Sixteen years ago tomorrow, the school shootings at Columbine sent tremors through our nation. At a relatively quiet suburban high school outside of Denver, two boys armed themselves with homemade bombs and semi-automatic rifles, walked down the halls and lived out their extensively planned terrorist attack, murdering twelve students and one teacher, and injuring many more before killing themselves.
My son was a toddler at the time. He and I had gone home to meet a locksmith at our home in central Denver when I learned of the deadly standoff. I picked him up and held him close, trying to work out just how to raise him up in a world where he could go to school on a day like any other and be randomly killed by a class mate.
A couple of years later, as my husband and I got ready for work, we watched as our normally friendly morning TV showed us planes crashing into the Twin Towers a half a continent away. By then, we had moved, ironically, to the suburbs just a mile or so from Columbine High School. Again, I looked at my curly-headed boy and thought how different his world would be from ours.
He would never know a world where mass school shootings were unimaginable, or where holy war was some esoteric concept discussed in classrooms as something that happened somewhere far, far away. His world is where attempted shoe bombings make us expose our feet as we pass through intense security before flying to our vacation destinations. Where a backpack left unattended on a busy sidewalk is something to be feared. Where the debate around the rights of the individual versus the safety of the masses makes it feasible for our government to monitor personal communications.
Our society learned a lot from Columbine. We learned that warning signs and threats from young people cannot be ignored. We learned that years of bullying may push a child to the brink and we have to try to stop it. We learned that we can never forget but we must carry on. Columbine High School was repaired and healed after the attack. Its teachers and students returned and found their way through the scars, unified as only co-survivors can be. Now, almost a full generation later, I’m sure its hallways are like those of virtually any other high school across the country. It has carried on, in-part, to honor the lives cheated by the incomprehensible actions of two.
No matter how much we learned, though, the sad truth is that we couldn’t prevent mass shootings from happening at other schools across the country.
I’m reminded of the adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Parents have feared for their children’s future world for thousands of years. As long as man has existed, people have done horrible things. They have waged war in the name of ideals and principals, they have murdered both family and strangers for no apparent reason. They have abused and taken from our land and the people on it.
If I had the chance, I might tell my younger self clutching her child that for all the horribleness bubbling up around her, there is still life. There is still good. There is still a curly-headed boy who cannot live from a place of fear. While she must teach him about the dangers around him, she and the boy’s father must also help him learn to embrace the world around him, to love, to go and do and experience.
The other day, that curly-headed kid (who now towers above me) and I were confronted by a woman on the escalator at the mall. “What beautiful hair you have! And your son is beautiful, too!” She beamed at us from a couple of steps up. I noticed something moving in the clear tote she carried. A small rat was perched upon some cloths. “Oh, my,” I blurted, “Who do you have there?” She happily told us what great pets rats are, so smart and all. We nodded, having known this from pets of years past. As we approached the top, she waved and told us to “Have a blessed day!”
The kid and I couldn’t help but smile as we made our way past the shoe department. “What a great way to go through life,” he said. I agreed and we decided that we should give more complements to random strangers, bringing more smiles to more people. Maybe without the rodent in tow. But still.
Bad things happen. Good things happen. Sometimes the difference we can make is to notice something good and say it out loud. Live life. Embrace.