April, 2014. Littleton, Colo. I see a faded bumper sticker proclaiming “We are all Columbine,” a reminder that this month is the 15th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School. When the saying appeared shortly after the massacre, I understood it as an admonition to care for the traumatized members of our community. But now that I’m the parent of a teenager, I realize that it also means that we are all enmeshed in a culture that leads to this sort of tragedy.
April 20, 1999. During lunch, I turned on the news and sat for the next three hours, almost unable to move as I watched the TV footage of teenagers spilling out of the school just 4 miles from my home. Two students had loaded up on guns and bombs and ripped through Columbine, leaving 13 people dead and 24 wounded before they shot themselves.
On that day the unimaginable became real for our community. In the 15 years since, school shootings have become common enough that we have a hard time keeping track of them. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence’s report, “Major School Shootings Since 1997” lists 4 or 5 incidents per page–and the whole report stretches to a harrowing 41 pages. Before Columbine, children were killed in Kentucky, Arkansas, Oregon. After Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown received the most attention, but children and teachers also lost their lives in Pennsylvania, Texas, Minnesota, Ohio, California…the list goes on and on.
Most of us have the illusion that we somehow live in a protective bubble–and for a while, I was able to keep the delusion going. I told myself that Columbine was a different world, really–a different school district, a different community. Perhaps I was in ultimate denial mode because I would soon have a child to protect. On the day of the shooting, I was filling out paperwork to adopt a baby from China.
It didn’t take long to find out I was woven into the community of Columbine. The very next day, I learned that a co-worker’s daughter had been the first child shot in the rampage. Later that week, I stopped for a motorcade leading to Littleton Cemetery, yet another funeral for one of the children shot at Columbine. At the moment I was preparing to welcome a new child into my life, these mourners were saying goodbye to a child who had died before graduating from high school.
June 20, 1999. On the seventh floor of a hotel in Nanning, China, I received my new daughter into my arms. I couldn’t say that Columbine was constantly on my mind during the next years, but steady reminders would creep in–an anniversary, a bumper sticker, even a glimpse of our state flower, the columbine–would remind me to hold the time I had with her like a precious thing.
My daughter was an active toddler by the time another year went by, and the two of us wandered to Clement Park one day, just behind Columbine High School, for a change of pace. When we pulled into the parking lot, I was puzzled by strange white paint markings–rectangles and corners that didn’t make any sense. As we walked to the slides, I pieced it together: those lines had been painted to indicate spaces for the media vans and equipment which descended on the park the week that Columbine had made international news. I watched the children run around the playground , thoughts juxtaposed against what two disturbed young men with powerful guns could do.
If you walk south and east of the park, you will come to a small hill, the site of the official memorial. There, you can read inscriptions from the families and the community, including one from a student, “I don’t think our school was any different from any other high school in America.”
I know it’s true. I have lived in neighborhoods across the US, and I know ours is like so many others. We walk our dogs around the lake, we watch 4th of July fireworks, we feed our children peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
We are also saturated with guns, low on mental health services, and bombarded with images of violence, just like every other community in the US. We are all Columbine.
December 13, 2013. The headline in the local paper said simply “Again.” Another high school. Another gunman. Another child dead. If you are outside Colorado, you may not have heard about the shooting at Arapahoe High School. The body count wasn’t as high as Virginia Tech or Newtown. One sweet girl, a senior, was killed.
This time, the news came to me through a barrage of e-mails and text messages from my daughter’s own school district. Her high school was on lockdown because the shooting happened just a couple of miles away. This time, she sat in the classroom for three hours and texted her friends at Arapahoe to see if they were OK. This time, she pulled candy out of her backpack and offered it to distraught students in her class, because words and candy were all she had. This time, she spent her evening on Facebook consoling a friend who had known the murdered girl.
We are all Columbine. You could try to distance yourself from me by thinking that I live in a peculiar and violent vortex, but just a little research which turns up this ABC news report shows how widely gun violence in distributed. When I look at this news report, I see that the US has 4 times more gun deaths per capita than Canada.10 times more than Australia. 40 times more than the UK.
We are all Columbine. The message isn’t just about grieving together. The Columbine community has led movements to improve school safety, foster compassion and understanding, and advocate for measures to reduce the availability of guns. It’s not enough to shake our heads and say “what a pity” when we hear of another school shooting.
I walked up the hill to the memorial just a few days ago to read the quotes written on the wall again. Now that my daughter is in high school, the students’ words resonate at a new frequency. “I no longer take anything for granted,” says one. On down the wall, I read, “When my mom finally found me, she just couldn’t seem to let go of me for the rest of the day.” And the one that cuts to my heart, “A kid my age isn’t supposed to go to that many funerals.”
“It brought the nation to its knees”–the words of a parent–” but now that we’ve gotten back up how have things changed, what have we learned?”
We don’t have to wait for the world to come to consensus on the single most important cause; we all know that a variety of factors contribute. The important thing is to shake off our illusions of invulnerability and work however we can to keep our children safe-so that we don’t have to gather quotes from students to put on any more memorials.