On April 20, 1999 I was a sophomore at a small suburban high school. My school shared many of the same traits as Columbine High School. We were small, we were affluent, we were outside of a major city. The tragedy at Columbine shook us all to our core. I remember coming into school on April 21 and walking in to the cafeteria and everyone was talking about the same thing. What had happened? Why had it happened? How? And, the one thing none of us would say: could it happen to us?
The shooting at Columbine shaped a lot of my adolescence in ways I didn’t even realize at the time. I did not cry, I did not feel pail. Instead, I wrote essays about gun control and juvenile justice. I read articles about other school shootings and profiles on the victims of Columbine. It was not my tragedy, I was on the other side of the country, but something shifted for my classmates and me on April 20, 1999. There was an element of fear added into our daily lives. We had bomb scares and lockdowns. A performance of our school musical was cancelled because someone had threatened to blow up the school. Each time an incident like that occurred, our thoughts were immediately directed back to Columbine, the word repeated over and over in our minds.
And now it’s happened again, in a way that is even more unimaginable and devastating, if that’s even a thing. When I found out about Sandy Hook on Friday, I did not react as a self-centered adolescent, worried about my own school and my own life, I reacted as an adult, as a teacher. I reacted as someone who is closer to being a parent than a child. My heart is broken. I watched all the coverage on Friday night with tears streaming down my face, unable to understand what I was seeing, what had happened. I couldn’t watch, but I couldn’t turn it off. Still now, when I think about it, about those poor children, and their parents, and the teachers, it is so much to bare. And I know that the pain I’m feeling cannot come close to comparing with what the people in Newtown are feeling. I don’t know that I could survive.
In the last few years I have found a way to cope when a tragedy like this occurs (and it seems to occur all too frequently, doesn’t it?). It may seem strange or morbid, but I can’t stop myself. A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of the book Columbine, by Dave Cullen, intrigued by the reviews on the back and the fact that it was the “definitive account” of the tragedy. Having been impacted so strongly from afar, I was anxious to read it. I learned so much from that book about how the community handled the tragedy, how they have grown from it, and why it actually happened in the first place. Cullen’s book taught me to not rush to conclusions in situations like this. Dylan and Eric were not bullied children who snapped, Eric was a sociopath and Dylan was clinically and desperately depressed. There was no “trenchcoat mafia.” There was so much more to the story.
Just like there is so much more to this story. Right now all I can do is feel, but in this age of Law and Order, it is impossible to not want the facts of the crime laid out in front of us. In the mean time, this is what I know: those children were special and those teachers were heroes before this happened, not just because it happened. It made me so appreciative of the kids I work with and all of the kids I have taught. It made me feel more proud of all of my friends who are teachers, dealing with this kind of violence on a daily basis and thankfully staying safe. I’m trying to hold on to these facts as we wait for the rest.
And I’m reading Columbine again. This is the fourth time. After the first time, I read it when Gabrielle Giffords was shot and after the movie theater tragedy in Aurora. It reminds me that there is a light, though it is far away. I do hope that this is the moment where we all stand up and demand better. We wanted gun control legislation after Columbine and nothing happened. Let’s use our outrage and our emotion to continue fighting. Let’s fight for mental health screenings and gun control laws that will protect us. Let’s not give up as the tragedy fades from the headlines.