Checking into the bed and breakfast, I remember sitting in the lobby and watching TV with my little sister. Suddenly, “Breaking News” appeared across the screen. A moment later, I’m seeing (and in real time) teenagers who look like my friends and I running out of some school in Colorado. Some bloody. Some screaming. All frightened. It looked like a war zone.
Then, the immortal image of that kid being pulled out of the second story class room through a broken window by rescuers. The dead: 12 students, one teacher, two gunmen. It was shocking, especially to my little sister and I. Gun violence, let alone a shooting at a school, was beyond our comprehension. A lot of us “came of age” watching that shooting unfold on TV.
Even with the Atlantic Ocean right outside my window, and a slight breeze cascading into the room, I couldn’t really sleep that night. I kept thinking about what the news would say tomorrow, once the fire and smoke dissipated and the full story of “who, what and where” would be revealed.
The next morning, I learned that one of the shooters, Eric Harris, had actually lived in my hometown of Plattsburgh, New York, where his father was in the U.S. Air Force at the (now defunct) base there, only to move the family to Colorado just as Harris was becoming a teenager.
And like most folks my age at that time, we had never really given a second thought to imminent danger in our classrooms. But, now it was in the forefront of our daily mindset, even more so today following Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Orlando, Las Vegas and Stoneman Douglas High School — a new and still current reality had been set into motion.
Columbine was a line the sand between childhood innocence and adulthood. Coming back from spring break, nothing was the same. New rules. Locked doors. Every odd, weird, outcast and loner kid was thought to be a threat. Whispers and rumors. Fear. The possibility that the same thing could happen in your school. Everyone now seemed capable of something terrible.
I remember kids being teased and some kid in the bullying group going, “Don’t fuck with him too much. He might shoot us,” as they laughed down the hallway. Though in recent years, the very nature of bullying in the school system has come into the national spotlight and is currently being addressed.
That said, there will — sadly — always been kids (and adults) who feel on the fringe of society — misunderstood, harassed, and vulnerable to destructive acts as a last resort.
When a tragedy like Columbine comes to pass, we tend to think, “How can this happen?” And yet, we either forget or don’t seem to have a frame of historical reference, where — in all actuality — these things do happen, and more than you might think or recall.
Following Columbine, America was forced to remember the massacres at the Kileen Luby’s (1991), Edmond Post Office (1986), San Ysidro McDonald’s (1984), Kent State University (1970) and the University of Texas at Austin (1966), amongst countless other tragedies.
Though the frequency of these mass shootings has increased, the motives of anger, frustration and alienation remain the same. But, like everything that becomes the past, the images and memories eventually gather dust. Our hearts and feelings slowly get repaired.
The tragedy eventually fades into the rearview mirror, at least until the next similar event happens, something that triggers a flood of deep and real emotion, once again trying to make sense of why bad things happen to good people.
So, where does this leave us? Well, I’d say it puts emphasis on the simple notion of when you see something, say something. If someone you know appears to be going through a rough patch, engage that person, try to find common ground and let them know they aren’t alone in this sometimes cruel and unjust world. The simple act of giving another human being the time of day is the greatest gift we can give each other in this day and age.
Myself, I remain optimistic as to where we were in 1999 and where we currently stand in 2019. Sure, the stale attitudes may seem to never wane. But, there are good people out there doing great things to combat the dark and evil side of human nature in the 21st century (or any century, for that matter).
Be one of those people who reaches out to help another, to bridge any emotional gaps felt from those around you. If you seek help, ask for it. If you want to help, go and be the change. There will never be a lack of people, places and things to identify, embrace and bring back to life.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 Country star Trace Adkins will hit the stage at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 1, at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin.
2 Folk duo Somebody’s Child will perform at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 25, in the Community Room of the Jackson County Public Library in Sylva.
3 Nantahala Brewing (Bryson City) will host Andrew Scotchie & The River Rats (rock/blues) at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 27.
4 Boojum Brewing Company (Waynesville) will host Joey Fortner & The Universal Sound (Americana/folk) at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27.
5 The grand opening celebration of Waynesville Art School will be from noon to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at 303 North Haywood Street in Waynesville.