The moments after Hollan Holm awoke were strangely calm. He knew he’d been shot. He silently told God he was sorry for his sins. Then the 14-year-old tried to prepare himself for death.
Minutes earlier, Hollan had been holding hands in a prayer circle inside the main entrance to Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, a small community near the Ohio River. Each morning before first period a group of students would pray together, sometimes singing while someone strummed an acoustic guitar. A pious freshman, Hollan liked starting his day with a prayer. It made him feel like he was doing something right, he says.
On the first morning of December in 1997, just after the prayer group wrapped up, Hollan heard the sound of popping and blacked out. Then he came to.
Twenty years later certain details are blurred, but other things he remembers clearly. Drops of blood on the tile floor. Students hurt among the square columns. Pressing a towel to his head. Shivering uncontrollably. The emblem of a phoenix on the gun, held by the principal as he ushered a classmate, Michael Carneal, down the hallway.
Hollan says he and Michael had been friends. Not best friends, but they ate lunch together and rode the bus in elementary school. By high school they’d drifted apart, so Hollan didn’t know what had compelled Michael to come to school that morning with a .22-caliber pistol, along with two shotguns and two rifles wrapped in a blanket and secured with duct tape. Wearing earplugs, Michael fired the pistol across the lobby, killing three students and wounding five. He would later plead guilty but mentally ill and be sentenced to life in prison.
The shooting happened on a Monday. By Friday, Hollan says, he was back in class. He didn’t feel right missing more school. It was the beginning of a years-long habit of downplaying what had happened to him. While his classmates gave interviews about the incident and appeared on daytime talk shows, Hollan declined to speak to reporters. He tried to lay low, fly under the radar. He says he felt almost embarrassed to be part of it all.
Hollan didn’t feel he belonged in the same category as the shooting’s other casualties. One of his classmates was paralyzed from the chest down. Another couldn’t play basketball anymore because of her injuries.
By comparison, Hollan’s injuries seemed minor. The bullet had dug a deep gash across his head, which took 13 staples to close, but he had no lasting physical complications or brain trauma. He referred to the wound as a “scratch” or a “graze.”
“I never felt like I was injured enough,” he says.
For a year after the shooting, Hollan says he didn’t shed a tear. He felt empty, muted. When he tried to process what had happened, he thought of the phrase “GAME OVER” — words he’d seen so many times at the end of his Super Nintendo video games.
He clung to humor, trading quips about exit wounds with his friend Craig Keene, who’d been shot in the neck. He joked about how the bullet had messed up his haircut. He faked pulling staples from his head to freak out the girls. As if by making his injury funny, he could seal himself from the darkness of having nearly died.
“Hollan kept so much inside of him,” says his mother, Nancy Holm. “I think sometimes he tries to pretend it didn’t happen to him.”
But sometimes pretending didn’t work. There were moments when panic sideswiped him, like the day a few months after the shooting when he and his mom were waiting in the checkout line at a Walmart. Suddenly, he heard a rhythmic snap. He immediately thought of gunfire. He felt the color drain from his face. They hurried out.
It had been the sound of popping balloons.
Of his reaction, he’d later say: “You have no control over it. It comes on and you’re like, there. You’re somehow straddling present time and past time, sort of a bridge between those two.”
For the next 20 years, Hollan didn’t talk much about the shooting. He graduated from high school, then college and law school. He married a woman named Kate and they had two kids. They moved into an old house with a porch in Louisville’s historic district.
Each year around December 1, Kate noticed Hollan become withdrawn and quiet. What he’s feeling in those moments, “he sort of guards everybody else from that,” she says. “But it does affect him.”
But in the past year, several events caused something in Hollan to shift. First, his daughter Sylvia came home talking about an active-shooter drill she’d done with her kindergarten class. December brought the 20th anniversary of Hollan’s shooting. And in January, a 15-year-old student fatally shot two classmates and injured 14 others at Marshall County High School in Benton, Kentucky — not 40 miles from where Hollan was shot in 1997.
After the Marshall shooting, Hollan watched angrily as politicians doled out “thoughts and prayers,” recitations from a now-dog-eared post-mass-shooting script. A practicing Baptist, Hollan found the condolences lacking. “I believe in God, and I believe in the power of prayer, but I also believe in political power,” he says. “As a person who was shot in a prayer group, I think it’s an absolute copout to say that’s your solution.”
He spent several days writing an op-ed for the Courier Journal. After two decades of trying to shrink his experience into nothing, of making believe his gunshot was only a scratch, Hollan decided to claim what had happened to him. “I am not OK,” he wrote. “I can’t sit still and wallow in this tragedy anymore. I have to act.”
Since then, he’s gotten involved in pushing for gun safety legislation. When reporters call now, he agrees to the interview. Telling the story of his shooting still causes him physical discomfort. He sometimes closes his eyes as he speaks, or trembles when he talks.
Now 35, as he tries to find his place in the growing, increasingly vocal diaspora of American victims and survivors, he still tends to downsize his pain. “It could have been so much worse,” he says.
Two weeks after the op-ed ran, he heard about another massacre in Parkland, Florida: 17 students and teachers killed in the deadliest shooting at a high school to date. Hollan is impressed with how the Parkland kids have thrown themselves into activism. He also hopes they are taking care of themselves.
“They’ve got a lot of healing,” he says, “and they’ve got a long road ahead of them.”