Today in Chapel Hill

I want to be completely clear about this: this is not political. This is not a red issue or a blue issue. This is about there being a better way to live. I am absolutely convinced that the United States of America is the best country in the world, but somehow, this doesn’t happen in other countries. And sometimes being the best means figuring out where you have to improve, and who is doing it better, and how you can implement some of their ideas.

I am not qualified to tell you about politics or policy or rights. Someone else has to figure out those things. But I am qualified to tell you that they better get on with it, because on Monday everyone in Chapel Hill lived it and it isn’t acceptable. 

This afternoon, Jones Angell and I were recording Tuesday’s edition of the Carolina Insider podcast. Around 1 p.m., we heard sirens. Our studio is adjacent to the Dean Smith Center. Soon, the text arrived. This is what it said:

“Alert Carolina! Armed, dangerous person on or near campus. Go inside now, avoid windows.”

You live in America in 2023, so you know what this means. Do all of us leave the hotel when the fire alarm goes off? Of course not. Was this really—truly—happening? The chances seemed low. Not at Carolina. This happens somewhere else. We watch it on the news, not out our window.

But then: sirens and ambulances and fire trucks. The building we are in is basically made of windows. We went upstairs.

It didn’t truly hit home until Jones said, “I’m glad they keep this building locked.” And then I realized something: I was glad, too. 

I hope none of you ever have to experience the temporary flutter in your stomach when the exterior door to your building slams and there is a brief second when you wonder for just a second if it is someone with a gun.

This isn’t to make you feel sorry for any of us in Carolina athletics. So many people had it so much worse than us today. I have a friend whose college freshman daughter was locked down in the building next to where the shooting took place. They will never, ever forget this day. But they have to. All of us do, or we wouldn’t leave the house tomorrow.

We were blocking it out even while the situation was happening. There were a few brief minutes this afternoon when several of us discussed the entrance video for Carolina Basketball this year. We threw out ideas. Talked about what would excite the crowd.

We had to. The other options were watching the news, or imagining what it was like in those buildings just across campus, or texting people in the football building who were huddled in the equipment room.

There comes a point where you just can’t process it anymore. So you think about the Carolina Basketball entrance video for a few minutes. But then you look out the window and there are over a dozen police officers massing outside the Smith Center—directly outside the place where all of us have so many fantastic memories and have enjoyed so many great nights with so many people we love—putting on tactical vests and carrying very serious looking weapons. I’m locked in the building wondering if we should do a podcast and they’re putting on armored gear preparing to run into an unknown situation. Follow them on Twitter.

You know what truthfully would excite the crowd way more than any video we could produce? Being able to gather without wondering if they will be secure. My kids texted me today to find out if I was safe. My kidstexted me about my safety. Do you understand how broken that is?

So many times I have watched these incidents on television and thought, “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be one of the people living through this.” Looking out that window, it finally hit me: today, I am one of those people. And so many people on so many of these similar days have had it so, so much worse than me. I went home. So many haven’t had that luxury. I texted my wife that traffic was bad. What a problem to have.

This incident wasn’t even one of the “bad ones.” How sick is that? This is one that the rest of the world will forget, because there was “only” one fatality. But there were thousands of college students who barricaded themselves in their dorms, and thousands of Chapel Hill public school kids who will never forget this day, and thousands of parents who weren’t sure if their kids were safe. That’s true every time this happens. I’ve just never thought about it that way, because I’ve never had to think about it that way, and haven’t wanted to think about it that way.

We know someone who went to their first day of high school in Chapel Hill schools—one of the best school systems in the free world—today. She saw armed guards with guns drawn. I vividly remember being very nervous the night before the first day of high school about who I might eat lunch with the next day.

She saw guns.

This isn’t progress. It’s the opposite of progress.

Someone in Chapel Hill is trying to sleep tonight who sent their child to their first day of kindergarten today. Their precious little five-year old who is nervous about learning to read and sleeps with a gang of stuffed animals and wants to be a princess when they grow up …and then couldn’t go home at dismissal because the adults weren’t sure it was safe. That’s us. We are the adults. We’re the ones failing. 

Somewhere a Chapel Hill kindergartner—right here in Chapel Hill, the best place in the entire world—looked forward to going to “big kid school” all summer and lined up their clothes on Sunday night and walked off this morning with a backpack bigger than they are and now after one day of school they think it’s normal to lock themselves in the classroom and stay away from windows.

That isn’t good enough.

It’s true that today wasn’t as bad as it could have been. But it was worse—so much worse, for so many people—than it should have been.

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