During the summer, my church has congregants speak in the pulpit about a summer theme. Last year was North Stars, the things that guide us. This year is heroes, and our minister asked me to speak this morning. I’m posting the content of that speech. At the bottom is the link to the minister’s homily afterward. (It says the speaker was Rex Nelson, but it was me 🙂 )
First, I’d like to say that I wish my heroes, chosen before last Sunday, weren’t so apropos this week. Three mass shootings in seven days.
As others who have stood in this pulpit before me in the last few weeks have mentioned, the temptation to speak of heroes as larger-than-life is tempting. We think of fictional characters or historical figures whom we’ve come to know through hagiographic biographies. But this summer’s focus on heroes specifically directs us to an idea expressed by comedian Jim Carrey when he won the Charlie Chaplin Britannia Award for Excellence in Comedy. “Heroes,” he said, “are people who remind us of our virtues.” I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and I realized that some of the most heroic people I have known were just children when the need to be heroic was thrust upon them. That’s right. When they were just teenagers, an often ridiculed group–millennials–reminded me of some of the most important virtues in all of us.
April 20, 1999 was a typical school day when one of my students, an 11th grader, left the tech lab to come ask me a question in my classroom. She was walking along, chatting with a friend, and when popping sounds came from farther down the hall, they both assumed someone had set off firecrackers. It was spring, after all, and a time ripe for senior pranks. When my student felt a burning sensation sear through her calf, she thought she had been hit by a firecracker. She fell and stayed on the floor to inspect the wound.
Her friend, however, was looking past her, down the hall, at the source of the popping. When she stopped long enough to grab my student’s hand, pulling her from the floor, and forcing her to run out the nearest door, she knew they were fleeing gunfire. She also knew they were in range, because my student had been shot. Still, this girl paused and risked her own life to save another on a day that would leave 13 people murdered, 2 dead by suicide, and 24 injured.
In the years to come at Columbine, I would watch similar scenes play out in other ways over and over again. Immediately after the shooting, we finished the school year at another high school, and one of my classrooms was near a spring-loaded door that slammed sharply when anyone came or went through it. The first few times it happened, my kids immediately dropped to the ground. This was the first time I saw children, traumatized and broken, reach past their own suffering to soothe others. Kids who were shaken to the core lifted classmates who had dissolved into tears off the floor, offering hugs and soft words of comfort.
As the next year passed, I saw kids who were struggling with their own suicidal ideations seek counseling – not for themselves first, but for friends whom they worried might be further down that path than they were, themselves. I saw kids whose anger and frustration over the unfairness of everything we’d been through yell and swear at classmates only to have those outbursts met with hugs and affirmations that it was okay not to be okay. Well…many times, anyway. Sometimes the exchanges got heated and hurtful, but even those passed with forgiveness. Life was just too uncertain to waste it on anger.
Time and again, they reminded me that we need to hold each other through life’s fragility. Students emotionally broken and bloody stopped to take each other’s hands and pull each other safely through the trauma. More often than you might expect, that exchange, that giving and receiving of support, occurred between students who didn’t know each other, or maybe even really didn’t like each other before the shooting.
For me, it wasn’t just heroic to offer help or a hug or affirmation. I saw that it was heroic, too, to accept that help. To be vulnerable. Do you remember being a teenager? The constant fear of judgment? The worry that, in some way, whatever way, it wasn’t safe to be you? Can you imagine navigating that minefield having experienced a trauma so deep that often–very often–you simply couldn’t control the way your emotions poured out? Or maybe you did have to do that. Children experience all kinds of trauma in their lives that never makes the news. Maybe you empathize all too well. Maybe you, too, were a hero very young–even if you never saw yourself that way
I suppose the kids at school had a certain advantage in having shared their trauma with nearly everyone else around them, but still…there is a temptation to stay on the floor and succumb to our wounds. It takes a certain blind trust to reach up and take a hand offered in help, especially if you don’t have a history of trust in that hand. And yet time and time again, they took the help that was offered, and later paid it forward to someone else who’d fallen.
Day after day, I saw heroic selflessness, compassion, and perseverance from children who would have had their plates full if all they’d had to do was get through the normal course of adolescence.
They carried this with them into adulthood. One of my students, Luke, who graduated in ‘99 was determined never again to feel helpless while others faced danger. He became a Navy Hospital Corpsman, a medic. His bravery in administering aid, even under enemy fire, earned him a Bronze Star. In 2007, a rocket-propelled grenade ended his military service and his life. To this day, Marines in need of medical treatment can get it at the Charles Luke Milam Clinic in Camp Lejeune, NC, named in his honor. He was not the only ‘99 grad to lose his life in the service of his country.
Other students have also found ways to serve as a direct result of the trauma they experienced. In the summer of 2012, a group of mostly strangers trooped excitedly into a movie theater in Aurora to see the midnight showing of the latest installment of Batman. I’m sure there are plenty of stories of heroism in those immediate minutes of gunfire that left 12 dead and 70 injured. I don’t really know those stories. The story I do know is that several former Columbine students, then in their early 30s, got together and said, “We had each other. Those people are strangers. How will they find each other? How can we turn our journey into hope for them?”
This was the beginning of a group called The Rebels Project, named after the Columbine High School mascot. It started with a small private Facebook group and monthly face-to-face meetings between survivors of the Aurora shooting and survivors of the shooting at Columbine. Our kids were still reaching out their hands to lift others up. Sometimes, these meetings brought home that Columbine folks still needed an occasional hand up themselves. The work wasn’t finished. To this day, there are times I go there to dump whatever baggage of my own that has been dug up by a news story or an insensitive acquaintance.
The Rebels Project Facebook Group now has 1,200 members, survivors of mass shootings from as close as Littleton and as far away as Australia. Every day, messages come through from people seeking support, and fellow survivors are always there to provide it, no matter how much they are struggling themselves. I have watched victims wander into that group barely able to articulate what happened to them and become, not just survivors, but leaders. They become the ones to offer wisdom gleaned along the way, either from personal experience or from words offered to them in the group years ago that became touchstones to be passed along again. Once a year, the leaders of The Rebels Project–no longer just Columbine survivors, but other survivors as well–work together to create an annual gathering. Group members travel from across the country to lift others and be lifted.
How can I do anything but follow their example? Even before all of these extraordinary kids graduated, Columbine staff members, including me, began reaching out to schools that came after us. The first was a letter from the staff of Columbine High School to the staff of Santana High School, which experienced a shooting in 2001.
From that point on, if we heard about a school that experienced a shooting (and you’d be surprised how often you don’t hear) Columbine’s staff reached out. Sometimes the other school reached back, but more often, they didn’t. My biggest frustration was how often bureaucracy in the other school district impeded our ability to speak directly to the teachers we hoped to help.
The perseverance our students had demonstrated led us to never quit trying. Persistence meant that I would eventually be able to do things like engage in an email exchange directly with the chair of the English Department at Virginia Tech after their shooting, which she said was uniquely helpful. It was good to talk to someone who “got it.” I was grateful for the chance to offer a hand up.
The example my former students set has taken me to places like Newtown, CT and Parkland, FL, other places with schools that have experienced shootings, where teachers seek assurance from someone farther down the road that they and their students will survive, maybe even thrive. I carry with me the virtues my students reminded me of–the importance of compassion and perseverance. I share with those teachers the necessity of forgiveness. Not of the shooters. That’s deeply individual, and I have never felt that was my place. I tell them to forgive each other as they blunder through the trauma together. I tell them they will have to rely on each other to get through it.
Those years of seeing heroism in every kind of kid, from overachiever to at-risk, informed my teaching for the rest of my career. It led me to see every kid as a possible hero. It meant I was much less likely than before to assume a student’s defiance was a lack of self control, and I came to look for possible sources of trauma. Instead of assuming the kid could “get a grip” if they simply wanted to, I wondered how I could best support that child in surviving and thriving. And then I persevered in trying to make that happen. It led me to tell my students on the first day of class every year: I have good news and bad news. The good news is I have unshakable faith in you. The bad news is I have unshakable faith in you.
I remember a student once screaming at me in the hall, “Why don’t you just give up on me? Everyone else does!” How could I? The kids of 1999 and the immediate years after had rendered me incapable of giving up on him. I don’t give up on myself, either. That’s what made it possible to stop berating myself for my PTSD symptoms and start taking the anti-anxiety medication I initially resisted for fear of being “weak.” There are times it’s been a lifesaver for me.
I still keep in touch with a lot of my students from those years. I know the toll the shooting took. I know the strength they found in spite of it. They are my heroes.