When I was 17 years old, I had no idea that my high school would change the way America — and the world — thought about mass shootings. My memory of that time is blurry, but there are a few moments that still sear.
I remember barricading myself inside the choir office with 59 other students, listening to the screams and gunshots, hoping they weren't what I knew they were.
I remember being marched out of the room, my hands on my head as my pager vibrated in my pocket.
I remember seeing a SWAT team; I remember recognizing police officers; I remember hearing helicopters and sirens; I remember thinking: What just happened?
But the clearest memory I have from that time is feeling angry. I was mad at the reporters, the TV crews, the strangers who invaded my home and spoke about what happened at my school — and to my friends — without actually being there, without seeing what I saw, without understanding what really happened on April 20, 1999.
"I couldn't go outside without seeing some symbol of that day, of who we had lost, of what we had lost."
I wanted to spend all my time with the people who went through what I went through. I didn't want to go anywhere alone; my younger sister and I went everywhere together, but only if we had to go out. Each time, we'd scope out the exits, in case we had to run, and whenever there was a loud noise or some unexpected eruption, we'd hide under tables. We were scared, but at least we weren't alone.
I remember the memorials were everywhere, like they were following me. I couldn't go outside without seeing some symbol of that day, of who we'd lost, of what we'd lost. I didn't understand the magnitude of the shooting. At one point, I remember laughing. But then, I noticed the sound of my voice, the feeling in my stomach.
And just as quickly, I remembered why I hadn't laughed in so long. And then I felt guilty: guilty for laughing while others were suffering, while others had lost loved ones. Then, the roller coaster really began.
It Can Take Some Time To Call Yourself A Survivor
I felt hostile and resentful, moody and isolated. But while I was focused on this push and pull of pain, captured by my own feelings, I didn't notice that I was changing. I thought I was trying to find my way back to stable ground, back to normal. Unfortunately, that normal didn't exist anymore.
It took me nine years to call myself a survivor. Since the shooting, I have coped, and not coped, with that day in so many ways. I developed an eating disorder. I dropped out of college, dabbled in drugs. I went out of town on the anniversary of the shooting every year — to avoid the memories, to try to make new ones. I never thought my feelings were the right ones, that my trauma was that bad.
I wasn't in the library, in the science classroom, or even in the commons. I didn't see the gunmen. I wasn't close to anyone who died. I kept finding ways to minimize my experience, as if my suffering didn't count because it wasn't as bad as someone else's.
But believe me, my day was horrific. No 17-year-old should ever see what I saw that day, or feel what I felt — what I still feel. And, unfortunately, there are 17-year-olds who just saw what I saw a few weeks ago. And last month. And a year ago. Two years ago.
"I never thought my feelings were the right ones, that my trauma was that bad."
Over time, there are fewer nightmares, but they still linger. Life resumes. The feelings never make sense. The world moves on and people ask, "Why can't you get over it?" "You're still having nightmares?!" "What's wrong with you?"
I tried. For so long, every time I heard helicopters, sirens, or a tire popping on some mangled road, it all came right back. I used to be a girl who loved fireworks.
And then there are those people that like to talk about what they would have done. They would have recognized the gunshots. They would have known the gunmen were planning something. They would have saved someone, stopped someone, done better or more than you did — what I did.
This is the kind of thinking that never stops. These are the nightmares that replay over and over. Did I do everything I could have? What if I had smiled at him? What if I did something wrong? What if I could have saved someone? What if it was different? What if I could have made it different?
This kind of thinking is like torture. It can last for years, sometimes forever — certainly long after the news cameras leave.
Sometimes, You Can Feel Safe
I think the healing really began when Frank DeAngelis, our principal at the time of the shooting, invited the class of '99 back into the school. Since I was a senior, I never had to go back inside the building again, aside from that one day I had to grab all my evidence-tagged things. Because of Mr. DeAngelis, I was finally able to confront all the feelings I'd avoided for so long.
I began owning my story, and I realized that other survivors needed to tell their stories, too. Along with another 1999 Columbine graduate, I started a support group for survivors of mass trauma called The Rebels Project (named for the Columbine mascot, the American Revolutionary War rebel).
"Unfortunately, our community of survivors keeps growing. But fortunately, we have each other."
Lately, The Rebels Project has been pretty busy. Unfortunately, our community of survivors keeps growing. But fortunately, we have each other. As an English teacher, I teach students in an area which has also been impacted by mass violence: Aurora, Colorado. I feel especially connected to this community because they, sadly, know what it's like to grieve while the world is watching.
Every year, I make sure to talk about my experience with my students for a couple reasons: First, I want to make sure they take safety drills seriously — very, very seriously. Secondly, I share my story because what happened that day shaped my identity, as much as I don't want to admit it. Talking about it openly helps me connect with my students, some of whom were at the theater, or their family was, or they lived near the gunman.
Lastly, this helps my kids open up too. By revealing some of my own feelings and survivor's guilt, they feel comfortable sharing their experiences. This lets me better support them when they're going through rough times.
People Will Judge How You Heal
I think I always wanted to be a teacher, though I took a little 10-year detour. Now, I feel safe in my school. I love my job and my kids. They are some of the most amazing, resilient humans I have ever met. I get to be a part of their lives, and they impact mine every day.
But I often get asked: What have we learned? What has changed for us? We've learned to keep classroom doors locked. We've learned to run out if we can. We've learned to practice drills, over and over, and to consider all the terrible things that can, and do, happen. We've learned to look for warning signs; to report those warning signs. We've learned that this happens everywhere in the United States.
"Over time, you can feel a little bit better. Maybe a little less lonely. But it's never over — and that's OK."
But what have I learned? That is a different question entirely.
I've learned that people will judge how you heal for the rest of your life. I've learned that people will resent you for speaking out, or for not speaking out. I've learned that no matter what anyone says, you cannot completely prepare yourself for gunshots in a hallway, a movie theater, or a concert. I've learned that there is a community of survivors, a family, who actually understands, who will not judge you and your path. Over time, you can feel a little bit better, maybe a little less lonely. But it's never over — and that's OK.
For all the newest members of this terrible club with an inexcusably high price, I want you to know you're not alone — there are thousands of us.
Be where you are, and don't let others dictate how you should or shouldn't be. You're going to question your feelings all the time. You're going to hurt. You're going to forget, and then suddenly remember. You're going to change.
But please, take care of yourself. Find a support system that will walk beside you, one that won't judge you for your journey. It's your life, not theirs. Your path is going to be as unique as you are.
And we are here when you need us.