'It's the way we come together'; Oxford finds unity after tragedy

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Oxford — A little girl in a pink fleece arrived at the memorial to four dead children Thursday afternoon just as a woman in a pink parka was easing out of her car.

The little girl laid flowers at the sign at the entrance to the Oxford High School parking lot, and then she drew her hands back inside her sleeves so they flapped wildly as she jumped up and down in excitement over being part of something she didn't understand.

The woman laid a bouquet atop some of the others, lingered only for a minute and then walked away, wiping her eyes with the heel of her hand. She understood too well what had happened, even if no one understands why.

A 15-year-old sophomore named Ethan Crumbley stands accused of shooting 10 students and a teacher Tuesday at just about the same time the two mourners in pink were paying their respects. He is locked away at the Oakland County Jail in Pontiac, alone, accused of killing four fellow students.

In Oxford, there was a sense Thursday that everyone was united.

"We can't be judged by one goofball," said Amanda McFarland, searching for a word and finding one far more playful than what she really meant. "It's the way we come together afterward."

A parent hugs his daughter at a memorial at the entrance to Oxford High School on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Four students were killed and seven others, including a teacher, were injured when sophomore Ethan Crumbley, 15, allegedly opened fire inside with a handgun in the school.

McFarland, 35, owns Valor Salon in the city's small downtown. She graduated from Oxford High in 2004, when it was housed in what's now the middle school, and she's the mother of third-, fifth- and seventh-graders in the district.

"I love the small-town feel," she said. She loves being surrounded by people who've known her since she was born and loves knowing that people were expecting her salon team to do a crazy dance even wilder than the last one on Saturday in the annual Christmas parade.

Maybe next year. The parade and the Friday night Soup and Sweets Stroll through downtown have been canceled, replaced by a 6:30 p.m. Friday prayer vigil half a block from her shop.

The light poles along the strip already bore wide ribbons Thursday in blue and gold, the colors of the Oxford High School Wildcats. Placards had sprouted in yards: "Thank You Teachers & First Responders. #OxfordStrong."

At the Meijer store where bewildered students reunited with frantic parents Tuesday afternoon in the hours after the shooting, the parking lot was crowded. Along one aisle, three cars in a five-space span bore stickers asking motorists to be patient with their student drivers.

Inside, a teenage boy with a small bouquet in one hand was using the other to punch buttons on an ATM.

"Dude," his friend said. "You need to borrow money?"

The friend was carrying flowers of his own. They were headed to the school, where two Oakland County deputies in separate SUVs watched clusters of kids stand quietly near the sign along Oxford Road that had become a shrine.

A sign in Centennial Park shows support for Oxford High School students and staff after the Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021 shooting. A 15-year-old sophomore has been charged as an adult in the shooting at the school that killed four students and injured seven others, including a teacher.

Flowers. Stuffed animals. Balloons. Candles. A gold angel in a snow globe. Tears.

Dan Hooker, 59, of Livonia stood with them in a fluorescent yellow vest marked, "Chaplain."

The kids generally weren't saying much. Neither was he.

"It's mostly, 'How are you holding up?'" Hooker said. "Most of them have very few words."

Hooker, a retired General Motors power train engineer, is a volunteer with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team. He's been to hurricanes, fires and floods, but this was his first mass shooting.

Across 24 years as an Oakland County deputy, Lee Van Camp has become more accustomed to violence. Thursday, he experienced something new.

A man with two small children approached his black and gold SUV and introduced the kids. Their mother, the dad explained, works at the school. The kids thanked him and presented him with a sack lunch.

"How amazing is that?" Van Camp asked.

Hadley Socha, 15, center, and Lilla Bonner, 15, right, light candles during a vigil in Children’s Park in Lake Orion on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021 in support of those involved in the Oxford High School shooting on Tuesday.  Socha said. "People should not be scared to have to go to school every single day. It should be a safe place where people want to go to and learn."

As darkness set in, about 200 people attended a candlelight vigil in neighboring Lake Orion honoring those who died and were wounded at Oxford High School.

Lake Orion High School students Hadley Socha, Lilla Bonner and Layla Thompson, all 15, lit candles at the event in Children's Park. The two high schools are separated by about seven miles.

"It's very tragic and traumatizing towards all the other people, not just those in Oxford but towards the whole community," Socha said of Tuesday's shooting.

Added Thompson: "School should be a safe place to learn. You shouldn’t be scared to go," she said.

As the vigil was beginning, the U.S. House of Representatives took a break from their partisan deliberations to hold a moment of silence for the victims at Oxford High School.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, the Holly Democrat whose district represents Oxford, requested the moment of silence as she was surrounded by Michigan and other colleagues.

“Mr. Speaker, this has been one of the darkest and most painful weeks our state of Michigan has had in recent memory," Slotkin said on the House floor. "We stand here, the Michigan delegation of Democrats and Republicans along with other honorary Michiganders, to ask Congress to recognize that pain and to ask members here to see your own children in the pictures of those who were lost in yet another school shooting.

“In less than five minutes, the small town of Oxford, Michigan, was changed forever when a gunman opened fire on his fellow high school students. In that momentary flash, four innocent teenagers, students with their entire lives ahead of them, were taken from us in yet another senseless act of violence.”

Amanda McFarland, owner of Valor Salon, speaks about her experiences growing up in her hometown of Oxford on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021.

Earlier in the day, the mundane counted as a victory. McFarland's salon was bustling.

"I don't think things will ever be the same," she said. "Hopefully, we can grow from it."

Only time will tell, McFarland said, and the wounds are too fresh to know what it will be.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn