As our community observes the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shootings, I’ve been thinking how that event has shaped my ideas about home.
On April 20, 1999, our son Drew hid for four hours in a chemistry office with a dozen other students. The school’s fire alarm and passing bells blared incessantly, so that the students had no way of knowing if the shooting had stopped until the SWAT team found them. While they waited, they whispered caring thoughts to each other: “Are you all right?” “Can I do anything for you?” “We’re going to get out all right.”
Meanwhile, my husband Alex waited in the public library and I waited in an elementary school auditorium close to Columbine High School. These were the two locations where buses were bringing rescued students. Drew finally appeared at the elementary school, in a group of students lined up across the stage where parents could see and identify them. Until that moment I had thought of high school students as youths, as nearly-adults. But these were children, and they were terrified.
I called Alex and our son Tim, to say Drew was safe. I held him. He waited his turn to be questioned by law enforcement. Then, strangely, we lingered. There were only a few parents left in the room, and it was obvious that most of them would not have children to take home with them that night. I didn’t know them, but I couldn’t bear to leave them more alone.
For the next several days the community grieved. The media announced who had died and who was wounded. Speculations as to WHY led to accusations: Bullies! Unobservant parents! Incompetent law enforcement! Unvigilant teachers and administration! A circus of media vans took residence in the park next to the school. Mourners left mountains of rain-and-snow-soaked memorials: letters, stuffed animals and flowers. At the memorial service in a theater parking lot thousands of people stood in the rain, absolutely silent. Thirteen doves were released one by one. There was funeral after funeral, with teenage pall-bearers.
Drew wanted us all home at night with the doors locked. He no longer sang in the shower. The students finished out the year on split shifts at Chatfield High School: the Columbine students went in the morning and the Chatfield students went in the afternoon. But it was basically babysitting. Their backpacks and books were locked in the crime scene until mid-summer. The rest of the year was an extended nightmare for the families of Columbine – with some searingly beautiful moments. Because there is also nothing like the out-pouring of love that was Columbine.
Like on the first day of school in the fall. The challenge was to get the students into the remodeled building without post-traumatic stress and ready to learn. The school parking lot was a massive pep rally, with school band, cheerleaders, and remarks by the student body president. Parents and teachers formed a human tunnel across the parking lot and up to the door of the school. As the band played, the students ran through the tunnel – amid cheers and hugs – into the school. After the students were in, the teachers passed through the tunnel to thunderous applause. Then the door was closed. School began. Parents returned to work or home with hope and prayers and pride.
That fall I joined four women who walked past out house each weekday morning at 6:00 am. I needed the exercise, but more than that I needed to get to know neighbors. All of these women, it turned out, had children at Columbine. The nephew of one of the women had been killed in the school. I discovered that women walking and talking morning after morning can pretty much solve all the world’s problems. And we have this neighborhood under surveillance. We take care of each other, and we know what’s happening close to home.
So here is what I learned about home from the Columbine tragedy. I believe that we all need home to be a place where we can let down, rest, feel safe, wear our crummy sweats – cocoon. I believe that Drew and the other students hiding in the chemistry office in a sense cocooned, made “home” for a few hours. And this is what our family and all families of Columbine did in the days and weeks after April 20, 1999.
But cocooning is for a purpose. By it we refuel, so that we can live fully outside the walls of home. The pulling in must be counter-balanced by a reaching out. Our neighbors, our communities need us. We need to store up, refuel, and then to give. This balance helps create what I call the well-lived home.
We cocoon to launch. This is a lesson of Columbine, and I give it to you. Because as bumper stickers say around here, “We are all….Columbine.”