Saturday, April 20, 2019

April 20, 1999

I saw on Instagram today someone commenting to the effect of "Have fun with all the posts of your friend smoking weed today!" It was clearly from someone who doesn't smoke weed. That's fine. And I get that, ESPECIALLY with today falling on a Saturday, it will likely be a well-celebrated "holiday." Cool. You do you. 4/20 has never been about that for me, and my senior year of high school changed this date forever.

I am from Lafayette, Colorado and a proud graduate of Centaurus High School. I am the class of 1999. Lafayette is north of Denver in Boulder County. Columbine High School is south of Denver.

Now please, I cannot and will not compare my experience on that day to those who were at Columbine. According to Google Maps, it's a nearly 40 mile drive from Columbine to Centaurus. For many, Columbine is a foot-note in history. For those of us who were in high school in the Denver area that day, it's a memory seared into our brains.

The Columbine attacks are more vivid in my memory of the 9/11 attacks. I suspect there are a lot of reasons for that.

I remember when I first heard what was happening. I was in my car. Centaurus was an open campus, which meant when kids didn't have class, we could leave. It was a Tuesday. I had classes first, second, third, fifth, and seventh periods. At some point during the day, likely during sixth period which was my girlfriend's lunch period, I left the school. The radio station we usually listened to was carrying live news coverage.

We were horrified. This was not the first school shooting in the country, but it was close to home and it was the biggest to that point. Some of us knew kids there. I'm fairly confident I didn't go to seventh period. I was glued to the radio in my car, or in my friends' cars.

We left school that day thinking that though a horrible event had happened, no one had been killed, but that was because at that point, the first responders hadn't gotten in to the school, so despite the fact that the kids who'd gotten out were reporting bodies, the news was running with the official story from the responders, which was responsible.

My closest friend on this earth, who really is my brother, but not blood, was at the doctor's office that day. The initial reports he saw said "CHS" without giving the name of the school. For the briefest moments, he thought his school had been attacked.

You might know this, but high school kids are notoriously selfish and narcissistic. For many of us, that was the first day we really felt deep empathy. Yes, we'd all had the capacity for sympathy and of course had given that to friends who'd broken up, lost pets, or lost loved ones. We weren't heartless. However, this really felt like this could've been us. We ached for those kids who went through this. Our pain, obviously, wasn't even close to theirs, but we grieved alongside them.

That day marked a turning point. Safety at school wasn't a given any longer. We'd always done fire and tornado drills. Now, as an educator, I regularly talk my students through drills that are related to Columbine and other similar attacks, of which we've seen too many. The reality is that as a teacher, I have to assure my kids that I will do everything in my power to keep them safe, even if that means sacrificing myself (Though I do joke with them that I will stand at the door to my classroom with a chair drawn back like a baseball bat. It always relaxes them as we talk about heavy things.).

I'm a liberal. I'll admit that. I don't think I've anything to apologize for in saying that. However, I don't think either side of the gun debate that erupts every time (again, far too many times) this kind of thing happens has it right. Or even really close.

More guns is definitely not the answer. We really should put the idea of arming teachers to bed. I know there are a few who would be fine with having them. Every teacher I know is responsible and would use it only when absolutely necessary. However, having that in the classroom isn't safe.

I'm not going to advocate for removing guns entirely. I know it'll get interpreted as such anyway. The reality is that the conversation NEEDS to involve tighter regulations on guns and destigmatizing mental illness so those who need help feel comfortable reaching out whenever necessary (no one would ever tell someone with a compound fracture to just shove the bone back in their skin and get over it).

The mental health aspect of this epidemic was brought into stark relieve this week with an 18-year-old woman flying from the Miami area to Denver who was "infatuated" with Columbine. Every district in the Denver-area, and many beyond, were closed out of fear for the lives of students and staff. She was, sadly, found after completing suicide. I cannot imagine the terror and difficulty faced by staff, students, and families in Denver over those 48 or so hours.

April 20, 1999 is a day that will haunt me forever. So many people talk about where they were when they heard and watched coverage of September 11, 2001, or Kennedy's assassination, or Pearl Harbor. The names of those 13 lives stolen that day key a visceral reaction in me and I think back to sitting with my friends in the library at Centaurus, making ribbons out of navy and silver ribbon as our way of standing with the Rebels of Columbine. I remember so many things that day.

I will never forget 4/20/99. I ache for those lost, and I ache each time something like this happens again. I wish we'd learned and applied all those lessons that day, but we didn't. I pray it never happens again, but prepare myself to pray, again, for those killed in acts like this that are carried out in places of worship, businesses, movie theaters, and other gathering places across the country I love.

I want us to do better.

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