by David Sisler
Jessica Jeanette James was seventeen years old when she died in West Baptist Hospital, the victim of gunshot wounds.
Jessica played mellophone and french horn in the her school band. The cartoon character Taz was her trademark. The day after she died, someone slipped a red rose into the slats of her school locker, number 250.
Eight students were shot at 7:45 a.m., December 1. They had just said "Amen" to a morning prayer in the lobby of Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky.
Fifteen-year-old Kayce Michelle Steger died at Lourdes Hospital.
Kayce once had a rooster which she and her friends liked to chase in her backyard. Kayce was engaged to marry Mark Blair. One of her teachers said, "Kayce worked hard to be a good player and marching band member. She was very respectful to all the band staff and liked by all the band students."
Nicole Marie Hadley was fourteen years old when she was declared dead around 10 p.m., the night of the shooting. She died shortly after she was taken off a life support system.
Nicole was the center on the girls basketball team. "No Doubt" was her favorite band. She liked to make picture frames out of construction paper for her favorite pictures. She enjoyed "Saturday Night Live,"especially the Spartan Cheerleaders.
Michael Carneal, fourteen, a freshman and a B-student at Heath High came to school that morning with a .22 semi-automatic pistol, earplugs, two shotguns and two .22-caliber rifles, all of which were wrapped in a blanket. When someone asked him what he had, he said they were props for a science project. Michael stood outside of the prayer circle and when the group began to break up, he pulled the handgun from his backpack, loaded it, slipped protective plugs into his ears, and assumed firing stance.
Ben Strong, the leader of the prayer group, said he heard a loud "pop" and spun around. He yelled, "Mike, what are you doing?" but the younger boy did not respond. Before Ben could move, the shooter fired ten more shots. Then Ben rushed forward, stopped ten feet in front of the gun, which still held one live round, and said, "Put the gun down, Mike."
Michael was aiming the gun at principal Bill Bond, but instead of pulling the trigger, he slumped back into a locker and said, "I can't believe I'd do this."
Ben Strong is haunted by more than the shooting. He is troubled because Michael Carneal gave him a cryptic warning about the shooting. On Friday morning, Michael told Ben to stay away from the prayer meeting.
"Something big is going to happen," he told the older student. Ben asked what was going to happen, and Michael would not say. Ben joked that if he tried anything, he'd beat Michael up. "You're not going to be able to beat me up after this," he responded. It seemed like the good natured joking the boys had shared before.
Now when Ben talks about it, his words are broken and unsure. The young man, sadly, needlessly, carries guilt that is not his own.
Chuck Geveden is a former policeman who now works with the youth group at one of Paducah's church. "The thing the kids are asking most is ‘Why?'" he said. "And all I can tell them is that what Satan means for evil, God can bring good out of. And it's already happening."
The verse which immediately came to my mind when I read Mr. Geveden's statement is: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
All things. Even the death of three high school students at the hands of one of their classmates.
The morning prayer meetings usually attract 25 to 30 kids. The morning after Jessie, Kayce and Nicole died, nearly half the school — more than 250 students — attended. Youth ministers around Paducah have all led young people to Jesus Christ in the aftermath of the shooting.
Gospel recording star Steven Curtis Chapman sang at the joint funeral. He offered a prayer and several teenagers in the audience stood to their feet, acknowledging that they had invited Jesus to live in their hearts.
Because of her wounds, Melissa Jenkins is paralyzed from the waist down. She sent word from her hospital room, "Tell Michael I forgive him."
At Heath High School the day of the girls' funerals someone hung a big sign which read, "We Forgive You, Michael."
"This is what Christianity is all about," said the Rev. Johnny Sams, who had been Nicole's pastor. When he sat with the grieving families the night before the funeral, the minister said, "I never heard the word anger. But I heard the word love a whole lot."
All things. It is already happening.
Published in the Augusta Chronicle 12/13/97
Copyright 1997 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.
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