There was a time, I suppose, for the whole world to have its eyes on Arapahoe High School. For there to be questions, interviews, extra attention and special treatment and a general displaced feeling. But for the first time since Dec. 13, 2013, the entire Arapahoe student body, faculty and staff, assembled on Friday, Jan. 10, untormented by media vans and helicopters, reporters and cameras. It was a welcome change for the students and staff, simply coming home.
At 7:25 a.m., more than 2,000 Warriors crowded onto the old Sitting Eagle Gymnasium bleachers as we had for the homecoming spirit assembly earlier this school year. But this time the proceedings had much more at stake.
The walls of the gym were lined with teachers and staff, each entrance filled with the presence of a beloved educator-turned-family-member. The room felt like a giant hug. In this moment we were reminded of the trust and love between the students and staff at Arapahoe, evident especially now. Each teacher’s expression was reassuring, softening the idea of getting back to work and offering the promise of overwhelming grace for each student’s individual grieving periods.
Principal Natalie Pramenko began with a reminder. “There will be time for outside speakers, but today is about our students, our faculty, our new start to our new semester.”
The goal was healing and dipping our toes into the reality of resuming normality and work. No need at the moment for media to report or to tell us how to resume what we do well and have done well in the past: being a school of great integrity and excellence.
Several Arapaho tribe members from the Wind River Reservation graciously trekked to their sister school for the assembly. They served as a reminder of how strong and unique Arapahoe High School is in its history, an aspect I believe unifies our student body deeply.
Phil Garhart, principal at Wyoming Indian High School, relayed a story about the connection between the two schools. Many years ago, when the kids up at Wind River were struggling with the winter cold, a coat drive was set up at Arapahoe High School to aid them. The outpour delighted so many, and one little boy in particular, who looked at his teacher in his new coat and large gloves and said with a grin, “I’ll never be cold again.”
That’s the kind of spirit Arapahoe brings to each of its students. This special school culture seeps into all parts of our lives, becoming an integral part of our whole community. Once you are a part of the family, the tradition, and the support, you’re never cold again.
Tribal elder Mark Soldier Wolf, assisted by his daughter, Cassie Soldier Wolf, led the entire gymnasium in a cleansing ceremony special to the Arapaho tribe. Fragrant incense was lit and, using an eagle’s wing, the smoke was rhythmically wafted toward each of the four student sections, freshman, sophomore, junior, then senior over and over again.
Mark Soldier Wolf encouraged the audience with the poetic language of a weathered native. He had a way of telling an intricate, nostalgic tale that seemed to go beyond comprehension, but ending with wisdom and poignant messages that felt personal. He reminded me so much of my grandfather.
He explained to us the meaning of “warrior.” It’s an investigation of your land, people, and community — a warrior watches over. He reminded us to “never fear your enemy, the darkness. There is always a flashlight or a switch.” I couldn’t help but be empowered by this man, standing as a witness to the strength of a true warrior, one who made it through the harsh times of his poverty-stricken people and now emboldens us to do the same.
Empowerment was the theme for the rest of the speakers that morning. Our student body president, Megan Moore, clarified a popular statement used after the tragedy, that “this event will not define us.” She asserted that experiences do in fact make up who we are, but we get to choose how we will be defined. She implored us to remember our original Arapahoe identity that stood strong in the midst of the event. We are, and will be, a school known for great achievement, spirit, and love.
One of Claire’s friends, Erica Blair, acknowledged our loss of innocence in the tragedy. In response, however, she invited us to balance the incredible maturity we’ve had to take on with a childlike attitude toward the rest of our lives. I’m assuming she asks us to be a bit more like Claire in that way, an influence for others through our laughter and silliness.
It’s a beautiful conundrum we face now: each of us being both “Warrior Strong” and needing to lean on each other more than ever. I saw this at work throughout the crowd as boxes of tissues were passed about. Among the little ordinary movements of a large gathering, adjusted sitting position and hair fixes, I witnessed barely perceivable hand-holding and light squeezes to a neighbor’s shoulder.
Mr. Davis, a man whose overwhelming grace and forgiveness enamors all of Arapahoe’s students and community, challenged us to continue those little expressions of love each and every day. He assured us, saying, “You’ll never be called in this life to do more than you can do in this life. You are always enough.”
With the weight of historical victories and the encouragement of each other at our backs, it’s time for Arapahoe to get back to work. That does mean resuming studies and preparing for our personal futures, but also taking on Mr. Davis’s challenge — to consciously and deliberately love each day.