Tuesday, April 19, 2011
We Are All Columbine
Tomorrow, Wednesday, April 20 will mark the 12th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. This date is forever etched into my memory as a young woman arriving fresh from Kentucky into a stunned and grieving community, but not as deeply and painfully burned into memory of those who were in the building that day.
On Wednesday, April 20, 1999, I left Kentucky for a new life in Colorado. Earlier in the month, while in Denver for a job interview, I connected with a coworker’s brother who lived in a beautiful apartment complex called The Fairways at Raccoon Creek where I obtained rental information for my return later in the month. The apartments were in Littleton, Colorado across the road from Clement Park, across Clement Park from Columbine High School. On my first day’s drive, I stopped in Kansas for the night, calling home to let my folks know I was safe. It was then that I learned about a school shooting. I continued west the next morning towards my new life, arriving in Denver later than evening, arriving at my temporary home, a LaQuinta Inn just outside of downtown Denver. Tired from the drive and hungry, I got a bite and went right to bed. It wasn’t until the next morning that the reality of what happened two days earlier sunk in, not only for me but for the rest of the city, state, and world, as more details unfolded. You couldn’t miss it; it was on every local and national news station: scenes replayed from helicopter vantage points; ground footage of bloody teenagers running for their lives; interviews with students, their parents, faculty, law enforcement, anyone who was in the vicinity at the time of the incident. I sat in my motel room watching for hours, sobbing uncontrollably.
I later returned to the Fairways to secure my apartment. Getting into the area required credentials and was like getting into a war zone. On the road's edge of Clement Park, a makeshift memorial developed in memory of those who lost their lives that day; for all except the two that spearheaded the rampage. My heart was immediately anchored in the community of Littleton. I had a stake in all that this community was going through, the grief, the anger, and the confusion of how such a thing could happen in such a charming community. I met families who were impacted by the shooting; parents who knew nothing of the safety of their children for hours afterwards, teens who witnessed their friends injured or killed.
Littleton united to mourn the losses, honor those lost, and to begin a healing process that would take many, many years for this community to even begin to experience. Media trucks took up residence everywhere throughout Clement Park for a month and a half. Memorabilia of stuffed animals, candles, notes, flowers, trinkets, letters, signs, and other such items collected throughout the park’s sidewalks with designated areas for each of those whose life was lost that dark day. People from the metro-Denver area, as well as surrounding metro communities, towns, even out of state, came to pay their respects, in the hopes of walking away with a better understanding of what happened, how it happened, why it happened. Many left only shaking their heads and in tears. Someone raised fifteen crosses for the dead; outrage broke when two of those crosses were raised for the two young killers. Two of the crosses were taken down amidst division of anger and forgiveness. While the effort was noble, no one at this time felt themselves in a forgiving mood.
Thousands of lives were changed that day. Everyone in the metro-Denver area questioned how such violence could be felt or created by two young teenagers. Those in surrounding neighborhoods questioned a sense of safety for themselves and their children. Those in school that day, freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, and all faculty and staff who lost peers, students, and colleagues suffered post-traumatic stress, haunted by nightmares. For months afterwards, customer service reps or business connections asked me how “we” were doing, and let me know that “we’d” been in their prayers.
The following fall, Clement Park was again its lush green landscape that for months was trampled into dirt by mourners visiting the makeshift memorial. Much debate around who was at fault, how to better secure schools, and sorting out all the details of what actually transpired that fateful morning was still a loud murmur in the aftermath. On the first year anniversary, and second, third, and fourth, media returned to “pick the scab” of a community desperately trying to heal the wounds that would forever leave a scar. And for several years afterwards, to the chagrin of many Littleton community members, myself included, Columbine became a tourist spot, as people would sit on or by the Columbine High School sign for photo ops. One weekend in late October, a stranger approached a friend and me asking us where the Columbine Memorial was located. After explaining it had since been gathered and stored several months earlier, the stranger’s responded with irritation: “Well, I drove a long way to come see it!”
I mourned the senseless loss of life, and I quietly grieved for the two young men who felt their only option was to act out rather than ask for help. I cheered on support for more proactive education against bullying and I cringed when everyone blamed each other. I silently believed that we ALL were responsible for Columbine in some small and indirect way: by allowing violence into video games, and our young people access to this desensitizing entertainment; by allowing children unmonitored access to the Internet and website development sites; by “respecting” teens’ privacy by not entering bedrooms; by not more closely monitoring and being aware of who our kids are hanging out with, where they are, and what they’re doing; by not talking to our children about bullying, and by not teaching children to not judge others by appearances, to respect differences, and unique personalities; by condoning in-school intimidation and arrogance by school athletes, and allowing students easier access on and off school campuses for lunch breaks; by not insisting enforcement authorities do more to investigate red flags of violence; by allowing kids to “pretend” to shoot guns at other people; by not insisting on stricter regulations for gun purchases in the name of “right to bear arms” and for making “how to make a bomb” information more easily available on the Worldwide Web. I could keep going but you get the point. We all contribute to the development of our youth’s well-being of body, mind and spirit. It takes a village. . . . .
Positive things came out of the experience as we learned some valuable lessons – law enforcement is better equipped to work more collaboratively in handling such an overwhelming experience, video games now have age appropriate ratings, and we as adults take more seriously verbal threats, real or unreal, spoken in anger by children. I hope you’ll join me for a moment of silence Wednesday, April 20 at 11:17 a.m. as I do every year to honor the memory of those lives lost so that we may remember and learn.