UVALDE, Texas – The limbo stick has been lowered and it’s Gabe Losee’s turn.
At first, the 17-year-old high school senior from Oxford, Michigan, looks as if he can clear the stick, but then his feet slide, he falls backward and crashes to the ground with a smile.
Lourdes “LuLu” Ramirez, a 9-year-old from Uvalde, giggles as she watches Gabe tumble to the ground. On her face, someone has painted pink, blue and purple daisies, connected by a green stem that winds across her eyes and mouth.
Ever since May, after a shooter entered LuLu’s school, her dad, Frank Ramirez, often catches his daughter looking withdrawn, staring off into the distance. He imagines she is going to a dark place in those moments. But today, in this moment, LuLu has a bright smile on her face.
Later, Ramirez tells LuLu why this group of teenagers from Michigan has traveled 1,500 miles to limbo with her.
“They had a shooter in their school, too,” he says. “They went through what you went through, so they want you to be happy and want you to understand that you’ll be OK.”
Wednesday marks a year since the Oxford High School shooting, which left four students – Hana St. Juliana, Tate Myre, Justin Shilling and Madisyn Baldwin – dead. Six other students and a teacher were injured. It has been six months since the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde, where 21 died – 19 students ages 9 to 11, and two teachers. Seventeen children and adults were injured.
After a shooting, childhood feels more fragile for the students who survive.
Sometimes it feels fleeting.
But on Nov. 19, a Saturday, a group of Oxford students came to Texas to play with more than 50 kids in Uvalde. To limbo. To face-paint. To tie-dye. To eat piping-hot pizza and wings in large quantities with ladlefuls of ranch dressing.
Zoe Touray, 18, planned the event, what she calls the Survivors United Playday. Zoe was a senior at Oxford at the time of the shooting. The Oxford High graduate said she hoped the Uvalde students would “remember what it’s like to be like normal kids.”
A group of Oxford High seniors joined her, along with parent and teacher chaperones. They hoped to hand out more than 1,000 blankets to the Uvalde community. They started making the blankets at a parent’s garage – cutting large rectangles of donated fleece and hand-tying the edges together – shortly after the Uvalde shooting in May. The teens were inspired by the more than 1,000 blankets they received after their own tragedy, and they formed an organization called Oxford Legacy.
Their blanket initiative came together with Zoe’s event fortuitously: The timing worked out for everyone to go to Uvalde, thanks to donations of everything from the material for the blankets (from JoAnn Fabric) to food at the event (Little Caesars).
Oxford Strong, Uvalde Strong
As with Oxford, Uvalde’s main road is dotted with a mix of aged brick buildings and modern fast-food restaurants. A state highway cuts through the center of the town, Uvalde’s main artery, similar to Oxford.
Oxford’s population is primarily white. Uvalde’s is primarily Latino. The median household income in Oxford charter township is twice what it is in Uvalde.
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In Oxford, businesses display signs saying “Oxford Strong,” in windows or arranged on letter boards down M-24. In Uvalde, they are “Uvalde Strong,” a phrase emblazoned on T-shirts worn around town and painted on shop windows.
Oxford’s grief comes in fours: Four votive candles lined up at the makeshift memorial at the high school last December. Four hearts on a banner to hang in the school’s gym. Four butterflies tattooed on Zoe’s arm.
Uvalde’s grief manifests itself through the number 21: 21 angels around the Christmas tree in the center of town, 21 crosses at Robb Elementary’s entrance, 21 vivid murals across town of the faces of the lost and the things they loved: noodles with hot sauce, green Converse tennis shoes, softball, butterflies, TikTok.
The makeshift memorial outside Oxford High was removed in January, before Oxford reopened on Jan. 24, on the advice of trauma specialists, according to the district’s superintendent at the time.
Robb Elementary remains closed.
Its memorial has grown over six months: Flowers wrapped in cellophane stacked four, five bouquets deep, the first white roses long wilted. Dozens of crosses. Teddy bears tinted with dirt. Photos faded from the Texas sun.
Brand-new green birthday balloons, taut and full of helium, wave in the wind, celebrating Maite Rodriguez’s 11th birthday, Nov. 17, just two days before the Oxford and Uvalde kids met.
Two shooting survivors, separated by 1,500 miles
This trip is not Zoe’s first time in Texas.
In August she traveled to Austin, 1,400 miles away from Oxford but just 160 from Uvalde, to a March for Our Lives protest.
There she met other shooting survivors, including a fifth grader from Uvalde wearing the same March for Our Lives blue she was wearing and holding an orange sign, pleading for spectators to remember Jacklyn Jaylen Cazares, a 9-year-old who died at Robb three months before the rally, her best friend.
The fifth grader was Caitlyne Gonzales, who says she liked Zoe because she is “weird.” Zoe likes that about Caitlyne, too. They are both shooting survivors. Both activists who advocate for gun control. Both young people who like TikTok dances.
Around the time she met Caitylne, Zoe decided she wanted to do something for Robb Elementary survivors, students like her who hid and fled and still struggle with that trauma.
Event planning is instinctual for Zoe. She was 12 when she planned her first event: her mother’s 45th birthday, a surprise blowout that included a band complete with drums and a saxophone. She booked a venue for the party, on her own.
“Best birthday party I ever had,” Vickie Brent-Touray, 52, says while helping Zoe pick out a few last-minute T-shirts for the event in an aisle of Uvalde’s Hobby Lobby. Mother and daughter recall Zoe calling – and reaching – Lauryn Hill’s manager to see whether the singer would come to Vickie’s party. (She didn’t.)
For Saturday’s play day, she got in touch with Texas native Matthew McConaughey’s publicist, she said. But he couldn’t make it.
Zoe, who lives in Pontiac, said she felt withdrawn and in shock immediately after the Oxford shooting last November. Falling in with March For Our Lives felt like a solvent for the grief and trauma.
“It brought me back to that day and how if something had happened to me I would want people, or my friends, to say something about me or to at least talk about what happened and try to prevent it from happening again,” she said in an interview in May with the Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network. “So if I could help, even in the tiniest way possible, I would want to try.”
Zoe is set to leave Michigan in January for college, which she delayed a semester. She’s attending North Carolina A&T, a historically Black university in Greensboro. The semester off gave her time to ramp up her activism and plan Saturday’s event.
She tried to approach the play day, thoughtfully, as an event planner. She knew having it in Uvalde’s civic center, where parents waited in May to reunite with their children after the shooting, could trigger trauma from some. But she consulted families, and they told her it would be OK.
She wanted to make the space colorful and decorated in a configuration that wouldn’t remind them of that day in May, buying purple and pink tablecloths from the Dollar Tree the night before. She decided against balloons, because survivors of gun violence may jump at the noise of them popping, something she knows as a survivor herself.
“Hopefully, we can decorate and make it more nice inside and they will want to come in,” she said Friday afternoon.
On Saturday morning, Caitlyne walks into the civic center while Zoe and her mom are preparing. They move heavy tables across the space’s hard cement floors and place hundreds of chairs around the tables, clearing a space in the middle of the large room for activities.
Zoe has her “Bad B” playlist on, which is what she plays when she needs a minute to herself, full of songs from Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby, Lil Baby and others.
Caitlyne is flanked by her mother, Gladys Gonzalez, and her 7-year-old sister, Camila, who wears a large bow in her hair.
Soon, Zoe and Caitlyne are filling bottles of dye for a tie-dye station. Zoe has purchased more than 100 white T-shirts for volunteers and kids to wear and tie-dye with money donated to the event. They say “Survivors Embracing Eachother,” the mission statement for the event and the organization she’s launching.
“We all come from a shared, similar experience,” Zoe says Saturday as she’s preparing.
Tie dye prep devolves into cheerful chaos quickly. Zoe and Caitlyne start pressing their dye-stained hands against the back of each other’s shirts, Caitlyne’s shirt splattered with blue, Zoe’s streaked with brown.
They begin running and laughing down the hallway of the civic center – 10-year-old Caitlyne running 18-year-old Zoe out of breath. Later in the weekend, they go to Uvalde’s arcade together, Caitlyne and her sister Camila running circles around the games, playing Skee-Ball and throwing basketballs, yelping with delight.
“I learned what it was like to be a kid again,” Zoe says Sunday as the noises of the arcade ding around her.
Oxford students – more than a dozen – show up shortly after Caitlyne on Saturday. They, too, start prepping the civic center for Uvalde students.
Gabe, with bright blond hair, asks Caitlyne whether there’s anything she wants. He doesn’t put a qualifier on his request, so he really could be offering anything.
“I really want hot chips – not gonna lie,” she replies.
Caitlyne is bold. She playfully teases Gabe and Zoe and the other Oxford teens she has just met, who laugh and tease back.
“Girl, look at your shirt,” she tells Zoe, whose shirt is still streaked with brown dye, Caitlyne’s own doing.
Caitlyne’s mom says all her daughter could talk about last week was Zoe and the event. Caitlyne adores connecting with other survivors, Gladys Gonzalez says.
“I enjoy seeing her happy,” she says. “She opens up to them.”
This is Josie Stoffan’s first time meeting other school shooting survivors, not from Oxford, in-person.
The Oxford High senior says she had so many ideas swirling in her head before coming to Uvalde: about what it would be like. About the emotion that could come with it.
“You could do as much therapy as you want, but I think what really makes an impact is talking about your trauma, talking about this … with that person, even if you don’t know them,” she said.
Now in Uvalde, it’s inspiring to see so many survivors come together. Uvalde and Oxford kids are throwing jelly balls into the air, hopping up and down on inflatable balls. Some are wearing the images and names of their lost loved ones, printed on T-shirts and pins.
“A lot of us see this as part of our healing journey,” she said. “We're helping these kids have fun, but also for us, this is just one of the steps to finding purpose.”
At the event, Oxford students and Uvalde students are encouraged to stay in contact, to become pen pals by exchanging addresses and phone numbers to FaceTime.
‘Kids are stepping up’
LuLu will be 10 in December.
Her dad, Frank Ramirez, is taking her to Disney World to celebrate, a surprise unveiled to her through an elaborate scavenger hunt that brought her to different places for clues, he said. Disney World was planned before the shooting, but still, he is trying to find more ways to bring sunshine to his daughter's life.
Ramirez has a picture of LuLu on his phone from May 24, the day of the shooting. She is smiling at an honor roll ceremony, proudly holding up a certificate against a gold backdrop. The time stamp is 10:55 a.m., about 30 minutes before the shooting began.
Other parents have similar photos from that ceremony, Ramirez says. The children are smiling, but “they have no idea what they’re going to go through for the rest of their lives.”
LuLu is quiet as Saturday’s event begins.
But Zoe’s planned – and unplanned – activities draw her in. Face-painting with teenagers, dancing, playing Duck, Duck, Goose. Soon she takes a face-painting brush herself and starts painting the Oxford students’ faces.
Lizzy McQueen, another Oxford student, 17, asks LuLu if she wants to color. Their connection is cemented by the end of the night.
“She’s like my best friend now already, and we’ve only known each other a couple of hours,” Lizzy says.
When asked what made her Saturday night fun as she’s exiting the civic center, LuLu replies, “Meeting Lizzy.”
Ramirez says, “Kids are stepping up more than adults.”
Six months, one year
Uvalde is six months out of its tragedy. Oxford is one year.
But those numbers don’t accurately measure the complexity of the grief, or the trauma, that Robb and Oxford students still experience.
Uvalde students still struggle to sleep. Going on six months, Caitlyne sleeps with her mom. LuLu’s nightmares are improving.
Trauma for Oxford students seems to come in waves, says Nicole Barnett, their teacher. Josie wonders whether she’ll ever return to the person she was before the shooting.
“I really, I lost myself,” she says. “During this whole tragedy, I'm not the same anymore.”
But playing with a younger group of survivors is fortifying, the Oxford students said. For some, it has opened the door to a purpose in life.
There’s something simple and sweet about a child painting clown makeup onto a teenager’s face or an off-the-rails round of Duck, Duck Goose. Of a lanky teenage boy laughing with a 3-foot-tall elementary schooler, their faces identically painted so they look like grinning clowns.
At the Robb memorial, in the heaps of flowers and photos, there are empty backpacks that children will never wear, McDonald’s Happy Meals they will never eat, Play-Doh destined to harden in containers that will never be opened again – symbols of childhood, frozen in time.
School shooting survivors say the effect the violence has on them can sometimes feel the opposite: Their childhood wasn’t frozen in time, it was wrested away from them.
Zoe’s event was for the survivors, about “remembering what it’s like to be a kid again,” she said. To kick a soccer ball, join a conga line and drench white T-shirts with layers of technicolor tie-dye.
To unite these two groups of children in joy, after months of grief.
Now leaning against Robb’s memorial is a small wooden O, for Oxford, painted the school’s signature blue. The students painted four yellow hearts to signify their schoolmates who died.
Four from Oxford who were lost, united with Uvalde’s 21.
Little Caesars Love Kitchen provided food for the event and helped transport Oxford Legacy’s blankets from Michigan to Texas. JoAnn Fabrics donated the material to make the blankets. American Airlines donated flights for the trip from Oxford to San Antonio, the nearest airport to Uvalde.
Contact Lily Altavena: Laltavena@freepress.com.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oxford High and Uvalde school shooting survivors unite to play, laugh