Nothing bad ever happened in the sleepy beach town Traci Foust calls home until a mentally-ill man opened fire at a local elementary school.
Think of a time in your life when you felt so safe you were actually bored. That’s where I live. Carlsbad, California. A beach resort town of tourists, yoga classes, and dream catchers made from sea shells. We make playdates for Lego Land and take our jogging strollers to parks that are so over-the-top safe, the trees have a no climbing policy. Not overly concerned with politics and world events, the residents in my neighborhood are primarily stay-at-home moms with husbands who rarely stay at home. Us girls depend on each other to fill up the spaces between have and want, our children fitting neatly into that purpose when we’ve had enough of each other.
Three years ago a man murdered his elderly parents while they slept in their suburban home just a quarter mile from the park that will not allow children in their trees. We talked about this for as long as we could care. Those poor people, we said, then went back to our school conferences, our soccer fields, and dance classes, the almost-standard bumper sticker on our SUV’s reminding us of why we live here: Life’s Rad in Carlsbad. In a place where the surf report is the home page on most family computers, where the school district is in the top five in the country, that terrible event was so far from who and what we are, it may as well have happened in New York or Detroit.
But on a sunny autumn day in 2010, one of our own would pull apart the soft fabric of our almost-reality. This time it wasn’t an old shut-in couple that no one knew. On October 8th, shortly after 1:30pm, in a city with one of the lowest crime rates in America, a local man walked into a schoolyard with the intent to murder our children.
At 2:15 my home and cell phone rang simultaneously. One robotic voice I heard in my ear, another on my answering machine: “This is an urgent message for all parents of students in the Carlsbad Unified School District. This is not a lockdown exercise.”
I cannot tell you what I heard after this is not a lockdown exercise. I remember not being able to breathe right, searching through my purse for my inhaler. Shots had been fired on the playground during lunch recess at Kelly Elementary School. One mile away from where my son, Rocco, was sitting in his third grade class, keeping clear of all windows. Crying.
This isn’t a story about the politics or my views on gun control—though it is worth noting that the only reason this specific incident happened was because the gunman had both a permit to own a firearm and a clinical diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. This is about a mother of four boys who watched from her living room window as a barrage of police cars raced through the canyons and streets below our house—whose only thought while listening to another automated voice say that all circuits were busy as she tried to call the school, her boyfriend, anyone—was that she needed to get to her child. And that an unstable person with a loaded weapon was trying to get to him too.
Coping through fear and panic is not a beach party or a yoga pose. The peculiar things we tell ourselves in order to wrap our heads around the fact that the most unthinkable violence is happening under the veil of sun and palm trees has nothing to do with life being “rad.”
Did my son eat his lunch? Did he have his jacket?
From two miles down the street my 15-year-old son, Julian was texting me from his high school biology class.
—Mom, is Rocco OK?
—Mom, where are you?
I would later learn that before the shootings the gunman had been spotted at the high school gates. During the next hour I would receive 26 texts from Julian, but I could not get my fingers to press the buttons on my cell phone. I had no answers for my son who was frantic with worry over the thought that his little brother was hurt. Or dead.
As I drove toward the main street that connects both my son’s school and Kelly Elementary School, my mind raced through every possible scenario. From telling myself this was not happening, to seeing myself sitting on Rocco’s bed, staring at the cartoon rocket ships on his pillow, wondering how a person goes on living when their child dies.
The street was completely blocked. People stood outside their cars while police officers guided traffic and pedestrians to turn around and go back the way they came. I was barefoot and sweating profusely. I stopped in the middle of the street and got out of my car. I could hear the crossing guard who started walking toward me say, “Ma’am” and “Car” and “Ma’am” again.
Parents left their vehicles wherever they stopped and began walking in all different directions. He’s not at Kelly, I told myself as I walked behind a tall man in a black tank top who looked like he was ready to charge through whatever stood in his way. He’s at the other school. I remember stopping in the middle of an intersection and really having to think: Does Rocco go to Kelly Elementary or the one across the street? It was hard to see clearly in the hold of that sunshine and panic. I had it in my head that if I kept my eye on the man in the tank top, I would not faint.
Police cars lined the walking trail that leads to the entrance of Rocco’s school. Parents were being allowed to enter the gates on foot only. When I turned the corner, I saw Rocco’s teacher standing behind her class. There is no running allowed near or around the front of the school, but no one cared about that now. Words fail me when I try to describe how I felt that day walking home with my son. Very small and unimportant. That’s what I am compared to my children, compared to that day.
Rocco didn’t cry when I asked him if he was alright. He didn’t even speak. We would not talk about what had happened until later that night when he asked me to sit by his bed until he fell asleep.
“It was weird,” he finally said when I told him I would listen to whatever he was feeling. “I was scared but, like, kind of not.” I asked him to explain what he meant. He said it all seemed like a video game. “You know that people are shooting at you, but then you also know it’s not real.”
I had no answer for that. Like many parents I have unintentionally allowed my child to become desensitized to the impact of gun violence; though I would be lying if I told you anything other than, on that night, I felt more relief than shame.
Brendan L. O’Rourke is the man who opened fire at Kelly Elementary school. A white male, now in his mid-40s, was then reported as exhibiting paranoia. He believed insurance companies and various politicians were, “out to get him.” He frightened neighbors by screaming racial slurs from his apartment and talking to himself late into the night on his apartment steps. He had no known connections to anyone at Kelly Elementary School. Still, he picked up his .357 magnum revolver and unloaded a spray of bullets onto the children during recess, shooting two second grade girls in the arm as they ran toward their classroom.
O’Rourke was apprehended by a man named Carlos Partida. A Mexican construction worker, Partida was in his work truck when he spotted O’Rourke attempting to reload his weapon. He immediately sped up to where O’Rourke was bent over trying to retrieve “something he had dropped” and rammed the gunman, knocking him face down into the pavement. Partida jumped from his vehicle, and with the help of another worker and a resident, administered what reporters would later on call a little bit of street justice. In other words, three unarmed men, one of which was rumored to be an undocumented day laborer, beat the shit out of a bad guy.
It’s been almost three years since the shooting. And much like everything ugly in a town that’s known for making nice, we’ve stopped talking about the events of that horrible day. We’ve gone back to our lives of sun and sand and playdates at the park with the kid-free trees. It isn’t fair to say that we are not changed because of what happened in our community, yet almost everyone I know who doesn’t live in Carlsbad said they had no idea this horrible thing had happened or they’d heard “something” but didn’t really understand.
There’s a brand new security fence around Kelly Elementary School as well as the patch of woods behind it. A shiny, sprawling thing installed quietly and painted to blend with the neutral colors of the surrounding homes. I drive that road almost every day, but it was an entire year before I realized that fence had been installed. You can still see the children on the playground when you make the turn near the school’s entrance, but if the light catches the fence at just the perfect angle, it’s impossible to tell it’s even there. The sun blocks it out completely.
*On March 6, 2012 a San Diego Jury found Brendan O’Rourke guilty of seven counts of attempted murder and seven counts of assault with a firearm. He was sentenced to 189 years in prison.
Traci Foust holds a degree in American Literature from UCSC. She is the author of Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD (Simon and Schuster 2011) Both her fiction and non fiction have appeared in several journals and websites including The Southern Review, Funny or Die, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is currently working on her second memoir, Love and Xanax. Find her on Facebook or her website. She is also a memoir instructor for Hardcore Memoir Workshops.