Remembering Columbine

From random blog photos

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.

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12 Comments on “Remembering Columbine”

  1. Kate Says:

    I read this as I wait for details to emerge about a shooting in which three were left dead in my hometown. People I know were witnesses and we still don’t know exactly what happened. It’s beautiful, and exactly what I needed to hear…

  2. aggressionmanagement Says:

    Research has determined that from the Moment of Commitment (the point when a student pulls their weapon) to the Moment of Completion (when the last round is fired) is only 5 seconds. If it is the intent of a institutions of higher education to react to this violence, they will do so over the wounded and/or slain bodies of students, faculty, staff and counselors.

    Institutions of Higher Education clearly want safe and secure campuses. Members of student affairs are perennially queried by parents about the safety of their campuses. The commonplace answers, intended to reassure anxious parents, focus on the campus police officers and emergency procedures. While useful, these less than adequate efforts do not begin to provide a definitive answer to preventing campuses violence, nor do they make a campus safe and secure.

    Traditionally institutions of higher learning have relied upon the mental health community or local police to keep them safe, yet one of the key shortcomings has been the lack of a system that involves faculty, student affairs, counselors and students in the identification and communication process. Recently, colleges, universities and community colleges have begun forming Behavioral Intervention Teams with representatives from all these constituencies. Yet, most have not.

    They simply changed their safety/security policies, procedures, or surveillance systems, and they continue spending excessive amounts of money to put in place many of the physical security options. Sadly, these steps are reactionary only and do little to prevent aggression because they are designed exclusively to react to existing conflict, threat and violence. These schools reflect a national blindspot, which prefers hardening targets through enhanced security versus preventing violence with efforts directed at aggressors. Security gets all the focus and money, but this only makes us feel safe, rather than to actually make us safer.

    For a comprehensive look at the problem and its solution,
    Continue the dialogue:

  3. I’m glad to hear Peace Studies is going well in Australia. The Peace Corps in Kazakhstan has also been educational and worthwhile. I enjoyed your account of collective song writing. I’ve had a similar experience here, you might want to read about here .

  4. Laura Says:

    Beautiful post, David. Thank you.

  5. Surfi Says:

    really nice post!
    peace over all

  6. Amy Veatch Says:

    David Gill is a wonderful person and his work at Ferncliff has benefited many people around the world. Thank you for your work helping the campers heal from their violent experiences. The labyrinth at Ferncliff was built by those campers from Jonesboro and Columbine; their way to give back and benefit Ferncliff visitors! I have walked it many times.

  7. Ben Foxworth Says:

    Hmm, it has been some time since you last post, and while I know very well how life can intervene, it would be nice to hear. 🙂

    I do have a question about something you wrote in your missive:

    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.

    My question is this: Do you think experiencing real live bullets is a prerequisite for being able to credibly take part in peace work and peace dialogue?

    Best to you and your family!

    • David In Oz Says:

      Thanks for pointing to that, Ben (the empathy issue, not the long absence from posting!). 😉

      I’m afraid I’m under a crush of papers for the next three weeks, but will be enthusiastically back in the conversation after that. I do have some cool news to share and will look forward to carving out some time to do so.

      I will procrastinate for a few minutes longer, though, in order to address this important question. I do believe that human empathy is powerful, and I do not believe that we have to earn our credibility by coming under fire. These questions are large and important. We’re all effected and we all need to be in the conversation.

      My point in the excerpt you quoted is just that I want to approach that dialog with a profound humility and be extraordinarily careful not to tell people how they should be feeling because I’ve read books about it, or imagined what it might be like. It’s OK for me to put forward ideas and ask the questions that I think need to be asked, but in this context my intention wasn’t to write policy papers for thinktanks, but to connect and be of service to these kids. The best way to do that, I believe, was to let them lead. It was a good reminder for me, and I’m grateful for the experience, though I had to spend some time crying about it at night when they had gone to bed.

      Thanks for your supportive and insightful comments here, Ben.

      More soon (I promise!),


      • Ben Foxworth Says:

        Hey David,

        Very glad to hear all is well with you. I understand how busy life can become, and am glad to hear that yours is being fulfilling and gratifying. I wish that for all my friends.

        I also did not know if you saw my comment in your ‘old life’ blog posting. 😉 It’s certainly fine that you can’t respond to everything, and I don’t expect you to.

        Above, I asked my question because in many cases people directly exposed to intense violence, bloodshed and death are changed by those experiences, and not always in good ways. Comedian Dennis Miller was very open-minded and comparatively liberal before 9/11. Afterward he has been far more hawkish (more conservative, less open-minded and so on) which I don’t think is a good evolution.

        In the first chapter of Walden, Thoreau wrote:

        Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost.

        While that can be debated (I am on the twilight side of 55, myself, and I do disagree!), there are many circumstances which ‘change’ people, and not always in good ways. I don’t know anyone who has spent a career in law enforcement who doesn’t firmly believe in the use of violence in solving conflicts. I don’t know (and don’t recall hearing of) anyone who served as a career soldier with service in active combat zones who doesn’t believe in the justifiability of killing as an approach to problem resolution. They lose their idealism, if they ever had any, and I am not sure how easy it is to be an effective advocate for peace without at least some idealism.

        In an earlier posting in your fine blog (the one to which I still owe a response), David, I wrote a comment about the original Star Trek tv series and an episode in which the hypothesis was advanced that violence, in a way, could be considered to be an entity unto itself. The analogy given in the episode (‘Day of the Dove,’ Season 3) considered that opposing factions in a violent engagement were actually on the same side, in their firm belief in violence and killing as a viable means to resolve disputes. Indeed, we often seem to live in a world in which we never seem to perceive violent conflict such that violence itself is understood to be the adversary we should identify and defeat.

        What if time spent ‘under fire’ was one of the conditions of human life which tends to prevent one from being able to honestly consider the possibility that violence and war are the enemies we need to defeat, just as clearly as we had to defeat polio and smallpox? In other words, can we reduce the heat of the hate energy of such conflicts by jumping into the flame, ourselves? Can the Hatfields and the McCoys be persuaded to listen when they are in the intense, immediate throes of the bloodlust and desire for vengeance? Or are our more fertile gardens of possibility to be found elsewhere, in human beings still capable of a ‘period of reflection’ before acting?

        I do not know. I do know that my opinion is that in this lifetime, for myself only, my feeling is that my best contributions to the cause of peace are not to be made in war zones or places of extremely violent conflict.

        Thank you so much for taking time to so thoughtfully answer my question. I hope this is being a terrific season for you and your family.


  8. liz frencham Says:

    Hey David,
    Really lovely words that have inspired me today.

  9. Jeremy Wilhelmi Says:

    I was there at that camp with everyone at Ferncliff. I was one of the camp counselors there that summer. I remember that song writing session…something about “Feeties”, cereal, and “the (tv) show about to begin”

    I may still have the words somewhere in my deep trenches of stuff. Although, I have chunked a lot of things from my past, there’s a small chance I still have those. I’m pretty sure I wrote the whole lyrics down in my notebook I was holding at the time.

    It truly was an amazing experience. My memories from those weeks are quite special to me. Most memorable was the night of a 100 hugs and the the next year uping that to the “Night of a 1000 Hugs” that…and building the labyrinth. Thanks for bringing those memories back for me too!

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