Oxford High senior honors best friend lost to mass shooting at graduation
Oxford — Oxford High School senior Evan Kussner was not without his best friend, Justin Shilling, on Thursday night at graduation.
Evan has a tattoo of Justin's ECG heartbeat on his ribs and had the letters LBFL emblazoned on his blue graduation cap — the letters stand for "Lelli's Boys for Life," a reference to the two best friends working together as busboys at Lelli's Restaurant in Auburn Hills.
Hours before the graduation ceremony, he went to a cemetery, where he spoke to Justin at his gravesite. Justin, 17, was among four students killed in the Nov. 30 Oxford High School mass shooting. Evan played "Graduation" by BennyBlanco and Juice WRLD for Justin.
"I just want to let him know that he’s here and he’s graduating with us," Evan told The Detroit News. "I love him, and he will never be forgotten. He will forever be my Lelli's boy for life."
About 160 seniors headed to Pine Knob on Thursday for their graduation from Oxford High School, where their senior year was anything but normal or routine.
Michigan's deadliest school shooting also claimed the lives of Hana St. Juliana, 14; Tate Myre, 16, and senior Madisyn Baldwin, 17. Six other students and a teacher were wounded.
While other high school students were enjoying the December holidays and planning for New Year's Eve celebrations, Oxford High students were attending funerals and vigils.
They created memorials for their lost and wounded friends. They searched for answers and each other as they were displaced from their building in northern Oakland County to the middle school while law enforcement worked on criminal investigations and school officials brought in crews to clean and repair the high school.
Students searched for a balance between mourning the tragedy and moving forward with their young lives. For Evan, it meant devoting himself to a mentoring program at the high school where he worked with students in special education.
"They just have this positive mindset there after the shooting. ... It made me want to be positive and like myself again. It made me want to be a teacher," he said. "I lost Justin, my best friend. I know he wouldn’t want me to sit and be sad. He would want me to help others through this.
"I worked on myself and went to therapy."
Evan, who has been part of a leadership program at the high school for years, said he was asked to give a speech at an event related to the program in March. He chose to explain what Oxford Strong, a motto that emerged after the shooting, meant to him.
"It isn’t just for Oxford. It's for everybody. It's more of movement. It's asking for help if you need it. It's moving on with your life. It’s remembering the four students."
Justin and Evan had been best friends since second grade. The boys were close in middle and then high school when they started working together at Lelli's. They loved to go to the basement of the restaurant to get ice and talk about an odd sculpture of a golfer stored there.
"We played video games, talked about music. He was also good with girl trouble, gave me good advice," Evan said. "Everybody loved Justin. When he walked into a room smiling, you couldn't help but smile back."
On Nov. 30, Evan saw Justin in school about 30 minutes before the shooting. He has the moment on video — it shows Justin interrupting him as Evan made a speech in the cafeteria about an event at school.
"I was promoting charity week; he interrupted my announcement at lunch. He started clapping and said, "I love you, Evan.'"
"I have that video," Evan said. "He loved to interrupt me and throw me off."
Evan was in a hallway when the shooting began. He saw his younger brother, Ethan Kussner, running and grabbed him.
"I said, 'What is going on?' He said there was a shooter. He said let's go. I let him go. I heard three shots. I ran into three classrooms to get people out," Evan said.
"I did not see Justin again. I texted him, I never heard from him."
During freshman year, Evan lost a friend to cancer. When the shooting happened, he said it was more of a shock and to this day continues to feel surreal.
"And sometimes it still doesn’t feel real," Evan said. "I smacked Tate on the butt in third hour that day."
He said it was hard to return to school. His parents gave him the option of not going, but he said he wanted to go back. It was about more than him.
"If I didn’t, I would regret it, not being there for my friends. And finishing my senior year for Justin, Tate, Hana and Madisyn," he said.
At home, Evan has a heart-shaped box in his room where he keeps mementos of Justin: a shirt, a golf ball from his funeral, a Teddy bear from school, pamphlets from funeral services.
Evan was able to walk through the high school before it reopened earlier this year, returning with his family and Justin's parents.
"That helped me a ton. I could stay and relax. With my family and Justin's family," he said.
Since the shooting, Evan said he sees life differently. He does not wait to express his love for the people he cares about.
"I take every day like it could be the last. I make the most of every day. I tell people I love them. Before I leave the house, I tell my parents I love them every time," he said. "I can't leave without telling them. In case something happens and I can't tell them again."
Evan said there is no normal to return to, but it's important to remember Justin, Hana, Tate and Madisyn and thank everyone for their support.
"I want people to know that their support for the community and victims and students at that school is the most important that has come from this," he said. "It brought the community together and built relationships I will have for a lifetime."
There were two empty seats at graduation for Justin and Madisyn, who were supposed to be graduating Thursday. Evan said he loves every single classmate in the class of 2022.
"I will always have that connection with them that we went through something so traumatic — but we got through it," he said.
Headed to Grand Valley State University, Evan plans to study special education and return to Oxford High and teach. He said he is both excited and nervous to be graduating and is looking forward to college
"It's definitely a new chapter in my life. The class of 2022 hasn’t really had a normal high school year with COVID and this shooting," he said. "I am hoping college is just college and having those experiences."