I wouldn't say a single word to them, I would listen to what they have to say and that's what no one did.
-- Marilyn Manson
My fifth-period class shambles into the room. Groggy from a blissful combination of record-breaking heat, the end of a two week long Spring Break and a recently consumed California-approved lunch, they’re hardly receptive to anything resembling instruction. I quietly take roll as they settle into their seats, waves of conditioned air washing over the walls.
“Can anyone tell me what happened 10 years ago today?”
Blank, cynical eyes answer. They’re not insulted by the grade-school question. They’re not annoyed that I’m taxing their critical thinking cortex. They honestly don’t know. Then again, it’s the name that commands attention, not the date.
As a high school Sophomore at the time of the shootings, I can clearly recall the aftermath. Almost immediately, my own school adopted a Zero Tolerance policy towards violence and weapons. Disaffected loners and Goths -- those that rejected the cliquey conformity of adolescence -- evolved into potential villains. Staples of academia -- pens, paperclips, rulers -- went from being simple writing implements to tools of violence.
And almost overnight, the dialogue on gaming shifted.
The world now seemed certain that children were being harmed by digital demons. Video games, which had once consisted of brightly colored, simplistic characters and environments, now contained graphic depictions of gore. Like Dungeons and Dragons or rock music before it, the scapegoating of a pastime had begun. DOOM became infamous, a subversive murder simulation that glorified Satanism, aggression, death and guns. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, adorned in black boots, camo pants and tactical bandoliers, became dangerously malleable symbols of the threat of youth. They were, simultaneously, misunderstood, wounded schoolyard victims; prophets of teenage anarchy and chaos; middle-American terrorists; acolytes to the degenerative gods of violence, iconoclasm and Marilyn Manson; homophobes; good kids that were dealt a bad hand; bullies; persecuted teens failed by The System.
And of course, there was the scarlet brand of reclusive “videogame addict.” This was the face of tomorrow’s youth, as presented by CNN and Fox News. Dangerous rogues that could not, or would not, distinguish reality from their simulated recreations. These were the children of the 21st century. They were monsters, plain as day.
"Columbine will not become just a metaphor for tragedy." – State Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood.
Somewhere among the bookshelves lining my classroom, sandwiched between books dealing with student violence and gun control, sit three copies of She Said Yes, a memoir written by the parents of Cassie Bernall, one of Columbine’s 13 victims. The story goes that the girl was approached by Harris and Klebold in the school’s library. Guns leveled, they asked if she believed in God. After she responded, the duo shot her.
And while this has proved to be one of the most moving stories that emerged from that morning, it seems that, like most of the mystique surrounding the day, the event was a fabrication. Through incremental lies and creative liberties, Columbine has become a fantastic, mythic bogeyman.
A combination of re-scoured testimonials, witness accounts, police records, diaries, videos and e-mails now tell us that the story that unfolded through public channels was largely a pastiche of hearsay and creative padding. Harris and Klebold were bullies, not bullied. Their “hit list” consisted of a number of already graduated persons. Their affiliation with the “Trenchcoat Mafia” was tenuous. Ten years have gone by, and we still don’t know who these kids were.
For my peers, the experience served as a formative reminder that the ever-present parents of those born in the 80s could not possibly hope to protect their children from every danger in the world. This was our first tragedy, the first national event that affected us directly. Among the many labels used to classify us, we added The Columbine Generation. The shadow of the event will haunt Gen Y as they send their own progeny off to school. The implication is that Columbine, like Harris and Klebold, has grown beyond the simple scope of headlining event.
But for the sleepy dozen that inhabit my room, kids of the 90s who were grade-schoolers when the name of a high school became synonymous with rage, tragedy and fear, the word has no power over them. If they question the effect of violence in their games media, it’s because of the incidentals of Columbine. If they worry about safety, it’s because they’ve grown up in an era where school shootings are a blasé symptom of problematic youth. I think of the ten years that have gone by and have a feeling that Columbine is as anomalous now as it was back then, that a nebulous “we” will wrestle with motivation and blame for as long as we can remember.
And in a way, the naivety I observed is empirical in nature. I remember Columbine because I had a connection to the event, whether by the sheer luck of being a teenager at the time or through some indescribable zeitgeist informing me. In comparison, these students were hardly out of kindergarten. To think that they should care about the whole mess is unrealistic.
A sudden synapse-arc causes someone to speak up. “That’s like the guy that shot up Virginia Tech, right?” Soon everyone is either talking about their responses to the event or are rapt as they listen to someone retell the generalities of the story.
And in that moment, I understand. Whether they realize what Columbine was is almost inconsequential. This generation has a tragedy of their own to mourn over. It is an event that has scabbed over whatever Columbine was meant to be for them.
Mentions of that high school bring to my mind panoramic shots of a still campus. I see groups of scared teenagers being ferried across the grounds by wary SWAT members. I see a bloodied young man, arm limply swinging at his side, crawl over a broken window, dangling above the waiting arms of two adults. I think of Columbine and can only recall sorrow. There is a gravity to the event that is disquieting, depressing.
But in eight years, when my students hear that it's been a decade since Virginia Tech, what will they feel? Will they remember the specifics of the fatalities? The name of the attacker? Will they fixate on the dearth of information that trickled out? Or will they instead picture the sea of mourners, the field of somber candles that was somehow calming and reassuring? Will they remember an outpouring of support and unity?
I look at them, and I wonder: What will you remember?