Blog Entry: Columbine Suite Past
by Gary Natriello — September 13, 2000
The devastating events in Littleton, Colorado have prompted a wide range of reactions. In this first in a series of three columns on the tragedy the editor of TCR shares his own reflections on the violence in our midst.
In the days since the murder of thirteen at Columbine High School by two students who subsequently killed themselves after identifying, terrorizing, sometimes interrogating, and then killing their classmates, high schools and middle schools across the nation and beyond have been racked by a large number of events similar in intent but for the most part failing to achieve the desired ends of murder and destruction. While much of the adult population's attention has been focused on the events in Littleton, young people throughout the country have decorated the tally maps of assaults, planned and posed, as uniformly as the back of a measles victim stepping from a warm bath. Amidst all the commotion there has been no shortage of analyses of the individual perpetuators, their personal conditions and circumstances, the internal processes that enabled them, indeed compelled them, to move with such apparently pleasurable violence against those they saw on a daily basis. We have struggled to identify the uniqueness of the case in a heroic but ultimately ruined attempt to define these perpetuators as "not us, not here, not our kids, not our schools." All the while the replicates, in intent and feeling if not in physical devastation, of the drama of Littleton have surrounded us.
Twenty nine years to the season I encountered my own high school cafeteria taken over by students in rain coats and black clothes broken only by the white soles of their athletic shoes as they strutted across the raised platform at one end of the large room with the supposedly calming green walls and large windows which could barely hold the spring sun. A few of them were real men boys, you know, those guys who need a shave by mid morning in their fourteenth years, but most were just boys lost in the swaddling of the old rain coats that waved as they ran from one side of the platform to the other.
It was the spring of 1970, a season marked by unrest as protestors broke more than the rules of decorum on the campuses of major universities and elite suburban high schools. The protests in these schools, written up in the newspapers and news magazines of the day, were political. But my high school was neither elite nor suburban, more working class and working poor than the middle class we all believed we were. And the protest this spring day was not political or at least not of the contemporary moment with its focus on a distant war. No, this protest was to be both more structural and, as it would turn out, more personal.
The day had started with bands of students running through the school waving chains that clattered against each other and hit with deeper thuds as they struck the old dark wooden classroom doors and already battered metal lockers, leaving what for many of the perpetrators, would be their major mark on the school. It had progressed through several stages as administrators and teachers struggled to regain control of the school while students were forced to remain in their classrooms. Somehow these roving students had convinced school officials to convene the entire student body in the cafeteria to serve as an audience for their complaints. Those of us who spent the better part of the day confined in classrooms were a bit concerned, but mostly just annoyed at being forced to play the gallery for what could only be a ragged display of what we imagined to be a poor imitation of the nightly news.
The order of entry from the various classrooms placed me at a table in the center of the room surrounded by students from my English class. I had little interest in the proceedings and hoped it would all end soon so I could get back to work. The guys on the stage had no concern for assignments and deadlines, but such things defined my school time and my out-of-school time and both were at a premium. I determined to go unnoticed and to do nothing to delay whatever was going to happen.
Suddenly, amidst the continuous stream of ranting, I heard my name being called out by the figures on the stage. I was asked, no ordered, to stand and face them. Now this seemed more than a little strange to me since I had relatively little contact with the boys on the stage throughout high school. I generally avoided them and others like them who seemed menacing at worst and a nuisance at best. A rigid tracking system ensured that I would seldom if ever be in the same class with these guys, and my own avoidance strategies took care of other chance encounters.
But I couldn't avoid the fact that my name was being called out and everyone was looking at me to see how I might respond. I stood and faced the platform just because it seemed like the thing to do. As I stood, pointed directly at me with considerable effort and force at the end of the outstretched arm of the most vocal and most animated figure on the stage was an index finger that would have poked me in the chest or the eye if it had not been twenty feet away. And now he was saying "You, people like you think you run…" and the rest is a blur, not because I have forgotten in the intervening years, but because it was always a blur, a stream of words and emotions fired off rapidly, strung together more by sheer energy than by any logic or syntax.
The anger from the figures on the platform struck sharply, stung deeply, and then was reflected right back at them as I boiled to the point of raising my hands to reply before deciding to lower my hands, my voice, and my gaze. I picked up my books, turned from the platform and left the room, walking past the administrators and faculty stationed at the door, stopping only long enough to ask my best friend if he was going to join me in my exit.
My action, or more accurately inaction, served to infuriate the ranting group further. You see, I was doing what I always did; I was avoiding them. After all, in a few months high school would be over, and I would be going away to college, and they, they would be going to work, if they could find jobs. It wasn't that I didn't care about their complaints about a system of schooling that had kept them busy with one diversion or another for years all the while denying them serious engagement with a kind of learning that might improve their present lives and surely give them greater control over their futures. After all these students were like me, were me, but for a minor turn here and there in the path through the public school system. In fact, I was well on my way to thinking about the nature of schooling and the problems it presented for students who were not attuned to its particular rhythms. For me the entire matter was a fascinating puzzle whose solution was only made more urgent by the slow erosion of hopes and dreams surrounding us all.
The siege ended within hours and the school returned to a normal schedule the next day. I never discussed any of the events with the student organizers. In fact, the entire matter was soon subsumed beneath a flurry of activity as the school year drew to a close.
Less than three months later, standing on stage at graduation I addressed the class and the audience. A week of avoiding the faculty member charged with supervising my speech had left me with a text entirely of my own design. In a season where the air at every graduation was charged with issues of life and death, of war and the struggle for peace, my speech was rather smaller in scale. For it addressed the issues raised in the cafeteria that spring day and in my mind years earlier, issues of access and its denial, of differentiation and stratification, of who is in and who is out, of a system of schooling that served the interests of adults usually to the detriment of children. My embarrassed principal could only note at the end of the speech that whatever others may have thought if it, it had done the one thing that was not accomplished at any other time during the entire school year; it brought the entire class together and on their feet. Too bad it was in our last moments together. The boys on the stage, earlier in raincoats and now in gowns, didn't have a clue, and until the end, I never gave them one.
The events of Littleton touched different people in different ways, but they made me wonder what might have happened if the index finger I found pointed in my direction that spring day in 1970 had instead been curled around the trigger of a gun.