Putting Your Life Back Together After A School Shooting
NOEL KING, HOST:
Next week will be another moment of reflection for the country. National school walkouts are planned to mark the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Thinking about Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland - all of these are shootings that we still talk about today.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There are others, though, that fade from the headlines. It doesn't mean those shootings fade, though, from the memories of those who survived them. And so we wanted to spend some time this morning with someone who witnessed one of those shootings - once a national news story but now harder to recall.
How comfortable are you going back to that day?
HANNAH MILES: There's not really anything that I won't talk about. Sometimes it gets a little emotional, but there's nothing I'm afraid to talk about.
GREENE: For Hannah Miles, that day was October 1, 2015. Roseburg, Ore.
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JEANINE HERBST, BYLINE: I'm Jeanine Herbst. A mass shooting at a community college in Oregon today. Authorities are reporting multiple fatalities after a gunman opened fire at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg.
GREENE: Hannah was 19 years old. She was a freshman. She was in her writing class.
MILES: I thought I would never see my mom or my sister or my dad again. And then I try to remember, what was the last thing I said to them? Did I tell them I loved them?
GREENE: Ten people died in Roseburg that day, including the shooter. A reporter from KOIN 6, a local television news station, saw Hannah sitting in the parking lot. She was wrapped in this Red Cross blanket.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Right now, I'm with a student named Hannah. And she was actually in the classroom right next door to where this shooting happened. How are you doing?
MILES: Right now, I feel like I'm doing OK - still in shock. I just can't wrap my brain around it. I just - I don't get it.
GREENE: Hannah kind of remembers that interview, also kind of doesn't. It was one of many that she did that day.
MILES: It's just kind of surreal. It's kind of weird to think about, like, that's me.
GREENE: She says the moment when the shooting started, it replays in her mind.
MILES: I remember the first shot that we heard. We didn't know it was a shot. And I was taking notes in class, and it had scared me. And I jumped, and the ink mark went across my paper. And I still have that notebook. And it's always really weird when I go back and I look at that. It's kind of eerie and haunting, but it's almost, like, sacred at the same time.
GREENE: You held on to that notebook where...
MILES: Yeah. Yeah.
GREENE: Why do you think you're holding onto it?
MILES: I feel like I'm kind of a part of history. That was the moment everything changed for my town.
GREENE: I think about when the TV cameras all left. And the community - it was just the community after all that attention goes away. What is that moment like?
MILES: Yeah, it's very weird. In that time about a week after - there were people wanting interviews and cameras and people calling. But when, you know, they all went home, it really hits you. And it starts to set in that, OK, this isn't a dream. This isn't something that, you know, I read somewhere. This is happening to me. This is my town. And a reporter actually told me, well, the nightmare is over now. I was safe. My mom and dad were there. I was, you know - I got to go home, somebody said. Well, at least your nightmare's over.
GREENE: The reporter was telling you that your nightmare was over?
MILES: And in reality, that's when my nightmare began.
GREENE: This changed you a lot.
MILES: Yeah. One act of one person changed my whole life - my entire life.
GREENE: For Hannah Miles, Roseburg, Ore. - it was her home. It's where she grew up. Months after that shooting at Umpqua Community College, she decided to leave. She moved far away to a suburb outside of Dallas, Texas, to get a fresh start. She's decided to take a break from college for now. And she's been working part time at a preschool and an elementary school.
MILES: I feel like ever since that day, you kind of do pick up - not a new identity, but you become a reinvented version of yourself. I don't know. It's just something that is a part of you. And you have to realize that you are not the same person. This changes you. Like, oh, before, if this would've happened, I never would've reacted that way. But since I went through that - I don't know - it's just shaped me into a different person.
GREENE: You said when something happens, you handle it totally differently than the old you. What's an example of that?
MILES: So I work at a school in the afternoons. We do drills. I take those very, very seriously. Sometimes the kids want to joke around and be like, oh, it's silly. But to me, that's something you don't joke with. You don't play with. Or, you know, a stack of books falling or a car backfires - it's still very real, and trying to deal with that and not fall to the ground and, you know, cover your head or cry in public. You have to deal with, you know, crowds differently. You have to deal with people differently. You have to stop seeing everyone as a threat. You have to just, I guess, adapt to, like, a new way of life.
GREENE: Have you felt a connection to the students from Parkland, Fla., who we've been seeing, you know, all over the news recently?
MILES: Yes, some parts of it. I try not to - and I know it sounds bad, but I try not to go online - look things up about other school shootings because it is so hard. It brings back so many memories, but I do feel for them. And I feel like the rest of the country grieves with them.
GREENE: They have gotten so much attention. I mean, I feel like a lot of people can be glued to their screens when some of the Parkland students are speaking.
GREENE: It seems like society has almost set this expectation that if you're a victim, you'll turn that pain into action and do something. Does that put pressure on you somehow?
MILES: I mean, I guess I do feel pressure sometimes to maybe do more or - and that's why I feel like I don't have an issue with, like, answering certain questions about certain things and why I try to be open. I guess that's my way of being active - just letting everyone know and being aware and spreading awareness.
GREENE: After everything you've been through, does anything ever feel normal again? Like, does the word normal even mean anything?
MILES: In the beginning, it was like I thought I would never feel human again - 'cause there was just so much anger and so much bitterness that was just welled up. And, you know, at the time - for months after, you know, I would lash out at my family and my friends and the ones that I loved the most. And the PTSD was just horrific, and I never thought I would be able to live a normal life again. And through the help of counseling, I do have my new normal. Do I have good days and bad days? Of course. There are some days still - 2 1/2 years later - that I just want to curl up, cry and stay in bed all day. But you do have a sense of a new normal. And when I realized that, OK, this changed you - you're not going to be the same again, you have to accept that - that's when I feel like true healing began for me.
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GREENE: That was Hannah Miles. She is a survivor of the Umpqua Community College shooting in Roseburg, Ore., in 2015. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.