How a Walmart’s worth of Batman costumes helped the young survivors of a South Carolina school shooting (and their parents) learn to be brave again.
There would be no dark suits and somber dresses at the viewing and funeral of Jacob Hall. It’s how his mother wanted it. “There will be a lot of children there,” she had told a reporter. “I don’t want it to be scary for them.” Her son was six years old when he suffered a fatal injury in the attempted mass shooting at the Townville Elementary School playground, and she had decided that he would wear his Batman costume in his coffin. The mourners took her request and ran with it. By the night of the visitation, the local Walmart was all sold out of superhero outfits.
At the Oakdale Baptist Church that evening, there were Supermen and Superwomen and Ninja Turtles of all shapes and sizes. Jacob’s classmates zipped around the church and its cemetery in capes and skirts. Adults spoke in hushed tones. School had been canceled following the shooting, but in less than two days it would be time to go back. The families of Townville had gathered to remember Jacob and learn to how to be brave again.
“I brought them here today, because I want them to understand, yes, this is a terrible thing — but watch our community come together,” said Melanie Bradley, who had her three children with her. “There is always darkness, but there’s light too.”
For some Townville Elementary students, the thought of returning to school was daunting. “I’m scared that one of us will get hurt,” said Lindsey Sanders, a third grader. She noted that, in the moment, her Superwoman costume did make her feel strong.
Lindsey’s sister, 5-year-old Zowie, was friends with Jacob. They were in the same first grade class. She stayed home sick the day of the shooting. “That could be my daughter,” said Brooke Sparks, Zowie’s mother.
Zoey McAdams mistook the sirens that day for a tornado drill. When Tanner Bane, a kindergartener at a neighboring school, heard about the shooting, he thought there had been a robbery. “I don’t want to tell them it wasn’t a robber that came, but I don’t want to tell them anything else,” his mother said.
Before the brief rampage, the 14-year-old boy accused of the shootings had killed his father with an unsecured handgun and stolen his truck. He pulled up on the school playground and started firing. Bullets hit two students and a teacher. Jacob was struck in the leg. A volunteer firefighter, Jamie Brock, tackled the gunman, putting a stop to the attack.
Shannon Alewine worried about how his son Deaven was processing the death of his classmate. For now, school is a scary place. “He’s pretty much a straight-A student. He does his homework every night,” Alewine said. “Now, he’s not wanting to go at all.”
To make the return to school “as normal as possible” when classes resumed today, parents were invited to eat breakfast in the cafeteria with their children. Counselors will be on hand to speak with families, and therapy dogs will visit every classroom.
Townville Elementary did not used to have a school resource officer. Going forward, law enforcement officers will man posts outside and inside the building.
Townville’s parents appreciate the measures, but some say they aren’t enough to make them and their children feel safe again, just yet.
“It’s taking a risk, sending your own kids to school,” said Jamie Hillyard, whose son Andrew was friends with Jacob.
Melanie Bradley, the mother of three, had come to the service from a neighboring city. She said she’s raising her children to not live in fear. But as she spoke, it sounded less like stoicism than resignation.
“Like I told them, you could get shot everywhere that we go,” she said. “Every Chick-fil-A that we pull into, every gas station, when we’re in Target’s parking lot — somebody could shoot you. Somebody could roll up right now and shoot us where we stand.”
“That’s life,” she added. “That’s America. It could happen. You hope it doesn’t, but it could.”
This article was originally published by The Trace, a nonprofit news organization, funded in part by Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund and the Joyce Foundation, that is dedicated to expanding public understanding of gun violence in the United States.
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.