As Anna Sutterer crowded with 25 other students in the darkened corner of her AP Lit class, the words of the hymn she sings every Sunday at church — “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” — tumbled through her mind.
Shots had just echoed through her Arapahoe High School halls. So she prayed.
For strength in the moment.
For the shooter, knowing he was one of God’s children, but was lost.
For the aftermath, of peace in everyone’s hearts.
“I thought this couldn’t happen to any of our Warriors,” she said later. “I prayed we would end up being more powerful than the actual event.”
That’s exactly what’s happening.
But perhaps that’s not so surprising, considering every school day for four years students hear the same seven words at the end of morning announcements: “Warriors Always Take Care of Each Other.”
“Maybe you don’t feel it every single day, but it really is ingrained in us,” Anna, 17, said. “It’s part of the tradition of the Arapahoe tribe. …”
In the days since an 18-year-old gunman — one of their own — killed himself after fatally injuring a 17-year-old girl, also one of their own, Arapahoe’s students, numbering about the size of a small town, have led a remarkable healing campaign with wisdom and compassion far beyond their years.
They have supported each other in small and big ways, seeking comfort in numbers and solace in shared experience.
“It seems,” Anna’s father said, “the whole community of students is determined to take care of each other.”
A chain of “fierce kindness,” as one observer described, started almost immediately.
The day after the violence, 200 students gathered at noon at a nearby youth center to share stories and pray.
A few hours later, another student opened her home until midnight for whoever wanted to stop by. Throughout the night, teens came and went, grabbing a bite to eat or talking or even dancing a little.
“Nobody has wanted to be alone or without any of their friends,” Anna said. “We have to be in a big group. I think, for me, when I’m alone it kind of gives way to all those thoughts … the rushing of it.”
That Saturday evening, Maggie Hurlbut, 17, the school newspaper editor who had crouched in the classroom with Anna, helped organize a candlelight vigil for Claire Davis, the senior who died Dec. 21 after nine days in a coma.
“It was to pay our respects to Claire,” Maggie said. “Part of it was also a selfish need. I needed to be doing something. It gave me a purpose. … I wanted to be around people … and I felt that sentiment from other people.”
More than 500 students, parents and community members formed a circle several layers deep at a Centennial park. As candles flickered in the night, students vowed the tragedy would not define them; then they melted into hugs, many with people they did not know.
“There definitely is a certain trauma we endured,” Maggie said. “It’s definitely not something we can handle alone. But being with others in the same situation can help us move past it.”
That urge to gather as one — whether in celebration or sorrow — is an inextricable component of human nature, said Kim Gorgens, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Denver.
“It’s every rally, every church potluck, every workplace meal delivery,” she said. “For as long as people have been tracking human behavior, that’s what people do in good times and in bad times.”
Connection is essential to surviving the bad times.
“The worst possible thing that undermines mental health is really that sense of powerlessness after any kind of tragedy … especially events like these, the catastrophic loss of a sense of safety,” Gorgens said. “But kids who find a sense of being or reason to be in action are the ones who really fare best.”
Students’ desire to reclaim control has spread beyond Arapahoe walls. Teens from other schools are sending banners of support, selling T-shirts to support Claire and collecting donations to help cover medical expenses. A Twitter petition to bring Claire’s favorite band, One Direction, exploded to more than 40,000 tweets in just 48 hours.
“It’s really touching,” Maggie said. “We’re (school) rivals every other time, but now it’s bigger than that. I hope that relationship will be changed a little bit.”
What is sure to endure is the Arapahoe spirit: Warriors Always Take Care of Each Other.
“We buy it,” Maggie said. “… everything falls away in times when we need each other. And we’ve been very vocal right now that we really do need each other.”
The daily repetition of this particular school motto is inspirational, said Gorgens, who calls it a smart way to bring kids into adulthood.
“There’s something about clinging to an identity that’s prescribed to you,” she said. And this one “is fierce kindness … This is the outcome of what it looks like in a crisis. It’s a thing of beauty that these kids would be so present for each other.”
Maggie and Anna expect some bumps as they navigate the road ahead.
Neither is sleeping well. Loud noises startle Maggie. Anna can’t bring herself to watch or listen to the news much.
“I think just because of all the things we’ve been doing, I will be more resilient than I expect,” Anna said. At the same time, “I’m trying to give myself grace for not immediately being OK.”
Both are looking forward to returning to school.
“There’s something about taking it back and redeeming that space,” Anna said. “Even being in that place where those memories are going to be, the fact is we really banded together because of that place.”
They believe they will, eventually, leave behind what happened that terrible day, but, said Maggie, not “without some remembrance, respect and courage.”
Like true — fiercely kind — warriors.
Ann Macari Healey’s column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.
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