*I’m skipping “Working Mom Wardrobe” today in memory of the school shootings at Virginia Tech (just 45 minutes down the road from me, and Jeff’s alma mater) 7 years ago today and the shooting at Columbine High School 15 years ago on Sunday… Even if you aren’t a teacher, I urge you to read this post – it is important for all of us.
In April of 1999, I was in ninth grade, but because of over-crowding at our high school, we were the “big kids” at my junior high school. I was a member of the cheesy “Natural Helper” club, which basically meant that the guidance counselors thought I was someone my classmates would talk to if they had a problem and my friends and I could get out of class whenever they needed some “help.” It was great.
Until that April, I’d never dealt with anything beyond a petty disagreement between friends or hurtful gossip at school. Then, on April 20th, two teenagers went in to a high school in Littleton, Colorado (more than 1500 miles from my school) with a gun, and everything changed.
I honestly don’t remember a lot of the details from the days that followed. I know there was a lot of media coverage, a lot of talk about trench coats, bullying, and whether or not I would “say Yes” if someone put a gun to my head. I also remember the hysteria that surrounded just about every school in America for the next several weeks. One rumor even circulated that there was a “hit list” of other high schools to be targeted online, and our feeder school was one of them.
But, more than the details, I remember how fear came into schools then. Before that, I had never once thought about whether or not I was safe in the hallways or if the boy in my math class could hurt me. NEVER. But, after Columbine, we all trusted a little less, worried a little more, and – above all – had a new understanding of evil.
When I started at the high school the following fall, we had an armed police officer on campus for the first time, teachers were told to keep their doors closed and locked while they were teaching, and we had lock down drills several times a year.
It was a new era. If something as horrible as what happened at Columbine could happen in Littleton – a town frighteningly similar to Roanoke in demographics – it could happen anywhere…
Except… We didn’t really believe that.
Over time, we stopped worrying so much. The “resource officer” became a tool for breaking up fights or busting kids for smoking in the bathroom, teachers left their doors open again, and we laughed and joked during lock down drills.
Then… 8 years later (almost to the day) it DID happen here – right down the road at Virginia Tech.
This time, I was working on my Master’s Degree at Radford (literally next door to VT) and doing my student teaching in a ninth grade English class at a nearby high school. I will NEVER forget hearing the announcement at lunch that day that a shooter was loose on the Blacksburg campus. Jeff (who I was engaged to at the time) had graduated from there just five months earlier and had several classes in the very building where 30 people were killed that morning.
Yes, there had been other horrible shootings since Columbine, but not like this. Not to this extent. Not in my backyard.
Now, it was very very real. I wasn’t 15 years old anymore either – I was the teacher. I was responsible for a room full of 15 year olds at any given point during the day. I was supposed to know what to do in these kinds of emergencies, be the prepared one, be brave. But I was more afraid than ever.
… I am the Columbine generation. I could have been in that high school in 1999. My students today were four years old when it happened. They vaguely remember Virginia Tech, but they were still young and sheltered from that. But, I remember. I remember what school was like before Columbine, and I remember it after.
Today, while I feel totally safe in my job, a day rarely passes where I don’t think about “what if?”.
Maybe because of all that, I’ve always had a particular interest in the writing surrounding the events at Columbine. I’ve read several fiction works centered around it – my “favorite” being The Hour I First Believed about an English teacher by Wally Lamb – but I was first introduced to Dave Cullen’s nonfiction narrative Columbine at an AP teachers’ conference just two years ago.
The instructor had us read the entire book (all 442 pages) before starting the workshop, and I found it riveting. Not only was it an EXCELLENT work of nonfiction – thoroughly researched and powerfully written – but it was the story of an event that, while most of them cannot remember it, has fully shaped the lives of American students today. It IS their reality.
I immediately came home and met with my supervisor to request a classroom set of the book for my AP 11th graders. It was risky (the content is mature and very difficult at times), but – especially in a specialized program for mass communications/media like I teach in – the benefits to a work like this far outweighed the negatives…
Last year was the first year I taught this book, and this year’s class is about halfway through right now… I try not to bog them down with too many “assignments,” because the book really speaks for itself. (Most of my students – even the non-readers – claim they can’t put the book down.) I introduce it by having them do some research about the way Columbine was originally portrayed by the media and some of the “myths” surrounding it. I also show Dave Cullen’s intro video (see below), and that’s usually enough to get them hooked.
From there, I assign a small vocabulary project to complement their reading, and provide them a list of discussion questions that we will go over in class when everyone is done reading. I usually assess with an in-class essay, but I really don’t DO much more than that.
It isn’t a part of the literary canon; but, without a doubt, Columbine is the MOST IMPORTANT BOOK I teach all year.
It is scary and gross and, very disturbing. It is not a “fun” read, but it is a good read. Columbine changed me, and Columbine changes my students. It gives them a new perspective on mental illness, stereotypes and labeling, the legal system, modern media, and – most importantly – the schools they walk in to every day.
Teacher or not, read this book. Read it to remember.