My name is Missy Jenkins Smith. I am paralyzed from the chest down. I was shot in the 1997 Heath High School Shooting. My memory of that day is sharp; it’s sharp because I am reminded of it every single day— when I can’t stand face to face with my husband to give him a kiss or when I can’t get dressed or go to the bathroom or get in my car the way “normal” people do or when I can’t go running to my two young boys when they call for their mama.
On a chilly December morning, I was one of about three dozen students who stood in a prayer circle in the lobby of Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky. It was the first day back from Thanksgiving break. We were a tight school. Everybody knew everybody. We trusted each other. We didn’t even have locks on our lockers. I was 15, a typical sophomore: excited to see my friends and nervous about the Civ exam I had first period. The prayer circle was a chance for us to give thanks to God for bringing us back together and to ask him to hear our intentions— like maybe a little help on that exam.
We said, “Amen.” Then I heard what I thought was firecrackers. A prank? I saw my friend Nicole fall hard to the floor. Was she in on the prank? Then a bullet pierced the left side of my chest, just above my heart. The bullet clipped my spine and I fell flat on my back. There was no prank. No joke. Eight of us were shot, nine if you count the bullet that grazed my twin sister Mandy’s neck. Nicole died. So did Jessica. In the ambulance I was put in, they tried to revive my friend Kayce. She didn’t live.
A 14-year-old freshman— a friend of mine— open fired on us. The why of it is unfathomable. He said he was bullied, he claims there were voices that told him to go on a rampage. He stole the guns from a friend’s garage.
Despite what the shooter did to me, the morning of the shooting I told my mom that I forgave him. He took away my ability to walk, but I wasn’t going to let anger or his rage dictate the rest of my life. I went through a long rehabilitation process. With the help of my family and my faith in God, I found my will and drive to move forward with my life.
I returned to Heath High School and graduated. I earned a degree in social work from Murray State University. I became a day treatment counselor in a public school district to help students manage the stresses of adolescence— if I could help one kid like the one who was so lost that he thought violence was the only way out, I would be doing my part. I married Josh Smith, my college sweetheart, and we have two beautiful boys (yes – a paralyzed person can have children). I started sharing my story a few years after the shooting in schools, churches and businesses across the country, something I am still passionate about doing today.
I am not against guns. I wasn’t before or after the shooting. I truly thought at the time that what happened to us in Paducah, and to the victims of a school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi two months prior to that, were anomalies. But Jonesboro, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora and countless other school and public venue shootings have proven me wrong. There have to be more sensible laws in this country. Easy access to guns is killing our kids. There must also be common-sense responsibility for gun owners. Guns must be kept out of reach of children. The boy responsible for killing three teenage girls and putting me in a wheel chair should not have been able to go into a friend’s garage and take whatever guns and ammunition he wanted. He should not have even known they were there.
I have faced an uphill battle each day since the shooting. People think I have lost my mind when I say I would not change what happened to me physically that fateful day more than 16 years ago. Do I wish I could walk? Of course, but whether or not I take another step on this earth does not change the fact that I will walk again when I get to Heaven. Until then, I will do everything I can from my wheel chair to make this world a safer place.