News stories about the ten year anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings seemed to jump out from every corner of the internet in the last week. The academic journal Psychological Review gave a whole issue to “Lessons of Columbine.” That experience is etched in our national memory, and though it’s a painful picture, I don’t want to forget it.
Though Columbine has become synonymous with school shootings, it wasn’t the first that the nation faced. About thirteen months before, two boys, an eleven-year-old and a thirteen-year-old, donned camouflaged clothes, pulled a fire alarm and started shooting at students and teachers at their own middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Four students and a teacher died, and ten others were injured.
The students that lived through watching their fellow students and teachers shot, and being shot at themselves, had a whole lot of healing to do, needless to say. They weren’t alone in that effort, though. Many people offered their gifts to help the students get through it.
Among those was my friend David Gill who runs a Presbyterian retreat center just outside of Little Rock, Camp Ferncliff. The Jonesboro shooting happened in March of 1998, and Camp Ferncliff invited any of the kids from there who would like to attend to come to a Spring Break camp in March of 1999. The week went well, but no one was prepared for the fact that a month later there would be another shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
As David wrote to me recently, the kids from Jonesboro “wanted to go immediately.” They realized that though there would be lots of people trying to help, they were among the few in the world who really knew how the Columbine kids felt, and they wanted to be there for them to talk to.
Of course, packing up a bunch of middle and high school students and taking them on a road trip to Colorado is not simple, but David and the rest of the crew took the kids seriously, organized things, and in February of 2000 twenty-two of the Jonesboro kids went to Littleton to spend a weekend with kids from Columbine and from Conyers, Georgia, where another six students had been injured in a school shooting a month after Columbine.
It was at that weekend that, according to David, the Jonesboro students said to the rest of the students, “You guys have to come back to our camp!” And they did. The camp ran for five consecutive years, seeing all of those students through high school. In those five years they also incorporated students from Bosnia who had been living through the war there. In 2002, kids from New York City who had felt the impact of 9/11 joined them as well.
Somewhere in there I was also invited to come along and perform for the kids, as well as lead a writing workshop. I was honored by the invitation and touched to be trusted in such a potentially fragile situation. Writing is inherently vulnerable, and I thought a lot about how to approach the workshops before I got there.
Some of these kids had had bullets removed from their bodies. They had hidden behind trees and trashcans to avoid being shot. That’s an experience I haven’t had, thankfully, and I literally can’t imagine what it must be like emotionally, and how one’s perception of the world in general, one’s theology and one’s psyche might be affected. The emotional scar tissue and the physical scar tissue were both very real. David Gill and I talked a bit about the workshops before they started, though, and he encouraged me to let the kids take things where they want them to go — wherever that is.
He also prepared me, though, for the fact that they might not go to as heavy a place as I imagined, and gently, wisely counseled me not to steer. There is a real danger in this kind of interaction, when the facilitator or leader knows they’re dealing with people who have been through serious trauma, to allow his/her own need to help to outweigh the participants’ need to be helped. It’s a natural way to cope with our own sorrow to want to feel like we’ve done something to help alleviate others’ pain. It’s not necessarily useful, though. People process things in their own times and their own ways, and while it’s good to make oneself available for the tearful, heavy conversations, it’s important not to drag people into feelings that might not be where they are right now, or what they need.
The kids I encountered, as it turned out, were not the war-torn, hollow eyed, fragile children I had imagined. They were teenagers, with all that the term implies. The girls wanted to talk about makeup, giggling in the hallway. The boys were trying to look tough and catching as many casual glimpses of the girls as they could. They had been through a great deal, but they were healing, and if you didn’t know their story you wouldn’t have guessed it. I don’t mean to say that there wasn’t deep damage there, of course, but they were healing.
At the beginning of the workshop I did an exercise to generate some ideas of song topics, and in the end the one the kids came up with and chose to write about was memories of getting up early and sneaking to the TV room on Saturday mornings in sock-footed pajamas, too little to know what time it is, turning on the TV and watching the test pattern until the cartoons started. It was fun, quirky and evocative imagery, and though the actual verses they wrote have long ago faded away, I still remember the word pictures they drew.
The camp had solid, well-trained counselors on hand if they were needed, but they didn’t force the kids to go anywhere they didn’t choose to go. David Gill said to me then, “we’re trying to give the kids a normal camp experience.”
At my concerts there I played the songs I often play, about time and hope, etc., and I played silly songs and yes, some poignant ones that brought some tears up.
In an answer to a note I sent to him this week David wrote:
…the kids didn’t want to come to ‘therapy camp.’ They wanted/needed fun, but we came in the back door with folks like yourself who could use fun and creativity and love to open the door to healing. We didn’t provoke the tears, but they came and we provided a safe haven for them. Stories, worship, nature, ‘getting away,’ community and unconditional love…those were the healers.
I was invited back to the camp for those kids a couple of times, and it was a lot of fun as well as deeply moving for me. I’ve sung my song Hard Earned Smile to holocaust survivors and school shooting survivors, juvenile prisoners and terminally ill patients, and the only way to summon the courage to do that is by also digging for a whole lot of humility.
It was hard to look at those delightful kids and think about what had happened to them. The choice for me, though, isn’t between remembering and staying mired in my fear, anger, betrayal, etc. or forgetting and moving on. I think we can remember, feel the tragedy of it, tell the story honestly, while still acknowledging the beauty that is woven through all of it. The kindness and compassion of people like David Gill and the large crowd of people who made that camp available don’t negate the horror of malicious violence— but neither does the violence negate the kindness and compassion.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotations, from historian Howard Zinn:
To be hopeful in bad times is not being foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of competition and cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness… The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
As I write these words the clock has moved back from four digits to three, so it is no longer my birthday in Australia (though I have another few hours of birthday left back in the U.S.). Time passes, we tell our old stories and move through new ones. What a privilege it is to be invited into others’ stories as we go. Tonight I remember the stories I heard and from those students in Arkansas— about sock-footed pajamas— and the small story I lived with them. Here’s to healing, the greatest miracle I know.