Columbine and the power of symbols
In the days following the murders at Columbine High School I visited the school and the grounds of Clement Park. Those walks produced this piece, which was originally published ten years ago today.
We have learned a great deal about the events that took place at Columbine since this essay was written (for instance, we now know that the “Cassie Said Yes” story never actually happened, and we also know that the whole “Trenchcoat Mafia” thing was also a media-propagated fiction). But it seemed to me that going back and revising to account for new information would damage the fabric of what I wrote in late April and early May of 1999. I have therefore elected to leave the factual inaccuracies in place. I do, however, note the spots containing errors with an asterisk (*).
Salon.com and Westword.com provide as thorough and accurate a picture as we are ever likely to have of the shootings and the aftermath, and I recommend them highly.
Sunday, May 2, 1999
It won’t stop raining, and nobody seems to care.
I went to Columbine twice this week. On Wednesday I was simply overwhelmed – I have never seen anything like the rambling memorial site that has spread across the grounds of the high school and the adjacent Clement Park, never imagined anything like it. There was no sense of scale, of proportion – there exists no frame of reference with which to make sense of this deluge of grief. But I feel compelled to try describing what I saw, the pain, the small expressions of faith for the future, this physical manifestation of a community’s psychic anguish. So I returned yesterday, Saturday, hoping vainly for perspective where none appears possible.
As you turn east off Wadsworth and drive down Bowles the park and school grounds lie to your right. The park features picnic space and fields for football, lacrosse, soccer, and softball. Fields for small children to run and play in. Fields to watch the sun set behind the Front Range of the Rockies just a few unobstructed miles to the west. Whatever permanent monument they eventually erect here will never reflect how thoroughly and ironically public Clement Park has become. We sometimes lament how our nation has lost all sense of itself as a community, has forgotten what it is to have a town square, a shared space that symbolizes the communal spirit.
Well, here it is.
At the west end of the park, beside an athletic field, there’s a small latticework shrine featuring a lacrosse helmet and two crossed sticks mounted over a bucket of flowers. On one side there’s a small laminated sign with a prayer that reads, in part, “Dear God, we have been abused and it has wounded our souls. Our memories and thoughts, Dear Lord, are full of horror and we are powerless to heal them.” The other sign reads, “When God would educate a mans (sic) and compels him to learn better lessons he sends him to school to the necessities rather than the graces that by knowing all suffering he may know also the eternal consolation.”
Just west of the site where Vice President Gore laid a bouquet last Sunday is a tent dominated by a tribute to Cassie Bernall, the young woman whom the gunman asked,”Do you believe in God?” with information about how to contribute to the Cassie Bernall Fund rest on a table.* Notes, posters, and banners offer condolences and solidarity from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Marin County, California, and an elementary school in Wallace, North Carolina.
A major memorial has grown up around the flowers Gore placed, and a tent has been erected to protect the site from the elements. Inside lies a carpet of flowers – bouquets, formal arrangements, loose cuts, potted; a profusion of handmade cards, posters, placards, most handwritten and decorated, but few displaying anything like professional art or design skills and none that I saw were store-bought; a large poster from the people of Southern Oregon, who last year at Thurston High School came to know firsthand the pain we in Colorado are now grappling with; in front of this stands a silver and blue football goalpost – the crossbar is hung with a mobile featuring strings of paper angels; several stuffed animals, mostly teddy bears; balloons – some with sympathy messages, others in bouquets of blue and white; candles – some plain and some bearing Christian imagery; a blue baseball cap with a red and white cross; crosses, and more crosses. These artifacts – flowers, cards, posters, crosses, and hundreds, if not thousands, of stuffed animals, mostly teddy bears – make up the bulk of what people have brought and left at Columbine.
As you walk the hundred yards or so to the central memorial area the trees by the sidewalk are wrapped with blue and silver ribbons and some are draped with paper prayer chains. These were put here by a school district somewhere in the Midwest, and each link was made by a different student. Originally at least one chain hung from each tree, but to preserve them against the weather most have now been moved inside a tent down the street. Most of the trees in the park are wrapped with blue ribbons at the least; many have flowers laid beneath them and other remembrances hung from their branches. On one hangs a blue rabbit’s foot.
Just before you reach the main memorial area there’s a light blue wooden A-frame shrine about four feet tall and six feet wide dedicated to Cassie Bernall. It bears pictures of her and handwritten messages, as well as balloons and flowers. On the ground at one end is a one foot by one foot black board lettered in gold calligraphy: “I promise that from this day forth I will do everything in my power to insure that such a thing as this will never happen again. I will change my lifestyle and be more vocal and assertive in my beliefs.”
Some shrines are dedicated to all the dead, and others to individuals, these probably placed by the victim’s friends. As you turn into the central memorial area the first thing you come to is an elaborate tribute to Dave Sanders, the lone faculty member killed and a man who died trying to save student lives. This display features pictures of Sanders coaching, with his family, his players and students; two Columbine softball jerseys and a trophy; a pair of running shoes hangs from a tree; a soccer ball and a basketball lie loose among the flowers. The pile of flowers and stuffed animals threatens to swallow the whole display.
Some local residents went to Clement Park even as the tragedy was still unfolding and erected a series of lattices where people could place flowers. This spot has become the centerpiece of the memorial site, and eleven days later these lattices have been overtaken and literally buried beneath the artifacts of grief. I’m hard put to describe it, really. The central area around the lattices is probably thirty yards by fifteen, roughly oval. It’s bordered by row after row of displays, and if you didn’t know what you were looking at you might think yourself at some sort of carnival. Park officials have covered the ground here and in other heavy traffic areas with straw, adding to midway effect. More flowers, more teddy bears, more posters than you can possibly count, and more unconventional tributes stand in defiance of whatever hate drove Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to want to destroy an entire school and all those in it. A volleyball lies before a sign placed by Columbine alumni. Nearby a baseball rests amid the flowers. There are also American flags, although fewer than you might expect.
Seemingly every school in the Denver Metro area has placed a memorial of some sort – whether a simple posterboard project from a kindergarten class or something more elaborate from a neighboring/rival high school, it’s clear that this attack is being taken very personally by students no matter where they are.
There are condolences from beyond the metro area, too. In addition to the tributes from Oregon, North Carolina, Marin County, and Pennsylvania, people in many other places have sent their thoughts and prayers: besides condolences from cities across Colorado, there are tributes from Maui; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Lynchburg, Virginia; Allan, Texas; Gage, Oklahoma; Pace, Florida, and Palm Springs, California. A blue banner hangs between two trees: “Our thoughts and prayers are with you, from the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana.” A poster and letter have been sent from Belvidere High School in Illinois, where on April 21, 1967, a tornado struck the school, claiming the lives of 17 students. On the news yesterday morning they interviewed a woman who had flown here as an emissary from her church in Franklin, Tennessee. There are probably commemorations from other communities, as well – it’s easy to miss things here. I think my fellow Coloradans wouldn’t mind me speaking for them in saying thank you to the citizens of these communities.
Southeast of this area several sets of wind chimes hang from a tree, ringing in the rain and the light wind. The chimes are in the shapes of butterflies, doves, and a couple of birdhouses. A young man who looks to be in his late teens is wandering around handing out free flowers – I get a bouquet with carnations and columbines.
A sign that especially caught my attention was originally nestled in one corner, and it has now been moved under a tent near the street. On a white sheet folded in half, written in black magic marker, is a crudely drawn message that may be among the most important for a community trying to heal. In big letters: “Ours pains and sorrows for the victims of CHS.” In smaller letters across the bottom: “Not everyone who wears trench coats are killers.” Hanging just to the top and right of this sign is a print of Warner Sallman’s famous portrait of Jesus, beatifically looking toward Heaven.
You may have read in the papers or heard reporters on CNN talk about Rachel Scott’s car. But even knowing it was there, it still took me a few seconds to realize what I was seeing. When it became apparent that Scott might be a victim, her friends found her car in the parking lot and began placing flowers on it. Since then the red Acura has been buried beneath flowers, cards, teddy bears…. I only know it’s an Acura from news reports – you can’t really tell by looking at it. The driver’s side especially is almost completely covered by plastic. The passenger side isn’t quite so concealed, though, and I’m startled by the things we sometimes notice in times of overwhelming sorrow. Rachel needed new tires. The right front is almost bald. Another thing – lying on the bed of flowers by the driver’s-side door between three teddy bears is a loose dollar bill.
A few feet away John Tomlin’s truck, a brown-gold Chevy beater, has also become an altar. John liked to off-road in the truck – a popular diversion here in the high country – but now it’s hard to imagine it ever moving again. Vehicles are about as secular as objects get in our culture, but in the wake of this tragedy these two have been invested with a profound aura of consecration. Relocating them will seem like graverobbing.
Adjacent to this lot is the portable satellite dish farm where all the news outlets have their trucks and trailers and uplinks. The memorial area is braced on one end (the end nearest the school) by a few media tents, and one crew was preparing to tape as we walked past on Wednesday. A reporter for the Today Show was recording a segment a few feet away. Despite the presence of the implements of media, the area remains quite hushed. When people talk, they tend to whisper. They don’t look each other in the eye as they pass so much – if they’re like me, they don’t want to see their own numbness reflected back at them.
Still more remembrances have been placed closer to the school itself. The fences of the tennis complex, two sets of three or four adjacent courts each, have become walls of posters and banners. This is where the members of the San Jose Sharks, in town for their playoff series with the Avalanche, placed their banner on Friday – it’s about fifty feet long and is signed by literally thousands of fans: “To the community of Littleton, Colorado – Our hearts and our prayers are with you.” The Sharks are wearing CHS emblems on their helmets for this series.
Other signs are placed by individuals, by towns and schools, by a sorority from the University of Colorado. And here, a new symbol – there are hundreds of angels and thousands of bears, but hanging on the fence are two bears with angel wings. Another sign notes the connection between Columbine, Oklahoma City, Pearl, Paducah, Jonesboro and Springfield: “As the world watched our lives were forever changed.” On Saturday the baseball team from nearby Arvada West High School is out in full uniform touring the grounds.
If you watched the memorial service on CNN last Sunday you saw the hill in the distance where students were gathering. It’s actually two hills, and as you walk across the field toward them you pass several other shrines – one, at the corner of a recreation football/lacrosse field, is fairly large, maybe ten feet by fifteen, a growing mound of flowers and posters and bears. By Saturday it had been covered by a tent. Cards and tributes hang from trees. There’s a four-field softball complex between the main memorial area and the hills, and on the outside of one of the center field fences another teddy bear sits with two or three cards. A smaller bear, wearing a sweater, hangs on the fence, and there’s a piece of paper tucked under the sweater. I pull it out and unfold it. In blue and pink marker it simply says, “We care.” If you walk around a bit you find these small, private remembrances all over the place – here a loose bouquet of flowers lying in the grass with no explanation at all, there a card or a balloon or a bear, maybe indicating a mourner whose grief found no solace in the company of others.
As I approached the hills on Wednesday it was growing dark and beginning to rain. The skies have been heavy here almost continually since the shootings, but as oppressive as the weather has been there is a sense of rightness about it. On Saturday it rained all day, with temperatures in the 40s. There is only one safe path up the hill now, as the weather and the foot traffic have rendered most of the area treacherous with mud. The grounds crew has paved the main route up the lower hill with straw, and hundreds of people wait in line to view the hilltop memorial. Some make their way up by other paths, slipping and sliding, but enduring nonetheless. Some people take shelter beneath colorful umbrellas. Others, like me, expose themselves to the skies. I can’t speak for anybody else, but there is nothing here I want to shield myself from.
Several days ago fifteen crosses were erected along the ridge of the lower hill by a craftsman from Chicago. Each cross bore the name and picture of one of the dead – thirteen for the victims, and one for each of the killers. People wrote messages on each of the crosses, and many stress love and forgiveness. The message at the top of Klebold’s cross said, “God loved you.”
As you can imagine, the crosses dedicated to Harris and Klebold stood amid some controversy. The cover of Thursday’s Denver Rocky Mountain News featured a photo of two students tearfully facing off with a woman writing “a derogatory message on Dylan Klebold’s cross.” Whatever the woman wrote was conspicuously marked out, as well as whatever was written at the top of Eric Harris’ cross.
I walked from cross to cross, reading what I could in the fading light. As I paused before the monument to Isaiah Shoels, I thought about the irony of a kid who had fought to overcome so much adversity. He worked to overcome a heart condition and his small size (he was just 4’11”) because he wanted to play football, and his family reportedly transferred into the Columbine district because it represented a better and perhaps safer school environment. There he died because he was black and an athlete.* When I returned yesterday, I took a marker with me so I could write Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words on Isaiah’s cross: “I have a dream….” But the wood was so wet that the marker wouldn’t write on it. A man behind me, without even asking what I wanted to write, handed me his marker, which he said was waterproof and should work. But the soaked wood resisted this, too. I told myself I’d come back when the weather broke and try again.
I won’t get the chance. On Friday the father of Daniel Rohrbough and some relatives went to the hill and took down the crosses dedicated to Klebold and Harris. Mr. Rohrbough told reporters that it was a simple matter of right and wrong, that people coming to the hill wouldn’t realize they were honoring killers. “I don’t think any thinking person in this country is going to disagree with me,” he said.
Two small makeshift crosses were quickly erected in the place of the ones the Rohrbough family removed, and at the top of each was written “Start to forgive.”
Then, early this morning, the Chicago man who built and placed the 15 crosses originally came and took them all down. CNN captured them being loaded in the back of a pickup truck and driven away, with all the remembrances that had been hung on them still dangling from the crosspieces. He did not speak to reporters, and no reasons were given.
Thirteen seedlings have appeared on the far hill – the taller of the two – since Wednesday. A marker near the pinnacle reads: “These 13 burr oak trees have been planted on this hill as a memorial, one for each special person who had their life taken. I will pray for each family every day. – Scott.”
At the crest is yet another memorial site. At one end a variety of Christian ornamentation hangs from a crude wooden cross. I’m struck, as I have been for days, by how powerful a moment this tragedy has been for Christianity. A bit of context – I grew up Southern Baptist but left the church in my early 20s. I never rejected the lessons I learned growing up, but the institution of the church seemed to have nothing to do with morality or spirituality any more. Now I consider myself a neo-pagan, although that term is fairly broad as I use it, and a friend once listened to me for a few minutes and concluded that I was a “Jungian” pagan. I’m fortunate to have Christian friends and family who see through the trappings and accept the person underneath.
I offer this information only to explain why I feel somewhat left out by the healing process. The moral authority here has been usurped by Christianity – at the local level the churches have been the center of most gatherings, and nationally our Vice President shared the stage with the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the famous Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham. In the entirety of the memorial sprawl, which contains hundreds of thousands of individual expressions of mourning, I found precisely one overtly non-Christian religious symbol – a small Star of David on a sign placed by the Montessori School. There is another spot where I encounter sun and moon symbols often employed by neo-pagans. The largest sun ornament is attended by what I believe are Norse runes, but the symbols hang from a cross.
The Grief of Other Tribes
I don’t make these observations to diminish people’s faith – on the contrary, while I’m not a Christian, I have taken comfort in the fact that the community has a belief system which can be called on in a time of crisis to lend support and provide meaning.
But non-Christians are in pain, too, and as I faced the wooden cross on that hill Wednesday I wanted to offer some gesture in my own spiritual language, my own symbology. I was wearing my pentagram, a symbol which for pagans symbolizes the sanctity of the natural world and the human spirit (and which is all-too-often mis-associated with Satanism), and wanted more than anything to hang a symbol of my spirituality alongside those of the Christians in my community as a statement of unity.
But I feared the gesture would be misconstrued by many, if not most, visitors to the hill, and in such a time of pain I couldn’t imagine doing anything that would intrude upon the grieving of others. What if somebody mistakenly took it to be a Satanic cult mocking their sorrow? So I was forced to a compromise. I was also wearing a Celtic cross, an ancient pagan symbol often taken by Christians as reflecting their faith (since it’s a cross, after all), and I placed that on the wooden crosspiece amidst rosary beads, angels, and more crosses. The crosspiece itself is plastered with a bumpersticker reading “No Jesus No Peace, Know Jesus Know Peace.”
But a bridge has to be built between the normal and the marginalized. Christianity is our dominant religion, but there must be a space for those who find spiritual truth in other places, just as our schools must make room for kids who dress differently and don’t fit into the accepted idea of what normal is. On Saturday I decided to take a chance, and I hope my gesture can be accepted in the spirit it was intended. A small white board sits on the ground beside the “trench coat” sign I described earlier. I brought a marker with me, and I knelt in the mud and wrote this: “My tribe grieves with our Christian brothers and sisters. We may walk different paths, but we are all children of the divine. We love you.” I signed it with my online handle/craft name, Road Angel, and drew a small pentagram.
I can manage my own spirituality well enough, but can’t help noticing that even in the wake of a crime which resulted in at least small part from the failure of conventional society to respect those who are different, my own mode of expression was limited and prescribed by the dominant belief system. I thought back to whoever placed the sign saying that all people who wear trench coats aren’t killers – we praise individualism and tell our kids to be themselves, not to bow to peer pressure, to express their uniqueness, etc. But identity is negotiated, and self-image often fights a losing battle with the perceptions of the larger community. And now these children, these outcasts, must prepare to face people who are pledging to “be more vocal and assertive” about their beliefs.
I said earlier that there were shrines to individual victims, and the clear heroine of the tragedy, if number of tributes is a fair indicator, was Cassie Bernall. When the gunman asked, “Do you believe in God,” her affirmative reply was her death sentence, but it was also her entree into immortality in the Christian community. She died in what most Christians would see as the most noble way possible, as a martyr affirming God, and the Rev. Graham assured us Sunday that she was ushered directly into the presence of the Lord for her faith.
Cassie Bernall was indeed a heroine, even for those of us who don’t count ourselves as Christian, because these days we so rarely find somebody whose courage is genuine enough that they will die for their convictions. If I were faced with such a moment, I hope I’d have her bravery, but we never really know until the barrel rests against our heads, do we?
Again, however, there’s an element to the story that disturbs me. A major news outlet reported that for a time Cassie was involved with witchcraft and paganism (although what this means precisely is unclear). She was apparently locked in her room for a few days and was then sent by her parents to a Christian “boot-camp” where she rediscovered Jesus.
If this is an accurate accounting, then we have another dire example of the rage to conformity plaguing our culture. No matter how productive we might see the result as being, no matter how happy and loving Cassie Bernall turned out, the essential dynamic remains. The message is clear: we’ll do whatever we have to do to make sure our kids don’t become like those trenchcoat/goth/Satanic/loser/geek/punk outcasts. Different. Bad. We need to understand that the pressure that brought Cassie back to Christianity is the same pressure that drives other youths to less noble ends.
Are Our Arms Really Open?
When I started writing this I don’t think I had a point, but maybe I have come to one through remembering what I saw. If I have, this is it: in this time of pain and grieving, we have to insure that it never happens again, but perhaps our best-intentioned efforts are doomed to failure.
The community has been hit harder by these events than anything I have ever seen with my own eyes before, although tragedies of equal or greater magnitude happen somewhere in the world on a frighteningly routine basis. Before last Tuesday I was, like so many other residents of the Denver Metro area, somebody who lived here, but who wasn’t from here. I’m a North Carolinian by birth and have always considered myself a Southerner. But as I grappled to understand why this tragedy hurt me so deeply and so personally, I finally came to understand that somewhere along the way this has become home. I wasn’t an outsider looking in anymore – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold have torn my community.
So when I look at the imperative above – make sure it never happens again – I can’t help worrying that my community is missing something important. If the culture’s failure to accept differences in others contributed to this deathlust, as the killers said it did in their diaries, then how can we help being concerned when our community is uniting around messages and images of conformity instead of diversity? Somebody in a trench coat reached out with that sign – “Not everyone who wears trench coats are killers” – but I haven’t seen the community of normalcy reaching back. The media coverage and the church services (some of which were televised here) have celebrated the All-American and the Christian, and in doing so they provide a powerful balm to people in need. But the others – the outcasts, the trenchcoats, the goths, the geeks – all those who fail to fit the conventional ideal, they were ignored, or worse, scapegoated, and so an open wound in our culture continues to seep.
These kids probably don’t really want to join the church youth group. But how much good it might do if they knew that the church youth group wanted them, wanted them as they are, and was willing to love and accept the person beneath the black clothing, the person hiding behind the pale makeup, the person who isn’t very good at sports, the person who finds solace in dark and tortured music, the person whose most rewarding moments of personal acceptance come in the imaginary triumphs of his or her role-playing game characters. How much good it would do for them to know that they don’t have to buy several hundred dollars worth of Nike and Gap clothing to be validated as human beings.
And if you believe that church youth groups aren’t like that, I should explain that a large part of why I walked away from the Christian church was that all the youth groups I was associated with during the first twenty years of my life were even more cliquish and less tolerant of those who were different, new, or simply uncool than my high school was.
Time will tell. But in this issue we may have an answer to the question on everybody’s lips, a question you see repeated over and over in the cards and posters littering Clement Park: “Why?”
If Cassie Bernall becomes an icon whose memory stands for inclusion, we will have made her death and those of her classmates meaningful beyond measure, and we will at least know that their tragic passing was not in vain.
But if, in the aftermath of Columbine, we fail to understand and bridge the gulf between “normal” and “outcast” then we will be doomed to continue asking why as hate and rage and loathing lay their claim on other schools in other communities around our nation.
B&W photography by Heather Butler.