Columbine, Gun Violence, School Nursing, School shooting

The Relentless School Nurse: Defining a New Normal – Through Little Boxes

For the non-botanists who read this blog post, the flower pictured above is a Columbine. Not only is it Colorado’s flower, but it is also the symbol of Columbine High School. This week’s blog post is guest written by Ted Zocco-Hochhalter who asked that I use his Twitter bio to describe who he is; Columbine parent, school safety & emergency management specialist, gun violence prevention advocate, Navy vet, husband, father. 

I met Ted on Twitter, we connected over being family member survivors with a passion for creating safer spaces for our children, families and communities. I have turned to Ted’s wisdom, expertise and comfort on many occasions. He is a wealth of knowledge about school safety and emergency management. 

Ted is the father of two Columbine students, one critically injured, both present the day of the school shooting over twenty years ago. He remains active on social media and continues to be a voice of reason in this most unreasonable time. He often shares his unique perspective on school preparedness, active shooter drills and the unregulated school safety industry. 

I value Ted’s friendship, and even though we have never met in person, we are connected through our work. I hope to meet him one glorious day in his beloved Colorado foothills. 

Here is Ted’s story: Defining a New Normal – Through Little Boxes

Would it be accurate to say we all live in little boxes? Think about that.

Back in 1962, Malvina Reynolds wrote a song called Little Boxes. This song was also used as the theme song for a Showtime TV series called Weeds. 

What’s striking about the song is how the lyrics fit so timelessly and so well in today’s collective psyche even as they did back in 1962 and, arguably, even way before that.

Weeds starts out with ‘Little Boxes’ playing while showing what can only be taken as business people in lock step backing their virtually identical black four door sedans out of their driveways simultaneously to go to work, all in sync, all in one direction, all of them filing out the gated community one after the other, sort of representative of lemmings on their trek to the cliff ledge high above the jagged seashore, waves pounding relentlessly on the rocks far below.

Later episodes would show something similar but along the same lines – things like joggers…all of them timing their heart rates, holding their wrists, taking their pulse while running in-place on street corners either waiting for a stop light to change or for a break in the traffic that allows them to continue on their daily run, people all out mowing their manicured lawns, washing their cars, etc., etc. In other words, depicting the ‘normal’ routines so many of us buy into virtually every single day of our lives.

We become inured to this routine whether we want to admit it or not. It is, after all, representative of our daily lives. It really doesn’t matter if we live in a more rural community, a more metropolitan area either urban or suburban, or somewhere else like on a farm or a ranch. We ALL live in our own little boxes, our homes. It doesn’t matter where. The routines we develop over time are similar to the routines of others, but different, too. Even within nuclear families individual members construct their own little boxes that reflect their own routines, their own schedules, their own activities, their own perceptions, their own biases and prejudices.

Some of us like our jobs. Some of us love our jobs. Some of us learn to like our jobs. And, some of us learn to eventually love our jobs over a period of time.

Others of us hate our jobs – we can’t wait to find something else that might work better for us – we’re almost always on the lookout. Some of us stay in our jobs simply because, although we despise the work, the pay is good. But, if something better comes along, some of us do just about anything in order to land those kinds of jobs. Some will get those jobs – others will not. Some will be disappointed in their failure. Others will get on with their lives as if nothing happened.

It’s probably pretty safe to say most of us unabashedly love our families. But, it might also be safe to say some only like their families. And, some might even feel trapped with their families, right or wrong.

Some of us get really frustrated with members of our families – kids in particular….doggone kids! Babies are wonderful. When they get to the terrible twos, all of a sudden they aren’t quite as wonderful. They are certainly tolerable, but too often we wish they’d just grow up. Then when they do grow up we rue the fact they grow up way too fast. We lament that they go brain dead upon reaching their teenage years and puberty. When they get to twenty-something, they suddenly just seem to magically get smarter. As they get older, their parents can even “become” much smarter to them. Who’d a thunk it?

Some kids love school. Some kids hate school. Some like it, but are also sort of ambivalent about it. Others grow to embrace it. Everyone is different.

Some of us have more patience in dealing with these kinds of frustrations than others. To some, family is everything. To others, family is secondary to their job.

No two individuals can really be classified as having the same perspective about family, home, or job because they live with their own family, in their own home, and work in their own job, and they are different from everyone else. After all, their family history helps define who they are more so than just about anything else in their lives. That’s what makes humanity unique in and of itself.

So, we get accustomed, we fall into a routine, we live in our own little box, our home, and life goes on.

Our world becomes limited, if you will, to our work, our family, our jobs.

Some of us attend religious gatherings, church services – all faiths, all religions.

Others view nature as their only spiritual need.

Some of us take vacations to localities far and wide, to view Nature’s wonders wherever they may be.

Others consider a trip to a used car lot, or a mall, or the movies, or even a day trip as a kind of vacation.

Others claim they don’t have time to do any of these things…that their jobs are too demanding that way.

The truth is the degree to which we survive, at least in this consumer driven economy we’ve kind of had engineered for us by design, depends on how much we make, whether we are a one-income or a two-income family or whether we even have a job, whether or not we are a single parent, how many children there are (if any), and so on. Some of us work weekends. Some have weekends off. Some work the night shift. Some work part time. Some are executives. Some are laborers. Others are somewhere in between.

It’s the same, but different. Make sense?

We also tend to think of others as leading similar lives to our own even if we can visibly see minor differences in how we live.

We don’t generally recognize the differences in each of us that also make us unique.

‘People should just think like me’ can become a very pervasive mentality if we aren’t careful.

‘I’m right and you’re stupid’ is another one of those catch phrases that many of us tend to feel, but don’t necessarily say, and one that can be just as pervasive if we don’t agree with something someone else believes.

Judgment, sometimes very harsh judgment, of others becomes a sort of norm for some.

Opinions become more important than factual information.

We’ve all heard the cliché, ‘thinking outside the box’. What exactly does that mean, and how does it apply to each of us? Is it only applicable in a business sense with related ideation….profit motive? Or, are there other applications? Something perhaps along the lines of what happens when our individual routines are disrupted? What if the disruption just happens to be a trauma of some kind – say, a physically debilitating trauma?

In the show, Weeds, the main character’s husband dies suddenly from a heart attack. She is then literally forced to think outside her comfort zone, her little box. She chooses to start a business growing, and selling, weed from her home. The series expands from there. She involves members of her own family in this business including her children and her brother-in-law. The journey they make is a rough one. As the business grows, others are brought into the fold; neighbors, business associates, friends. Meanwhile, life goes on as it always has for the vast majority of everyone else surrounding this particular little box. These people acknowledged the trauma suffered by the family of the main character, but that particular trauma did not stop them from carrying on with their normal routines.

And so it was for my family following the massacre at Columbine High School, April 20, 1999.

If a trauma occurs in our lives, does it force us to think outside our own individual box like the main character in Weeds? Might this be another application of something that actually requires us to think outside our own box? Of course it is. But, we must also ask ourselves whether or not it allows for personal growth. Perhaps we let it restrict our personal growth instead. It all depends on the individual. Does it involve family, maybe extended family? How about friends and neighbors? Business associates? Does it even consider that life goes on uninterrupted for the vast majority of everyone else surrounding the issue of our own trauma in our own little box? We must then also reconcile how much, if at all, we wish to keep our own individual trauma out there for others to be able to see, to feel, to experience.

When the trauma is more significant, more long term, like a disabling injury to someone in the family, a new life paradigm arguably must occur, not only for the person with the disability, but for others close to them, as well. Whether this new paradigm becomes a festering sore or a new opportunity for those involved is an inherent risk based on the family’s strengths or dysfunctions prior to the event, itself.

A re-education must take place, an adaptation, if you will, to life after the trauma. The re-education/adaptation isn’t something limited only to the person suffering from or injured by the trauma. It’s something everyone close to them must undergo as well. In other words, learning how to cope, how to understand, how to adapt, how to survive, how to live again isn’t limited solely to the individual disabled by the trauma itself.

Physical disability, mental impairment, age related mobility, birth defects, special needs, post traumatic stress disorder, and so many more…are all things that require us to adapt right alongside those affected by the trauma itself.

Closeness to the trauma, however, must be put into its proper context, as well. For example, the individual injured in the traumatic event is, by virtue of their condition, obviously the person most directly affected – ergo their struggle to adapt to their own new paradigm for living within their own ‘new’ little box.

By the same token, those closest to the person injured, by virtue of the effect the trauma has on their loved one and on them, personally, and how they are now required to interact with the injured individual, must also adapt thus creating their own new little boxes.

The dilemma then becomes one of how much must all these new little boxes all look the same, how far must those closest to the person injured bend their own new life paradigm, their own new little boxes to accommodate the person injured?

Does the injured individual now command center stage? Should what they want be lumped in with what they actually need and be put first and foremost? Is there a clear separation between the two? Should there be?

At what point do the needs of the other members of the nuclear family get shoved aside or diminished, or once again be brought to the fore? Is this a gradual, almost imperceptible process? Or can it be something much more sinister over the long term?

How do the wants and needs of the community at large surrounding this trauma factor into this equation?

Attempting to concurrently develop a new world view based upon, and now required by, their individual situations as a direct result of that trauma may become problematic for some, a challenge to overcome for others, a defeat for still others, and even a conscious choice for others. It all depends upon the individual’s personal makeup and the choices each of them are willing and/or capable of making.

And, therein, lies the problem faced by loved ones attempting to help, support, nurture, and love those who’ve been injured by the trauma itself.

They may face anger, temper tantrums. They may face reluctance. They may face defiance. They may face refusal to do things necessary for healing, both physical and emotional. They may face selfishness like they’ve never seen before. They may face unalterable choices made by their loved ones, both physical and emotional. In fact, most of them will face these kinds of obstacles in some form. That’s simply an undeniable reality.

They, right alongside their loved ones, may face further trauma. Things like multiple surgeries, depression, anxiety, frustration, paranoia, threats of suicide, attempts at suicide … successful attempts at suicide, and the list goes on. The question then becomes one of how to deal with all of these issues?

How hard does one push, especially knowing just how much the victim has already been through? How much they’ve already endured? How much they’ve already suffered?

How much should one be willing to sacrifice their own self and their own personal needs to accommodate the wants and needs of their loved one still struggling with their injuries, both physical and emotional?

Must everything be put on hold to do this? 

Must everything be sacrificed in the all consuming effort to ensure the recovery of the victim? 

At what point does the use of the term victim become problematic and no longer be applicable? 

Or will these individuals always be a victim? Should they be allowed to remain a victim, or should they be nurtured toward being someone who won’t let their victim-hood define who they are or who they will be?

When does enough reach a point of actually being enough? 

Where does the pain begin to end and the healing actually, truly begin?

At what point must one also make a conscious decision to back away, let some of the chips fall where they may, and hope for the very best for the individual they’re trying to help? 

It’s a very, very, very fine line for anyone, much less family members, to be literally forced to walk.

There will be no owner’s manual. All there will be is the individual’s own sense of right and wrong, of caring, of unconditional love being offered with no strings attached. Decisions made are decisions that must be lived with and reconciled individually. Not everyone will agree with those decisions. The lengths to which those who disagree are willing to go to prove their point can be either uplifting or devastating to others.

Of course, there will also be the knowledge there are professionals whose job it is to try to help guide each person’s journey based on their own personal and professional experiences, and the hope those professionals know what the hell they’re even talking about.

Counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, members of the clergy, community organizations, and government agencies – all are a part of the mix. Add to that mix the possibility these professionals may not even have an owner’s manual on how to respond to certain traumas and a recipe for disaster can begin brewing in the background behind all the external influences, beyond the comprehension of anyone involved including the so-called professionals.

How much should each and every single family member be involved in reconstructing their own little boxes right alongside the individual injured by the trauma? How much should family members help in the re-construction of the victim’s little box? If they choose not to be actively involved, is it their fault? Should they be given some slack? What if they snap? What if they lose it? Who suffers then?

What about extended family members; Blood relatives – brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents? What about step-brothers, step-sisters, step-mothers, step-fathers, step-grandparents, step-aunts, step-uncles, and step-cousins? Whose wants and needs should be placed first and foremost? Or, should they be at all? How are each individual’s wants and needs to be balanced in this equation?

Again, no owner’s manual. Walking a tightrope like this can, in and of itself, be a traumatic experience, especially if one loses one’s balance, or if one has their balance knocked right out from under them as a result of their efforts to help and they must then depend upon others as their own safety net to fall into.

Finally, there’s always a possibility a kind of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario will rear its ugly head at some point in the re-construction process.

Regardless, we will re-construct our own little boxes based on our own life experiences and the choices we make from then on. Choices made by others are outside each of our own individual control and purview.

We can, and often times do, reflect with concern over some of the choices others make, but in the end, we have little or no say in how those choices will manifest in results over the long term re-construction of someone else’s little box…especially if they construct something for themselves while refusing to even acknowledge that their specific trauma has affected others who might just be making their own life altering sacrifices in order to help as best they can given the hand that life’s circumstances have dealt them. In these types of instances, the only real control we have is of our own making and that reflects how we choose to respond to those circumstances.

For those who’ve experienced something similar to what’s being put forward herein, you already know exactly what I’m talking about. For those who’ve yet to experience their own personal trauma, whether to yourself or to a loved one, the intent here is to hopefully provide insight as a result of some of my own personal experiences, some food for thought, and some advance knowledge of questions you may want to consider asking yourselves.

And so it goes. Life does go on. It’s all in how we choose to let life shape us that will ultimately define who we become and the little boxes we construct for ourselves, no matter what life might have in store.


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