Columbine: 10 years gone

Another somber April anniversary: today is the 10th anniversary of Columbine.

Needless to say, Columbine was a landmark event for my generation. It surpassed West Paducah and Jonesboro, the two other high school shootings I remember vividly from the spree of adolescent carnage in the late-‘90s, by leaps and bounds.

I was a sophomore in high school at the time. I just sat down in Mr. Koepnick’s Biology class when another student walked in, gloating about spending lunch at home (which meant she drove home). She’d watched CNN coverage of another school shooting and saw police rescue a kid hanging out a broken window. Our teacher had seen it, too.

“This one’s bad,” he said.

The normal buzz and chatter of passing time stopped. Everyone listened. The day had changed. It was no longer one of those numbers on the calendar that passes without notice. It had gained meaning, weight. My gut turned to stone. Something serious had happened.

Class started and I remember Mr. Koepnick saying we had nothing to worry about. He pointed to the door leading to the hallway and said something to the affect of, “If anyone starts shooting, one of those tables is going up against that door.” The long lab tables we sat at had specially made thick, black tops. According to him they were impenetrable. I had my doubts, though. But if someone started shooting I hoped it would be during Biology. The C-Wing classrooms had back doors leading to the baseball field.

The images on the news that night were stunning. Students rushed out and SWAT teams, guns drawn, marched in. It was sickening.

I don’t remember much else except that Friday. My buddy on Churchill’s Cigar mentioned that day in his Columbine remembrance, even reminding me of a forgotten fact. As it was across the country, staff and students at City High were on edge. It was uneasy, uncomfortable, going to school the rest of the week, and exacerbating the tension was a student walkout on Friday. A bunch of kids were demonstrating against the assistant principal. (I heard someone put it this way: “The kids who get in trouble are tired of being punished.”) The halls were thick with anger, frustration, and making matters worse was a rumor about someone bringing a gun to school.

A lot of students stayed home that day. A guy I knew had his parents call the office and say they didn’t want him to go to school. He said he didn’t feel safe. The various musical groups were on a field trip, so a quarter of the student body was gone (the forgotten fact). The rest of us did as best we could to go through the motions, to have a typical Friday in high school, with everyone excited about the weekend. But it was impossible. At all times I was on alert, wondering what to do if something happened during this class, that class. Nothing could be learned, nothing could be taught, and everyone realized it. Especially the teachers.

There were no lessons that day. Maybe there was in math and Biology, but none of my other teachers made an attempt to tackle Shakespeare, French verb conjugations, or media libel (yes, 10 years ago I began my journalism career). In each class we discussed what happened, why, and how we felt. We moved our chairs into circles to see and listen to each other. I had never seen my teachers so anxious, so troubled, so human. My classmates and I were just as worried, scared, and confused.

It’s easy to overlook and forget the significance and meaning as time passes. Old pictures, news articles, and monuments don’t do it justice; they can’t reproduce the terror and sadness, nor the gut-wrenching dread and trepidation that followed for weeks. Columbine shook everyone to the core.

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