20 Years Later: Reflecting on Columbine
“I hate you people for leaving me out of so many fun things. And no, don’t say, “well thats your fault” because it isnt, you people had my phone #, and I asked and all, but no. no no no dont let the weird looking Eric KID come along, ohh nooo.”
- Final entry in the written journal of Columbine shooter Eric Harris, dated 4/3/99
On April 20, 1999, two seventeen year old students walked into Columbine High School and killed or wounded 37 of their classmates and teachers before turning their weapons on themselves. It was the deadliest school shooting in over twenty years and a defining event of the late 20th century.
Since that spring day two decades ago, school shootings have become an inescapable reality of American culture…but do they have to be?
Whenever an incident like this happens, there’s a rush to lay blame. Easy access to guns usually comes first, followed by politics, music, violent video games and on down the line. Some of these areas are definitely worth looking at but ultimately the blame lies with the person who pulled the trigger. People aren’t born killers. They make a conscious choice to become one typically as the result of perceived injustices either directly in their life or in society as a whole or a combination of both. Or they become killers out of a desire for revenge against people or institutions they believed wronged them.
I’m no psychologist. There are plenty of people out there far more qualified to talk about that aspect of school shootings than I am.
But I do know what it’s like to be driven to the edge. I know what it’s like to have violent impulses inside of you that you are trying desperately to keep from exploding. I know what it is to be an outcast. Mocked, harassed and ostracized by the cliques, the jocks, the “Cool kids”. I know what it is to feel like no one is listening to or cares about what is happening to you and I know what it is to think about killing someone as an ultimate solution to a problem.
The Columbine shooting has always impacted me personally because the shooters, as well as most of the victims, are the exact same age I am. Meaning chances are I had very similar school experiences to the ones they had. Unfortunately many of my school experiences were not very pleasant. High school was not as bad as Middle school, but that kind of psychological damage can take a long time to heal. When I was seventeen, I was a much happier person outwardly, but inside I was still quite wounded and struggling to recover from some very deep emotional scarring.
Odds are, had I come from a home with less supportive parents, had I lived in a worse part of town, had I been less mentally able to fight off my own demons…I could have been a Dylan Harris or an Eric Klebold.
Not because I ever wanted to be a killer, but because I felt that taking such drastic action may be the only way to deal with my own suffering. The only way to stop the bullies from hurting me. They broke me down again and again and again and you’d better believe there was a part of me that wanted nothing more than to return the favor.
It took me over twenty years to finally put the pain of what happened fully behind me, be happy with who I am and not worry about people judging me based on my height or shyness or any other arbitrary thing they could try to use against me.
Over the years I’ve read many stories of other bullied and tormented kids, a high percentage of which have ultimately taken their own lives. One of the most aggravating parts of my own experiences was that nobody (aside from my parents) seemed to listen to or try and help me.
On a cool spring day in 1995, in the schoolyard in the middle of recess, I got hung off a fencepost in front of three hundred kids. Virtually all of them laughed at me. After someone finally helped me get down not one of those kids, not one came up to me to see if I was okay, to see if I needed help or offer me any kind of compassion. Three hundred kids in that yard and not a single one stepped up. Not ONE. If I didn’t feel alone before that, I certainly did at that point.
Not to mention most of my teachers and school administrators didn’t help me either. I felt so lost and hopeless. Here I was crying out, hoping someone would hear me and take time to listen and provide me the support I so desperately needed…but no one did.
There was eventually one other kid at school who thought it worthwhile getting to know me and to this day I feel as though I owe her my life. But that was well after the fence incident. Well after someone, God willing, could and should have stepped up for me.
What if, a week after I was hung from that fence, I’d become convinced no one cared or ever would care about me and I went to school with the intent of killing the bullies that refused to leave me alone?
Here we are, 20 years after Columbine and we’re still letting kids down all the time. Harris and Klebold didn’t become killers overnight. It was years of anger, marginalization, depression, loneliness and fear that got them there. If everyone who could have helped those two boys did, it’s highly likely there wouldn’t have been fifteen lives lost on April 20, 1999.
We MUST stop failing our children.
And our children must stop failing other children.
Sometimes all it takes is a simple act of love to start to bring someone around and pull them back from the brink. A smile, a hug, a “Hey man, nice to see you!”or a “How’s everything going?” take precious little seconds out of the day but can make a world of difference for kids who desperately need them.
We can’t go back in time and change anything that happened 20 years ago, but we can honor the memory of those we lost by doing everything we can to prevent the next one.
Even if it’s as simple as a hug.