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BHS Till the Day That I Die

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The Legacy of Bryant bass line joins arms as they sing the Alma Mater at the 2018 Salt Bowl.

The Legacy of Bryant bass line joins arms as they sing the Alma Mater at the 2018 Salt Bowl.

Photo Christy Mead Special to Prospective

Photo Christy Mead Special to Prospective

The Legacy of Bryant bass line joins arms as they sing the Alma Mater at the 2018 Salt Bowl.

Maxton Preuninger, Writer

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It couldn’t be real.

I wanted to be dreaming. I wanted to disappear from between the bleachers, where I was desperately trying to breathe and work myself through a maze of rusted drum stands, Bryant blue water jugs and duffel bags embroidered with the names of the people I had just been laughing with.

In a blink of an eye, the Salt Bowl at War Memorial Stadium had turned into a scene of pure chaos and panic, as fans ran through the bleachers screaming that someone was shooting.

Broken sobs escaped my body as I tried to get as far away from the west side of the stadium as possible, following the massive sea of blue shirts and cries of children. I felt the hands of parents on my back ushering me further away, hands that would start lifting me up into the press box, away from what I thought would be the last place I would see my friends and family.

The day started normally for a band day, with Chick-fil-A chicken minis and the typical drumline room hype session. The practice for halftime was hot, and we didn’t quite know our music, but that was normal. Screaming for our beloved Hornets and playing the fight song like it was our national anthem was normal. Talking trash with Benton kids who were on the sideline before halftime was normal.

As we gently teased elementary kids about how they hadn’t even been born when Benton last won the Salt Bowl, we could have never anticipated anything killing our high spirits.

Everything was normal, until we were confused about why it wasn’t just our football players on the field–they were quickly being joined by running fans in maroon and blue shirts alike.

It is impossible to describe the fear that cased my chest in excruciating pain.

It is impossible to describe the fear that drowned out all the screams and the pain from being stepped on and shoved into bleachers, when I could no longer see my mother and nine-year-old brother I had just shared a $5 vanilla and chocolate swirl ice cream with.

Not even ten minutes earlier, my mother and I were joking about how vague the phrase “Hey Mom!” was in the crowd at War Memorial, as I tried to get her attention so I could ask for the $5 for ice cream. I wanted to go back in time as I stood at the top of the bleachers calling out for her with the little breath I could hold in my tightening lungs.

I was no longer laughing when the mothers who turned around to my call weren’t mine.

I felt a short blink of relief when I saw my mom and brother sitting calmly in the same spot I had last seen them.

I thought that because my mom radiated calmness and safety, we were going to be okay.

I thought we were going to be okay.

I thought we were going to be okay as I shakily made my way back to the land of shiny instruments and band directors. I anxiously sat a few rows behind my director’s wife as she told her child, “It was just a fight, because you know how people are when they get into fights.”

I thought we were going to be okay as I sat next to Alivia, whom I had just spent the previous night with, laughing and painting a poster for the drumline room.

I thought we were going to be okay, until more screaming erupted and we were once again pulled away from the band stands and into the mass of panic and fear by our section leader.

The pain that shot through my body as we dove into another set of bleachers was drowned out by more suffocating sobs.

It wasn’t until Bryant Elementary principal Mark Scarlett’s voice came over the loudspeaker, asking us to return to the stands, that three of us rose slowly from the safety of the crowd. We made our way back again to the very place that we had been cheering and playing cadences in the quarter before.

Tearful hugs filled the bleachers that the band crammed into, both for people who found their friends safely and those being comforted for not knowing where a friend was.

People were no longer saying “Amen” because it was the name of one of the songs in our Panic at the Disco halftime performance, but because they were praying to God that everyone was okay.

Alivia and I sat with our hands held tightly, and as soon as the rest of our line sat down behind us, we turned around and cried, hugging each other.

It was nothing like the friendly hugs we share when leaving school for a break, or the good luck type of “bro hug” before a performance.

We didn’t know that there was never a gun.

We didn’t know that someone had yelled that there was gun when in reality, someone set off a stun gun or knocked over a metal barricade.

We didn’t know if it was over.

We hugged like a reunited family, because we were a family. We clung to each other out of fear that we would soon be ripped apart again. There was no shame in our cries and shaking hugs, our safety blankets protecting us from the reality of what we had just experienced.

As directors handed out rosters and section leaders tried to gather members of their sections, hoping to check every name off their lists, I sat behind my tenors, frozen.

It felt like something deep inside me had shattered and was trying to scrape through the bones of my chest. I didn’t think it could be real, and the entire time, I could only focus on one thought.

We couldn’t be next.

I always thought that we–Bryant–would be the exception. I always thought that Bryant was a quaint and cozy community that would never be exposed to the threat of gun violence.

I always thought that I would never have to experience terror flooding my body with such intensity that I feel both everything and nothing at once.

I don’t remember collapsing my drum stand or packing up my duffel bag, nor do I remember loading the percussion trailer or the bus ride home.

I remember how my salty tears stung my sunburned face, and how the humidity outside the bus gave it a hint of moisture that was soon mixed with more hot tears.

I remember collapsing in the drumline room that had been filled with makeshift beats and chants less than twelve hours before.

The night at home was accompanied by nightmares replaying the scenes of chaos and horror that left me sobbing into my pillow, hoping my mom wouldn’t be able to hear.

An anxiety attack at work followed the next morning, and then another on the floor of a Starbucks bathroom as I tried to distract myself with the logic of AP Physics and Pre-Calculus homework.

I sat in my room, clutching my chest as it pinched every time I gasped for air after a door slam brought images of those damned blue water jugs and scrambling feet from between the gaps of bleachers.

It feels like I shouldn’t be so deeply shaken by an event that turned out to present no imminent danger, but I am.

Seeing the blue line of a sending text message now brings flashes of the panic I felt that night seeing the line gradually slow down as I tried to tell my mom that I was okay.

Seeing my little brother makes me feel such intense emotion that I don’t know if I want to scream, or cry, or hug him and never let go, because I was once fearful that he was going to get trampled in the crowd or separated from my mom and never be seen again.

When I see my friends or talk to them, I can’t help but picture them crying, either out of relief or sheer panic.

I hear the inhuman cries of my band family whenever there’s silence in class.

We never once thought we would be unsafe showing how proud we were to be Bryant Hornets, and that is why I am so shaken. Because as soon as we heard the word “gun,” we couldn’t question if it was real or not.

That’s just the world we are living in.

Saline County, as a community, came together. From the people covering others in hopes of protecting them from a gunshot, to people at work asking me how I was doing after the game, we came together, but it’s still going to be a journey to recovery.

Though the same number of people left the stadium alive that had entered before kick-off, it’s still going to be a process of healing–a process of feeling safe again. We are all coping differently, and some of us feel more heavily impacted than others, but that does not make anyone’s experience any more or less valid. The community that filled those stands fills my heart with support and love.

I’ve been a Hornet since I was in the third grade, starting my first day of school in Arkansas in Mrs. Lynn Denker’s class at Bryant Elementary school. I was afraid I wouldn’t make any friends, and I was confused as to why people said “Y’all” so much, but eight years later, I feel like I’m at home.

Even though my school experience has not been all sunshine and rainbows, I am firm in my belief that Bryant is united.

We are a community, we will get through this together, and I could not be more proud to be a Bryant Hornet.

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