On Monday’s ABC World News, Diane Sawyer linked Columbine and Chardon High School in the same sentence. My heart hit the floor.
I already knew about the shooting of five students at Chardon High. Within moments of the tragedy, my son and middle daughter began sending text messages and posting on Facebook. But the horror didn’t strike home until the familiar streets and faces reached the national broadcast and thus entered the history books.
My late parents moved to Chardon the same year I began college at John Carroll University. My three younger sisters graduated from Chardon High. St. Mary’s Church, which sits across the street from the school complex and is now the site of constant vigils, is a “family church.” St. Mary’s—like Chardon itself—features in my novels. It’s the church where two of my sisters married and funeral services were held for both of my parents.
Three of my siblings still live in Chardon. My nephew is a senior at Chardon High.
If you don’t know much about Geauga County, ignore the descriptions given by national media. The county seat—Chardon—isn’t a Cleveland suburb. This rural, once prosperous exurb sits between Cleveland and the Pennsylvania state line far to the east. Farmers in Geauga boil maple syrup every spring and the county hosts a large Amish population. The Wall Street Meltdown hit folks hard. When a young mother was discovered living in her car with her three children, the women of a local PTA quietly raised donations and rooted through their closets to get her back on her feet. The churches are full every Sunday and folks visit the many orchards each autumn to pick apples with their kids.
Ohio’s unofficial motto, The Heart of It All, sums up the county well.
If you’ve read my novel, Treasure Me, you might recognize Chardon Square. My fictional Liberty, Ohio is based on Chardon for the simple reason that Geauga’s county seat reminds me of everything I consider great about Americans. People manage to scrape by with dignity and grace. Neighbors care about neighbors. Children ride bicycles down streets lined with maple trees that look like they’ve been lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting. Whenever I ran into Judge Timothy Grendell at the local gym, he’d happily chat about the needs of the county’s youth as we jogged on treadmills. Like so many of the locals, he is a big-hearted Ohioan who combines an incisive mind with horse sense.
When people talk about American grit and dignity and character, they’re talking about the folks of Chardon.
But there’s another side to Chardon—to America, actually—and we all know it well.
During the 1990s I received my State of Ohio foster-adopt certification. I became privy to a disheartening stack of case studies dealing with local children who’d been abused and neglected. Three young children were found living in a barn—they’d never seen a bathtub or enjoyed a hot meal, for that matter. A foster father unable to handle a 9-year-old girl who’d been sexually abused bound her to a chair with duck tape. She sat thus fettered for several hours before a social worker discovered her. Today, children continue to be dumped into the foster care system while parents deal with substance abuse or mental health issues.
Luckier kids never make it into the system. They have relatives who try to step up to the plate and take a swing at parenting a broken child. I suspect this is the story behind Chardon High shooter T.J. Lane, a troubled 17-year-old boy living with his grandfather. According to news reports T.J. stole a gun from his uncle and subsequently injured two students and murdered three others. Reports state that his father has been arrested in the past for violent crimes against women, including T.J.’s mother.
This is not the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting. It certainly isn’t befitting the spirit of America.
I refuse to finish this essay with empty platitudes about how we should all pray for the families and students of Chardon, Ohio. Of course we should. But we must do more. We live in a country littered with broken homes and lost children. You can reach out to a child. Now. Today. You can make a difference.
Join Big Brothers-Big Sisters or form a Boy Scout troop. Call your local school and offer to tutor several hours a week. Visit a local House of Worship and become active in its Life-Teen organization. Provide respite for overworked foster parents who need a babysitter once a month.
As Americans, we must recognize that our children are our country’s most precious resource. Find a lost and lonely T.J. Lane when he’s 9 or 10-years-old and give a little of yourself. You’ll give him someone to admire.
Become a role model by getting involved.
In my March release, The Tree of Everlasting Knowledge, I set the story’s theme early on with this sentence:
Sociopaths weren’t born into the world; they were beaten into existence.
Together, we can stop the abuse that ends with a boy stealing a handgun and extinguishing the hope contained in three young lives. We can, and we must.