Things we learned from Columbine


In every photo they are touching their children. An arm through an elbow, a hand on the back. All were touching their kids. Teenagers, all well past the “holding hands to cross the street phase,” were locked hand in hand, arm and arm with their parents, and in some cases grandparents, as they streamed away from Chardon Middle School last Monday.

These shell-shocked families were the “lucky ones.” They were able to walk their children away from the carnage that was the latest (and please God, LAST) school shooting in America. Five other families did not have that kind of “luck” and there is no earthly way to explain or understand why.

It is a sort of coping mechanism to want to say “that can’t happen here.” I suspect that most adults watching the horror unfold in Chardon realized that they — we — are not different and we are not special. What happened in Chardon could happen here, there, and anywhere.


A friend and I were together when the news of the Chardon shootings broke. We were stunned. I believe she articulated well what becomes the last grasp of a parent sending a child to school in a post-Columbine world.

“I have to reiterate to my son to be nice. Always be nice. All I can think is that if this happens here and someone is taking aim, God help me, I want them to hesitate because he’s always been nice.”

Then the Chardon gunman’s statement wrestled every last illusion of control when he said that his victims were targeted at random.

“Kind,” “nice” and “good” could not — and would not — save them.

I don’t know the victims and it would be presumptuous to pretend I do. I don’t know if a mother was thinking “I really need to schedule his hair cut” or exasperated because he needed new shoes (again!)

I don’t know if a father had extracted a promise to really buckle down and help clean out the garage come the weekend. I don’t know if they were lying awake nights and thinking about college.


I do know those things all happened at my house last week. I think this is what most parents do. We think of shoes and practices and dental visits. We wonder about friends and worry about grades. Our lives work because we trust the most important thing in our lives — our whole reason to live — to the general goodness and sense of right in the world. We have to. It is the only way to cope.

I have a 14-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter and we choose to live here in large part because the quality of our public school is just that good. I trust them and yet it took all I had not to go to that school as soon as the news broke and bring my babies home.

My mother’s era ducked and covered under standard issue school desks, in case the Cold War suddenly turned atomic red hot. When I attended school a generation later we drilled for tornados.

Huddling in the hallway with our foreheads to our knees and our hands clasped around our heads we listened to the firm reminders to “stay down for safety.” Then we got up, brushed off our knees, and went back to class. We knew Mother Nature was unpredictable. We never suspected our classmates could be. We were not trained for armed attack.


Today we commend schools for their ability to prepare our students for war. To anticipate and imagine what they will do if a gunman opens fire in art class, the cafeteria, or the playground.

I remember when my daughter experienced her first lockdown in elementary school. Huddled along the wall in her classroom, door locked, lights off. It did not phase her. This child, born at the time of Columbine, now accepts as a matter of course that she could be murdered at school.

My son, ever the big brother, wanted to know if gunfire breaks out should he follow directions to find safety or find his little sister first? This is their “normal” and it breaks my heart.

What we learned at Columbine was that horror and tragedy and “random” do happen. What we’ve learned nearly 13 years later is that we cannot seem to prevent it.

The superintendent of Chardon schools said “send them off to school each day with a hug and a kiss and a message to do their best.” Wonderful advice and very well meant. The question is how do we protect the children who received that message from the ones who, for whatever reason, never will? The ones bent on doing the worst?

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