Her name was Rachel, and she was, by all accounts, an average American teenager attending an ordinary suburban high school in Littleton, Colo., an upper-middle-class suburb of Denver. She once jokingly told her father that she would one day appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Two years later, Rachel’s prophetic wish came true in a way that no one could have ever imagined. Shortly after the worst school shooting in American history, a large backlit photograph of Rachel’s face illuminated the stage of the daytime talk show, a dubious honor that came from being one of the 13 fatalities of the Columbine High School tragedy.
I first became interested in Rachel and the events of the Columbine story shortly after the shooting on April 20, 1999, the same spring I had decided to return to Ohio State University to earn my master’s degree and become an art teacher. As I filled out college applications and paperwork for my new career as a teacher, I watched the televised images of teenagers running in terror from their suburban high school, surrounded by police and SWAT teams armed with tear gas and high-caliber weapons.
Like many people across the nation, I wanted to know how this terrible event could have happened. What could have possibly prompted two ordinary teenagers to lash out with such hate-filled vengeance against their own classmates? What evil influences could have possibly been lurking in their seemingly privileged and affluent adolescent lives?
I joined with millions of others watching the events on the evening news in asking, “Why?”
Within days of the tragic event, questions began swirling around the country, resurrecting debates about gun control, violence in the media, and the secular anatomy of our educational system.
Theories about teenage hostility, alienation, peer pressure, video games and the Internet were also thrown into the mix. Columbine seemed to have become a symbol of all that had become terribly wrong in our society, as if our cultural ills had suddenly fused and imploded right in the heart of America.
As politicians, psychologists and social philosophers debated issues of gun control and media morality, I found another question troubling my mind: What did all of this have to do with me? I found myself being drawn into the drama of Columbine with each passing day, with each new revelation of the dynamics and personalities involved in the tragedy.
I was shocked to learn that those most closely involved — the parents, classmates and friends of those injured and killed — were calling the shooting “a spiritual event” of such magnitude as to vastly alter our country’s secular view of education.
Some religious leaders, both in Littleton and beyond, were even calling for the canonization of Christian students such as Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall, who they felt died as martyrs in the massacre. Columbine was being viewed as the battle site for the struggle between good and evil, between spirituality and the darkest forces of malevolence.
I felt a compelling need to investigate the story of Columbine more deeply. After all, I was about to embark on a career as a teacher in the same American school system that was now under fire, both literally and figuratively. I would have students in my art classes like Matthew Kechter, Corey DePooter, Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall, whose lives were cut short by violence. I might also have students like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, ordinary teenagers hiding a secret, murderous rage in their hearts.
I began to take the story of Columbine personally. I started talking to teens in the school where I was student teaching, soliciting their views about the event. Gradually, over the months of reading scores of news articles, books and journals of Columbine students, viewing videotapes of religious leaders and polling teenagers on their viewpoints, I began to arrive at some convictions of my own, from which my master’s thesis grew.
Six months and 26,000 words later, I had written a book about Columbine. I got to know Rachel Scott, Cassie Bernall, Corey DePooter, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in a way I never expected.
In June I graduated with a Master of Education degree and put my manuscript on a shelf to collect dust. But I was soon to find that, for me anyway, Columbine was far from over.
Part 2 Next week….