It’s a word that carries heavy emotional weight when spoken or written. It’s been 17 years (as of tomorrow) since the first frenzied calls to 911 were made and the news began to spread throughout the community. 17 years since our idea of school security changed in an instant as two madmen engaged their plot to murder as many as they could and level as much of the school as they could. 17 years since we lost 12 students and 1 teacher to the rage and insanity of two boys bent on nothing but rampage. The date was April 20. 1999. I was a sophomore at Littleton High School in Littleton, CO. We were 5.2 miles away. On that Tuesday morning we would get up and go about our day like any other. We were a month away from the end of the semester and our seniors saying goodbye after four long years. I was in my newspaper class at 11:00am. 15 minutes down the road from us, Columbine High School was in the same frame of mind as we were – counting down the days until the end of the school year. The clock clicked on.
It became real with a phone call. We weren’t doing anything that mattered that day. That changed when the phone range. We had a phone in our newsroom that we had free reign to use. For those reading this who have no idea what life was like in 1999 – let me tell you. That phone was a luxury. We didn’t have cell phones. We didn’t have the internet like we do today. Facebook didn’t exist. Twitter was seven years away. That phone allowed us to call our parents and tell them we’d be up late editing, doing the page layouts and getting that infernal paper to press on time. It was also how we reached out to sources and the like. That phone was our lifeline to the outside world. And on a ordinary Tuesday in April – it became the most important phone call.
My Editor in Chief took a call from her mother. She shouted, “Oh my God! Turn on the TV!” It was another luxury for us to have a television on wheels. We turned it on. And it became real. The shots of the school. The live reports. The police cars. The SWAT teams. Columbine High School was under attack. Students were being escorted out, people were jumping out of windows, we don’t know if there are more attackers on their way to other schools, this is a developing story,
I don’t remember much more from that day. I do remember leaving the newspaper room at the bell and running upstairs in shock, panic and just…sheer disbelief. I ran into my Drama teacher and told him that Columbine was under attack or something and he responded, “God, I have kids I know there…”, and he disappeared into his office in a rush, panicked as I was at the news. The rest of the day is a blur. I remember rushing home to be with my parents as we watched the news, listened to the radio and tried desperately to process what was happening. Early on we realized we knew old friends from our previous church who went to Columbine. It took hours and hours to discover that they had made it out safe and sound.
The next day was a confusing mess of emotions, heartbreak and confusion. A friend of mine wore a black band on her arm to somehow memorialize those killed but was immediately pulled aside by administration to ask if she was wearing it as remembrance of the killers. I won’t forget the look of horror, shock and pain on her face in that instant as she tore it off as quickly as she could and told them that wasn’t the case. We were all scared. Students, teachers and administrators. It was midway through the day that I found out about Lance Kirklin. Lance had been our friend the first year and change before he transferred to Columbine. I had forgotten in the madness of the day before and that day about his transfer until someone pulled me aside and informed me that Lance had been shot point blank in the face by one of the killers, later identified as Dylan Klebold.
It was a moment of shock. I couldn’t grasp it. Lance had been shot. In the face. At point blank? I knew him, though! He had been a hilarious jokester and I can still hear his laugh to this day. He was fun to be around and we’d missed him when he’d left. But that was where my connection to him ended. But even in that limited friendship I had experienced the very reality that I might lose him. His injuries were serious. There was concerns he would not survive and become the 14th victim at Columbine. I remember feeling as if I was on a roller coaster. I had just been told late that previous night that my old church friends had escaped. They were fine. Now I faced the reality of someone my age being ripped from the fabric of life and pulled away from me. I didn’t know how to react. We numbly put together a special newspaper edition talking about the events. A small miracle came out of our researching the stories. Lance Kirklin would survive his injuries. Over the years I’ve watched stories about him and what he’s up to these days. He has a family and kids.
Each of the survivors have traveled a road riddled with struggle, pain and suffering. In our remembering those that we lost, we should strive to remember those that will bear the scars of April 20th forever. 17 years has passed. In that time entire generations have grown up in a post-Columbine world. School shootings are something we deal with today. When Arapahoe High School came under attack on December 13th, 2013 I was just pulling into my condo parking lot a block away. I stood outside with my phone, glued to twitter and streaming police radio praying and hoping that I would not be witness to another Columbine. Claire Davis lost her life in a hospital bed as a result. Clarity Commons stands as a reminder of her loss and the lasting pain of that day in December.
As a future teacher, I know that I will be open to discussing my Columbine experience and the impact it had on my life as the years passed and anniversaries came and went. I will want my students to understand that their fears, their worries and the struggles they experience are the same as sophomore me. Beyond that – it’s still a developing idea in my head. I want to talk about it with them as a matter of understanding of life and how it’s changed – and how we do everything we can to prevent such things from ever happening in our own schools.
17 years ago, my life changed. My community changed. Our world changed. I’ll never forget those that died on April 20, 1999 and those that were scarred by faces of pure evil.
As a footnote – Dave Cullen wrote the book on Columbine – quite literally. His insight, straight reporting of the facts and in depth research is invaluable. If you’re interested in the full story, the true story and the reality of the two murderous boys – you need to read his book.