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On December 13, 2013, an Arapahoe High School student armed with a shotgun and explosives entered the building intent on murdering a teacher with whom he had a disagreement. Upon learning that the teacher was not in the building, the gunman shot 17-year-old Claire Davis point-blank, fled to a classroom and committed suicide. No other students were physically injured in the attack, though many experienced varying degrees of trauma from their experience.

Several days after the shooting, Marlys Ferrill, an English teacher at Arapahoe, sent her students the following letter and a collection of symbolic gifts. Her words of comfort and wisdom opened avenues for continuing mutual support when the students returned after the mid-year Christmas break.

Dear Best-of-all Warriors,

Last Friday, December 13, 2013 we became a family. We were not simply a group of people taking English Literature from Mrs. Ferrill fifth period, but a family, facing a common threat to our existence…and a family huddling together in fear and support, not knowing if life would ever be the same again.

And now we know, life will never be the same again. As a mother, I am biologically wired to protect my children at all costs. I want to save my children from the ugly realities of the world, and I want my children to feel safe, secure, and loved. My son Jeff is now 33 years old and my daughter Meredith is 31. Although I have kept them safe from physical harm, I have not been able to shield them completely from disappointment, sadness, anxiety, loss, anger, or fear. And so, when I looked at your faces last friday and saw the loss of innocence cloud your eyes with the knowledge that bad things do happen to good people. I began to shake (and so did my stupid Jingle Bell earrings), knowing I would not be able to save you from harm if suddenly the classroom door burst open.

But then something magical happened. You saved me. Your quiet, determined faces remained strong. Those of you standing toughened your posture, ready to pounce. Some of you sat quietly praying, and I felt a spiritual power calming my pounding heart. Others checked phones and began texting. Protocol says students shouldn’t use their phone during a lockdown, but your connection to the outside world was reassuring. Even though we didn’t hear sirens, we knew the world was watching our school and sending help. Wen we finally evacuated, you moved quickly, methodically, following instructions exactly.

I did not have the chance to talk with all of you after we ran across University Boulevard and congregated in front of Burger King. But I want each of you to your actions, your attitude and your trust in me were heroic. We began this semester reading “Invictus” and you have proved you possess an “unconquerable soul.” You have become “the man in the water.” Your “essential, human nature, rose to the occasion” and you proved to me that “no man is ordinary.”

I’m so sorry we did not have the chance to finish reading Hamlet together so you could see how Hamlet regains his heroic stature after suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We started the play watching Hamlet trying to discover, “who’s there” and whether “to be or not to be.” In the final scene of the play Hamlet agrees to the fencing match with Laertes. Horatio tells him, “you will lose the wager,” but Hamlet replies, “there’s a special providence in the fall of the sparrow.” “If it be now tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. The readiness is all…let it be.” Hamlet finally understands he can not control how long he will live or when he will die. He must simply be ready for death when it comes and “let be.” In Joseph Campbell’s words, “conquering the fear of death is the recover of life; joy.”

I also want you to know Shakespeare ultimately believed the Honor Code Of Revenge was barbaric. Laertes is a negative foil to Hamlet because he hot-headed nature precipitates the tragic ending in which both men die. To Hamlet’s credit, he does not want to avenge his father’s death, and early in the play he says, “O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.” Revenge never ends conflict. As Gandhi once said, An eye for an eye and the whole world is blind.”

The mother side of me wishes you did not have to experience the horror and devastation revenge causes. The teacher side of me is eager to share with you literary works that will strengthen your soul against, “the slings and arrows,” of life. For those of you who will remain a part of our English Literature family next semester, I can’t wait to share with you powerful literary masterpieces that will give you words that will help you define your feelings. For those of you who do not remain in the class second semester, you are still family and part of the warrior spirit that reminds us to take care of one another.

Thank you for reminding me why it is an honor to be your teacher, and may each of you enjoy a blessed winter break and a happy new year.

Love, Mother Ferrill

As you prepare for winter break, I wanted to send a few items with you-and of course they are symbolic (I’m and English teacher for goodness sake.)

The Heart Sticker speaks for itself, my heart will be with each of you, especially during the weeks ahead while the aches in your heart is especially strong.

The Red Bell is a reminder to laugh once more. As my bell earring jingled while we huddled together in the corner, I saw a few smiles on your faces. Right now we feel more pain than happiness but laughter truly is good medicine for your soul.

The Smarties are a reminder that you are smart, not just academically, but emotionally. You knew just what to do when we heard the command to “lock down.”

The “Hug” Chocolates remind you to connect with others-let people know how much you care for them…and please know how precious you are to me.

The Gold Coin is a reminder that your lives are precious, and I pray that your future will be spent wisely. The color gold is also a symbol of triumph. You have survived a terrible event and you will be stronger.

The Lifesaver Candy is a reminder of the ordinary “man in the water,” who becomes extraordinary, and a reminder of your courage under fire.

2 Comments

  1. Michelle Petmanson

    Omg! You are such a fabulous teacher! I don’t know you but this letter stole my heart. I know in the day to day work in any profession, we tend to lose our passion and become rather cold and callous. You seem to be the exception. You’re passion and compassion shines through. You are God sent! Thanks for having the same love for those kids as I and others. They’re not our kids but we love them the same. Bless you!

  2. Brenda Reinicke

    Mrs. Ferrill,

    I don’t know if you will see these comments. I came across this post through Facebook connections. I was struck to learn that you teach at Arapahoe HS now. I was in your 11th grade English Lit class in 1987-1988 at Littleton HS and remember you well. Now I am an instructional coach for the band program at Arapahoe HS, on campus on Tuesdays. I was not at the school when the shooting happened, but, of course, my heart was with the students I know there. I wrestled with how, what and when to write to the students.

    It’s a beautiful thing to see a person use their unique gifts to make the world a better place, as you did in your writing. I am so grateful that it was shared here with us. I remember your passion for your subject, and how you would sometimes be embarrassed by your excitement over a text, wondering if we were “getting it.” Today I have a great passion for the power of words, and I absolutely loved remembering your heart and your passion as I read your letter. You are a treasure and a gift, and you were placed at this school at this time for these students. I can’t think of a better soul to have in that building in these days. Thank you for faithfully and courageously stewarding your gifts. I am inspired again to do the same in my life.

    Sincerely,
    Brenda Craig Reinicke

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