Yesterday marked the ten-year-anniversary of an event that continues to haunt me. It was then--and remains to be--the most deadly high school shooting in history. I'm not even going to call it by name, because seeing traffic being driven to my blog by searches for this particular event would be a daily reminder of something for which I will never need reminded.
I have just returned home from school the afternoon of April 20, 1999.
I am still basically the same person that I was that day in ninth grade. In fact, I think I have always been this person. This person who feels other people's grief and sadness as though they are as much a part of me as my own heartbeat.
I mindlessly flipped through the channels on the T.V.
For as long as I can remember, I have cried for other people's losses. People whom I have never even met. And I'm not just talking about shedding a tear or two. I am talking completely lose-my-shit-sob-until-it-hurts-to-breathe-until-my-eyes-sting-and-remain-puffy-for-days. I'm not always sure if this immense empathy is a blessing or curse. It is probably a little of both.
I am immediately confused and drawn in by a live news feed on CNN of high school students being pulled from the school windows by a SWAT team.
As the story continued to unravel on the news, I was paralyzed by my sadness for this community in Colorado that had senselessly lost so many bright young lives. And then, stories about the deceased began filling the news channels 24/7. As I began to see these teens as my peers rather than the latest headline, the tears came. I cried. And cried. And cried. Friends and family, also obviously saddened by the events, tried to comfort me. But aside from the Colorado people they kept showing on the news at their candle vigils and memorials--it seemed like I was the only one crying.
As with most tragedies, tears dry as the days pass. My life as a high school freshman continued as normal. Except for one thing. The footsteps. Hearing heavy footsteps in the hallway during class became more frightening to me than hearing a chainsaw in a haunted house. In my mind, footsteps equaled imminent death. Clearly, I had some of my own problems to work through following the tragedy.
But you know what didn't help me to feel comfortable in my own school? The two boys whom I sat between in biology class. They were known for wearing trench coats around school (which were forbidden following the April 20 tragedy). But it wasn't just their "unique" wardrobe that set them apart from their peers. They were "loners." Their group consisted of about ten students--but I sat smack dab in between the two of the most notorious.
One day, during biology class, I heard them discussing something in whispers. Of course, I could hear everything they were saying. They said they wanted to line up everyone in the school in the hallway. They would dismiss the people they liked and shoot everyone that was left. All the teachers were goners too. All of them except one--a much beloved English teacher.
I tried as hard as I could to pretend I hadn't just heard their words. I must not have been very convincing, though. The boy to my left leaned towards me and whispered through a grin, "Don't worry. You're safe."
And that, folks, is why you should be nice to EVERYONE. Especially the kids that everyone else thinks are "freaks." Okay? Moving along...
Then there was The Hit List. My troubled classmates made a hit list that soon made its way into the hands of the administration. It was taken very seriously. Students and teachers who were on the hit list were notified and everyone had letters sent home to their parents filling them in on the news.
The hit list not only listed names of students and teachers, but it also included a date the massacre was supposedly to occur. That day, several of my friends and I stayed home from school with our parents' permission. We spent the day together, trying to calm each others' fears and pray that our high school would not be the next one to make national headlines.
The students responsible for the hit list were either expelled or suspended. One boy never did return to our school.
What if the hit list had never made its way into the right hands? The tears that I shed April 20, 1999, and the weeks that followed could have just as easily been shed for my own classmates and best friends.
Tragedy and loss happens everywhere. It is universal.
I believe I feel sadness at a greater intensity than most people. But I think this allows me to feel happiness more intensely as well. So, while it might be exhausting to cry for days on end for people I never met--it is not something I would change about myself.