running on high all weekend. While you sleep soundly in your hotel room, many of your teammates are doing things teens do while in hotels, which is okay, of course. On the bus ride home, your good friend tells you that you were the butt of most of the jokes, and you really were made fun of as they congregated and hung out. You’re used to being made fun of, and, like your parents have told you, what people say about you when you’re not there is none of your business. But, this time, it was also your friends. Your sweet friend goes on to tell you that in an effort to find out how awful they wanted to talk about you, she, too, pretended to she didn’t like you at the prior night’s event. As you hear this, you ask her to please let them know, right now, on the bus, that she is your friend. You have been down this road before. About a year and a half ago, your friend asked you to write out the prettiest girls in the school. You did, thinking nothing of it. Then, that “friend” changed the heading of the “list,” and posted it all over social media. This was well over a year ago, and the shame and humiliation you’d endured seemed to be over. But, here you are, on this bus, heart racing, fearing over what is being said as you sit with your friend, while these people sit and stew about how big of a creep you are. You hear commotion and see people holding up their phones and sharing what’s on them, which is the message from your friend redacting that she felt uncomfortable around you. It’s heated, you tell someone to sit the “expletive” down. The teacher hears and comes back there. She tells you to sit down, and you do. You sit alone, with no one, having been betrayed by your friends and feeling completely and utterly alone.
At home, you lose it. You just cry and cry and cry. Not for the mean kids but the loss of a friend. Your Mom tells you it’ll be okay. It’s going to be okay, and you will make amends in time. It will be okay. She tells you that it’s time to leave debate, what you love so much and have done so well at, because you cannot have this level of drama.
You ask if you can take the day off Monday to collect your thoughts after such an emotional and long weekend. Many kids from the tournament submit reports about what happened on the trip, including you. You submit your report, and you go back Tuesday, already having discussed with the school that you’ll no longer be in that class. You talk to the deans. Everything seems okay - ish. It’s weird. You feel a bit alone, but you’re hanging in there.
Then, you‘re called back up to the deans.You did everything right. You told the truth. You were searched. You backpack was searched. Your car was searched. You had to leave school for the remainder of the day while the investigation was underway. Many other students were questioned. Every shred of evidence, or lack thereof, was reviewed. Every report from the event was thoroughly read and investigated. An entire threat assessment team was deployed. That included administration, law enforcement and mental health professionals - they did everything they had to do to determine the situation. You were deemed “no threat.”
You go to school Wednesday. Go to your classes, mind your business, meet with guidance about options for the new open class period. Things are a bit awkward, but it’s okay. It’s going to be okay. You go to school Thursday. Go to your classes, mind your business, worked on some pretty cool options for that empty period, even though your parents suggested not taking anything too tough - after all, you’ve got 4 AP classes and an additional honors science course already. Things seem more awkward today, and you’re not sure why. But, it’s okay. You’re okay. Everything will be okay.
A friend tells you about a social media post about you that’s really bad. You read it. You see the report. You don’t know who did it or why it was posted and aren’t sure how that happened. But, it’s okay because this was already closed out by the school. It will be okay. You meet with a mentor about ideas for college and get excited about new things.
But, your world is crashing down, and you don’t even know it yet.It’s all just surreal. Mom calls. Get home as fast as you can. Call when you get home so you don’t walk inside alone. What do you mean? What’s wrong? Just do it. You listen and drive home. Worried, but it’s going to be okay. You get home. You hear about a Tik Tok video. This is bad. This is really bad. Oh no. How is this happening to you. It’s going viral. That’s just people on the internet. But there’s stuff about your parents in here, too, that are lies. They’re in danger. Everyone is danger. You start thinking about where you will sleep to keep your baby siblings safe, in case they’re coming for you. This is your fault. But, you didn’t do any of this. Surely, it’s going to be okay. It has to be. No, it’s not okay. Mom is screaming on the phone. She’s never cried like this, wait, no, yes, she has. No no no, Mom, it’s going to be okay. Are you okay, Mom? Mom says do not ever ask that again - she’s fine. Are YOU okay, baby, Mom asks. You can’t go to school tomorrow. Okay, of course, you will be okay that way. You look up the video. You read the comments. Don’t read the comments. You know not to read the comments. But you read the comments. Oh no. Mom is screaming on the phone - she’s out of town but driving back now. You have to go. You have to leave town. You have to figure out what you’re going to do about school. But it doesn’t matter now. Does it? You have to protect your siblings. You can’t worry about school. But that’s all there was to live for - your future. It’s not the same anymore. Everything has changed. You can’t talk to anyone at all. Okay, Mom. Are you okay Mom? Of course, she says. It will be okay, baby, she says back. It’s going to be okay. Wait. Death threats. No no no no. This can’t be happening. No. Nothing is okay.
Imagine. Can you imagine?
Please. Breath. Pause. Think about the gravity.
Can you even imagine? What would you do? Are you strong enough to hang on?
Have you ever heard the screams and wails of a mother who just lost a child? It sounds like this, “Myyyyyyyyy baaaaaabbbbbyyyyyyyyyy!!!” And it sometimes includes “Nooooooo” or “not” or “that’s” before it, all increasingly loud and repeated over and over again, in the most painful, grief stricken screech you can imagine. I know that scream and can talk about it objectively because in 2007, we lost an infant son. I held my tiny, lifeless baby in my arms, and I wailed and cried those cries. His sweet big brother, the child in this story, held him, also. Of course he didn’t understand the situation, but he saw his parents in pain and suffering. In his sweet 2 year old voice, “Mommy, please don’t cry,” and he cried and cried along with me. Hours later, I walked out of the hospital, hours after giving birth, without my baby. I have been through a lot, and I don’t cry often. Thursday night, when I received the call from the school about the Tik Tok video, I let out those screams again. I wailed, and I shrieked, and was begging for help. Screaming and wailing for answers and help that I couldn’t get from anyone. We didn’t know what would happen. We didn’t know. We still don’t know. We only knew we had to protect our child, our family, against this situation that unraveled like something out of a movie. I frantically packed from a business trip to get home in the middle of the night. Of course I wasn’t sending my baby into the lion’s den the next day at school. He’s never going back there. His hopes, his dreams, his entire life - is forever changed. Everything has changed. We left town.
To the child(ren) who created or shared misinformation, whether intentional, or not, for the good of humanity, or not: I forgive you. See, part of being a child is the inability to understand the repercussions of your actions. Surely, no one expected or wanted this snowball effect. My genuine hope is that everyone can move on from this and life fulfilling lives.
To the children who have contacted my child and offered support: You, dear children, are gems. Please keep being brave. You are changing the world with every act of kindness, and I cannot tell you how much this has meant to him, and all of us. Thank you.
To the person who sent this to the horrifying TikTok “influencer”: You intentionally ignited and incited mass violence against my family and placed us all in imminent danger. I am not sure how soundly you’re sleeping at night, but we can’t and have no idea when we will have safety again, if ever. You may consider yourself a keyboard warrior, but you are nothing more than a cowardice, pathetic bully, who put many lives in danger.
To the school administrators: Thank you for your investigation. Thank you for following every protocol. Thank you for working to protect - all students. Thank you for listening to my wails and screams and cries and pain. Thank you for crying with me. Thank you for everything.
To the local law enforcement deputies who received a wailing, worried, stressed, horrified Mom, desperately begging for help: Thank you for making me feel safer. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for explaining so much. And, most of all, thank you for telling my son to keep his head up and stay strong. We are staying vigilant as we adapt to our new normal, like you told us to do.
To the ”Concerned Local Moms” on social media (and feeding local media) spreading hysteria, lies and fear mongering: Please stop. Nothing will satisfy your insatiable desire for the spotlight. You don’t believe the school. You don’t believe the school’s county level administration. You don’t believe the police. One has to gather that you don’t believe anything unless it fits your pearl clutching, baseless narrative, where you callously, recklessly and shamelessly lie about, defame, demoralize and destruct a child whom you have chosen to be crucified. Who would have thought that the Gulf Breeze Gaston, leading the town villagers to kill based on their ignorance and lies would actually be a bunch of Snapchat filtered Moms with duck faces? Perhaps, since you seem hyper focused on a few minutes of fame, try out for Wheel of Fortune - you’re too old for most reality shows but too unintelligent for Jeopardy. You believe a predatorial “influencer” from TikTok and are hard pressed on inciting violence against my family based on one student’s report that said student chose to publish on the internet - I understand connecting dots is hard, but, pshht, girls, please. Further, you choose to live in this town for schools and safety. Yet, here you are, questioning the schools and police department. Let them do their jobs, which they do very well, clearly, or else we wouldn’t all want to live here. It would be very silly to suggest that they’re wrong in this instance simply because they didn’t hand you my child’s head on a platter because you demanded it. Thank goodness for their investigation. And, finally, those of y’all talking about our finances being involved in this whatsoever, like we are over here sipping cordials in crystal glasses and throwing money around and being fancy with fancy people. Nah, I’m not fancy or important or entitled. I’m the minivan driving Mom, with spit up on her shirt, likely mismatched socks, struggling to not fall apart at any given moment and trying to do right by my children, my family, my work and my community. I will not apologize for feeling the way I do about you all right now. You have created sheer terror, hysteria, mania and spread quantifiable lies about my child, for what? For what? The investigation was completed, the school notified everyone, and you won’t stop. If you folks want to come for someone, come for me. Because I am not scared of you. I do, however, have genuine hope that you shed your ego, and, rather than doubling down on what you thought was true, please think logically through all of this and see the reality. Please do it for yourself, your child(ren) and the good of humanity.
To the people who know him, know us and have stayed silent: Please be braver. Please speak up. Nothing significant. But a simple “that’s not true,” “the investigation was completed,” or if someone is really acting wild, please confirm “he left the school.” Please do the right thing.
To the friends who are afraid to reach out to him: He needs you. Be brave, like him. As you can imagine, he’s building up his new academic plans and goals. And, in time, he will be able to talk all about it. For now, just checking in would be enough.
To the bullied children who don’t want to keep going: please do. Sometimes the hardest decision you can make, in the face of any and all torment, pain or suffering is to wake up tomorrow. But, it is always the best one. This, too, shall pass. You are loved. You have value.
To adults and parents of minors who continue to spread false information about my child, harass, threaten or incite violence against our family: Please stop. We have empathy for the genuine concerns, but those have been squashed. Further, he is no longer at the school. Any further discussion or acts will result in civil and/or criminal action being taken immediately.
And, lastly, to my beautiful, brilliant, loving, wonderful child: You are my hero. Your strength, your grace, your acumen, your demeanor, your love, your smile, your kindness, your openness, your bravery - you - everything that is you. Your ability to accept, on a dime, that your life trajectory, including the dreams you worked so hard for from such a young age, are tarnished and forever gone due to the clicks of a keyboard, social media and the mob mentality. I worry, greatly, how this will manifest inside your sweet soul. To endure this level of cruelty from your peers, your friends, angry mobs of parents, angry internet keyboard warriors is a burden no child should ever have to bear. Most people simply cannot, but that is not you. But, you, my sweet child, you are bigger than this. You are greater than this. You are so dearly loved and supported, if only by a few in the open, many in silence and quietly cheering for you. You are not alone. Like a Phoenix, my sweet baby, like a Phoenix, you will rise from the ashes of the death of your childhood that was callously, cruelly and unfairly stolen from you. Like a Phoenix. You will change the world, my sweet child. Wait. Scratch that. You already have.