Tragedy never far from our thoughts at Heath High School

MUGSHOT: Lexy Gross, Herald-Leader summer intern,  Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 5, 2014.  Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
MUGSHOT: Lexy Gross, Herald-Leader summer intern, Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 5, 2014. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

Editor's note: Lexy Gross, a Murray State University student, was a reporting intern this summer in the Herald-Leader newsroom. She is a graduate of Heath High School.

Dec. 1 never passed without notice.

It was always a chilling day. We walked down the same halls we did every day, but something was different in 2008.

We imagined the chaos that erupted in the early morning in 1997; we imagined the screams and the cries in our very own lobby. We watched our teachers, the one who were there in '97, with the memory of a shooting written across their faces.

Related story: Heath High School shooting survivor discusses consequences of gun violence, bullying

The shooting happened the day students returned from Thanksgiving break. I was a student at Heath in 2008 when Dec. 1 landed on that exact day for the first time since '97. It was nerve-wracking, creating a ghostly feeling throughout the building.

We always had a moment of silence and reflected on the lives lost that day. I was only in preschool when the shooting happened, and I can't imagine the pain endured by students, teachers and staff. But as a 2011 graduate of Heath High School, I do know going to Heath wasn't like going to any other Kentucky high school.

When I was a junior at Heath, the father of the first victim in the Columbine High School shooting spoke about his daughter and the impact of that shooting. Her brother spoke to us the following school year.

We knew the family of Rachel Scott spoke often at schools across the country, but we also knew they looked at Heath in a different light.

Students held each other as they spoke, teachers cried and everyone left with heavy hearts. Columbine and Heath were different in many ways, but students were killed and lives changed forever.

Students at Heath started a Friends of Rachel club, somewhat tied to a national organization, but primarily focused on helping students at the school. Students wrote nice notes about others on paper chains that were strung throughout the school, they raised money to help students go to prom if they couldn't afford it and tried to better the high school experience for its students. Some of the teachers who supported the club and its mission were at Heath in '97.

As Missy and Mandy Jenkins, twin sisters who survived the shootings, told me what happened that day, I could imagine the white-walled hallways and the old gym lobby across from the school. I envisioned students standing, terrified, in the stairwells. I could see a former chemistry teacher and friend's relative holding and praying over students.

Tears welled in my eyes as I tried to avoid thinking about what it would have been like for me, my best friends and my classmates. The student wielding the gun, and my parents, oblivious to the tragedy, at home.

Like many other students, Heath changed my perspective and forced me to considered the consequences of my actions and words much more carefully.

We were just high school students, taking classes, worrying about crushes and complaining about teachers. But we also felt partially responsible for making sure nothing horrific ever happened in those halls again.

Our hearts ached every time we saw news of another school shooting. We shuddered when broadcasters droned on the list of shootings, which always included Heath. We never stopped and never will stop asking why it had to happen.

Heath alumni recognize Dec. 1 now in many different ways. Recently, former students started using the hashtag #WeBelieveinHeath on Twitter — a type of communication that didn't exist in '97.

Heath High School, unfortunately, is no more. Last year, all of the McCracken County Schools consolidated and the old high school building is now used for middle school classes.

Regardless, most people won't forget what happened in Paducah nearly 17 years ago, and I hope they never do.

The old memorial that stands tucked into the courtyard of the Heath campus will continue to serve as a reminder of the young lives lost and those that will be forever changed because of senseless tragedy.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader