Shadows of Columbine

“We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months. … We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston. It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.” — President Obama after the shooting deaths of nine people at a Umpqua Community College in Oregon.

I am a child of Columbine. I was a senior in high school on April 20, 1999, when 13 teenagers were shot and killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

I distinctly remember coming to school the next day. My first class was AP American Government, and we all filed in slow—bleary with shock and dread.

All of us knew what had happened. And we knew our teacher would bring it up—he was always trying us to see our government as a living, breathing thing, not something exclusive to the men in powdered wigs who laid the framework.

Sure enough, just minutes after the bell, we were reluctantly discussing it, when in the corner, one of the most popular boys in our year broke down in tears. When the teacher asked him why he was crying, he sputtered, “I don’t want to get shot at prom.”

I didn’t either. Nobody did. But nobody else was crying, mostly because we were sure, TOTALLY sure, that this was a one-off event. It wouldn’t happen at our school and it wouldn’t happen anywhere again. Nobody else in the entire world would shoot up a school, let alone walk into our senior prom with a gun.

We were safe. We were fine. Nothing was going to happen.

And nothing did happen to us.

But it did happen again. And again. And again.

In the years since, it’s happened so much that they cases are blending together for me. I’ll admit, when I read the transcript of the president’s speech, I had to look up the Tucson mention because I didn’t remember it. And it took me a few moments to realize that Blacksburg was a reference to the Virginia Tech shooting—only memorable lately because the camera man who was shot on air a few weeks ago had survived that shooting only to be taken down by a gunman at his job years later.

When I was sitting there in that American Government class, telling myself and the boy in the corner that it was going to be fine, I really did think that it would be.

Instead, I was wrong. Columbine has been a shadow cast across my adult life. It is actually more than a shadow—it’s possibility. A possibility that keeps getting confirmed every few weeks, when the president makes the same speech yet again, his anger growing each time he has to address a mass shooting at a school, church, movie theater, mall—anywhere.

Anywhere. It can happen anywhere.

I don’t worry so much anymore about myself being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I’m constantly fearing my kids will be. Their schools recently have added secure front entrances—a symptom of Newtown, to be sure—but glass and steel won’t keep out the kind of darkness that drives this shadow.

As long as we continue to stand by without change, nothing will.

Note: This is the opinion of Sarah Henning. I speak for myself and not for my Mysterista sisters. 


11 thoughts on “Shadows of Columbine”

  1. Touching, Sarah. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a contemporary in the Colombine era. It had to shake your faith in your own security. And I can certainly appreciate how much more you fear for your children.

    There is something else at work here though. It’s a deeper issue than the availability of weapons. What is it that makes people say, “I’m unhappy, so you must die.” There seems to be some kind of egocentric entitlement at work that makes this kind of behaviour even thinkable. Human life has become cheap.


  2. Imagine that day in Columbine if there had been some students or staff with training in self-defense and the martial arts. Not necessarily armed with guns themselves, but with knowledge and training of how to use their own bodies, and handy implements like books, sticks or belts, as weapons, and the courage to act in order to protect the innocent. There might still have been some lives lost, but probably not nearly as many.
    Kaltcarson is right. This is not about the availability of firearms. Firearms will always be available. It’s the mindset, and also our seeming inability to care for the mentally ill, and especially our inability to raise children with strong values in the face of a popular culture that values nothing but self-indulgence.


  3. To be clear, I wasn’t a senior AT Columbine. Just in a high school a state away. Which wasn’t far enough. Everyone felt VERY close, even with the distance.


  4. One of my daughters was a senior that year, too, Sarah, only a few miles away. It was a terrible time for all of us. We also thought that it was so horrific it would never be repeated. Such real-life horror is one reason why we escape to fiction. Thank goodness for fiction, where we can right such evil!


  5. I discovered the day after this tragedy that I thought was far away that I’d written a letter of recommendation for a professor who now teaches at that school.


  6. Powerful. Beautifully written. I remember my freshman year in high school, when I was sent to the library by my Government teacher, only to see the Challenger tragedy unfold on live TV. Terrifying, sad–but truly removed from what most of us would ever experience. These tragedies hit way too close too home, and are too frequent to allow us distance, comfort that this is unlikely to happen to us, to our families. The world is a shockingly small place sometimes. ❤


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