If I’m being completely honest, I don’t remember hearing about it. It wasn’t an event like 9/11, where the shock and growing horror you feel as you watch events unfold in real time burn everything about that moment into your memory: where you were, what you were doing, what happened before and after, how you felt.
It was the spring of 1999, and I was a sophomore in high school, watching all of my friends who were born earlier in the year getting their learners’ permits and getting our first tastes of that irresponsible freedom that comes with being a teenager. I used to tell my mom that people called them “LPs” for short, but nobody called them that, learners’ permits, I mean. And anyway, I wasn’t really focused on world events at that point in time, except for when I had to be, like in AP U.S. History.
Most of my attention was focused all over the place, because I was a very busy high school sophomore, fifteen and not-quite-sixteen. I had a pretty big supporting role in the school musical that year (stepmother in Cinderella), I had a boyfriend who was in college (automatic cool points and elimination of dating as a distraction in anything ever), I sat state standardized tests (the MCAS exam, which is highly mockable and always has been), I was miserably failing Algebra II, life was busy overall.
I wasn’t thinking at all, of course, about school shootings.
They were on everyone’s radar, sort of, not like they really are today. We all knew about Paducah, we all knew vaguely that this was a Thing That Happened, but it wasn’t something that anyone thought about. School shootings seemed like flukes, like something you’d say “damn that was crazy!” about but then move on with your life, assuming that the perpetrator was bullied or had some sort of vendetta or something.
Somehow, Columbine changed that.
I don’t really remember hearing about it, but I remember the impacts. Not long after Columbine, we had something that was like 50% fire drill but really more of a school shooter drill. This was before you had lockdown practices, of course, because we thought it was a fluke. We all wandered aimlessly out of the buildings, accompanied by our teachers, and hung out on the front lawn until we got the all-clear. It may have been a real threat; I heard rumors that someone had left notes somewhere about shooting up the school, bombing the school, but nobody was really scared by it. Columbine was a fluke, after all.
I remember about six sprillion 20/20 esque programs dedicated to Why This Happened, and everyone had a different thought process. Violent video games! Bullying! The goth subculture! And therefore Satanism (Satanic Panic 2.0?)! Marilyn Manson! Trenchcoats (I’m not kidding)! My boyfriend at the time wore a trenchcoat like it was his job and played Resident Evil almost religiously, so I got a kick out of those theories. I think the newspeople eventually settled on bullying as The Reason, and after that, everything faded… but then later research revealed that the perpetrators were actually more often the bullies than the bullied, so that’s probably not it.
I remember the weird capitalization on certain victims’ lives and deaths. Cassie Bernall was the big one. The story went that she was asked, “Do you believe in God?” and said yes before being murdered. It was a great narrative from a Christian perspective; it turned her into a martyr of sorts, ostensibly killed because she said yes (which was the name of the book her parents wrote about her). Christian recording artists wrote songs about the incident, it was this great wonder and beautiful tragedy and… it didn’t even happen. Students who were with Cassie when she died reported that the shooter only said, “Peek-a-boo!” before murdering her.
But it was still some good music.
And it kind of… went away. Not completely, of course, and certainly not for the victims and their loved ones, but school shootings just anywhere near as common back then as they are now. Oh, they happened. Thirteen shootings happened between Columbine and my graduation from high school two years later. That seems like a lot, but then you realize that 2018 is so far 46 days old and there have already been 18 school shooting-style incidents, and suddenly, 13 over two years doesn’t seem as high of a number.
Next year, it will have been 20 years since Columbine. A lot has changed since then. The weirdest thing to me is that if you go to certain places on the internet, you’ll find pockets of people who are huge fans of the Columbine shooters. I don’t mean assholes who say, “Man, I wish I could shoot up a school!” I mean people who look at the shooters, say they were well within their rights to massacre people or that they did nothing wrong, coo over how attractive they were, and so on and so forth.
I always talk to Kyle about meta-fears I have for our kid(s). I call them meta-fears because the likelihood of them ever happening is statistically small, but as a parent, you still sometimes lie awake at night and wonder, “but what if…?” But they’re fears that you have to put on the back burner because if you let them, you’ll become irrational and incapable of functioning because they’re fears of such HUGE things that you have so little control over.
Meta-fears are things like “what if some random person grabs my kid off the street?” Statistically, this isn’t very likely to happen. The vast majority of kidnappings are perpetrated by members of the victim’s family, and while you have some pretty famous stories where that was not the case, they’re famous because they’re so rare. So you hold your kid’s hand and watch them when you’re out of the house, but you can’t let this fear consume you or else you’ll end up locking your kid in a tower, growing out their hair to about 70 feet, and only visiting them on weekends and bank holidays.
Things like “what if my kid gets cancer?” Statistically, this isn’t very likely to happen, even though we all know someone or know someone who knows someone whose kid got cancer. We’ve all contributed to fundraisers and all watched hashtags. One of the towns around here had a big rally for a kid that had one of the worst forms of childhood cancer, DIPG. Their hashtag was #whynotdevin, and it was HUGE around here. And it was heartbreaking, and of course, it made me wonder in my parental way, what if Sam contracted DIPG? 100% fatal, a disease that deteriorates who you are, and the only thing you can do is try and make your kid comfortable until they slip away in less than a year. It’s ridiculously rare (200 cases a year worldwide kind of rare), and you theoretically worry, but you have to put it on the back burner or you’re going to end up losing your mind because it’s not something you can predict or protect against.
Things like “what if this plane we’re on crashes?” Things like “what if there’s a drunk driver?” Things like “what if an asteroid crashes through our roof spontaneously?” Things like “what if nuclear war?”
Things like “what if my child’s school gets shot up?”
This wasn’t a worry when I was a kid. We had fire drills, of course, and those were usually pretty chill. One time, we had a fire drill while we were watching a video about volcanoes, and everybody thought that was hilarious. Another time, some kids brought a ouija board to recess and apparently, the ~spirits~ told them that the school would burn down that afternoon, and when we had a fire drill that afternoon, they all freaked out and that was also hilarious.
But it’s a worry now.
One of the things I’ve had the hardest time reading lately is the swath of accounts from teachers, telling the world who’s never experienced such a thing what it’s like to have a lockdown drill. They talk about kids not knowing it’s a drill, big and tough kids bursting into tears of absolute terror when the assistant principal rattles the doorknob to make sure it’s locked. They talk about teachers not knowing it’s a drill and screaming at their students in a panic, telling them to be quiet and stop talking and giggling, because if there is an active shooter, their silence could be their lifeline.
Fearing that your child’s school could be shot up should be a statistically rare meta-fear, like cancer or a plane crash or nuclear war. It should be something that you can just put in the back of your mind and worry about that bridge if you ever come to it, but it’s not.
Lockdown drills are pretty standard across the board nowadays. I don’t know if our town’s schools do them, or how early they start, but I imagine that they do and that they start very early. It adds a new layer to the meta-fear. It adds a thousand new layers to the meta-fear. I imagine, without wanting to, my sweet little boy with big hazel eyes and blonde hair having to hide in a closet behind locked doors. I imagine him being so terrified that he can’t fall asleep for weeks. Worse, I imagine him having a hard time comprehending what’s going on, being the loud and silly voice, and it not being a drill, and suddenly, I’m planning a funeral for my first baby.
I don’t want to imagine this. I don’t want this to be a fear that we have to take logical preventative measures about, like choking hazards and SIDS and batteries in smoke alarms and car seats.
But here we are.
Of course I have opinions about the whole thing. Anyone who’s known me for more than five minutes knows what those opinions are, but I’m not throwing them out here because I don’t want to attract That Crowd, if you know what I mean. I’m also not throwing them out here because I don’t want to sit around and debate and throw statistics back and forth and scream ceaselessly into the void at a group of people who just will. not. care.
I do want to scream into the void. But I’m tired.
So instead, I take a deep breath. I take comfort in the people I love. I hug Sam extra tight, even when he’s spent the entire day being a little shit (true story: this blog was initially going to be about the emotional weirdness of being angry with a toddler over something they don’t know any better, and it was going to be about poop). I listen to the Cranberries singing, “But you see, it’s not me, it’s not my family,” and wonder what happens to That Crowd when it is their family.
Sorry about the lack of entertaining or diverting gifs; they seemed inappropriate.