Columbine High's Selfless Heroes
About this article
Kathy Coffey is a mother who lives about twenty miles from Littleton, Colorado. In this personal narrative from the July 1999 issue of St. Anthony's Messenger, she shares her thoughts and feelings on this terrible tragedy. The discussion of modern-day heroes, support of churches, and need for compassion make for a timely reflection for teachers and students.
The stories of Columbine's heroes rise like a "tide of inspiration" for this Denver mother.
Starting the third laundry load, I pause, puzzled by a pin on my daughter's t-shirt. At 14, she tosses shirts into the hamper with glad abandon, knowing someone else will check for pins. Unpinning it, I realize the significance of the little symbol. This is a special pin that she will save. It holds two ribbons: blue and silver, the colors of Columbine High School, where on April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado, 12 students and a teacher were murdered by two gun-wielding students.
I hope fervently that the experts will study the worst school tragedy in U.S. history and take action: preventing such an occurrence ever again; helping children contend with fear and grief; sensitizing teachers and students to identify those so mentally ill or desperately rejected that they need professional guidance; securing our schools so they protect and nurture young lives, not put them at terrible risk; enacting laws to curb guns.
But as a mother, my task is slightly different. What I hope to draw from the tragedy are stories of heroism that will bear my children and others like them on a tide of inspiration into their adulthoods. The message underlying the stories is clear: Yes, something went drastically wrong in Littleton on April 20, 1999. But something also went right. Some students achieved a heroism that should make peers and parents lift their shoulders a notch higher, raise their chins with dignity and honor that legacy in their own lives. Yes, two boys were terribly sick. But the whole generation is not depraved; indeed, they are splendid and fine.
So for my children and for all children, I record these stories, gleaned from newspapers and TV reports, in order to affirm them. By now, many of the stories are familiar, but they need to be collected in one place, told and treasured for years to come.
Young as they are, our children can claim heroes in their own generation. Just as my father tells of courageous naval personnel in World War II, so in years ahead my daughters and sons can point with pride to their peers at Columbine High.
Without preparation, forethought or adult advice, they rose to the unexpected moment with a grace that inspires us all. For instance, Nick Foss, a senior, shepherded younger students to safety. When some froze in panic, he and his twin brother Adam picked them up and carried them.
Even after he was safely out of the killers' way, Nick returned to help more students. Without histrionics, he speaks simply of what he did: "I just decided to take a stand. I was tired of being scared. We didn't have any defenses. But if my life was on the line, I wasn't going to get bombed in some stupid bathroom." When Nick encountered one of the killers, the boy shot point-blank and missed, the bullet barely grazing Nick's blond crew cut.
Another student, Daniel Rohrbough, was not so lucky. He was gunned down as he held the door for others to escape. As the Rev. Dwight Blackstock said at his funeral, "He might have lived, but he held the door so that others could go out before him. They made it. Danny didn't."
relatives thanked Nick for being with Danny, a boy he hadn't known before, in his last moments. Nick's words at the funeral paid tribute to Daniel: "I only wish I'd had a chance to walk him down the hallway here," he said. "But I know he'll walk me down his hallway someday into the light."
In the voices of Columbine students, we may not hear traditional religious language. But loudly and clearly, we hear strong belief and firm conviction that transcend denominational lines. Both Cassie Bernall and Valerie Schnurr were asked by the killer if they believed in God. Both girls, the former from West Bowles Community Church, the latter from Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, answered, "Yes." Then the killer pulled the trigger. Cassie "died a martyr's death," said her pastor, the Rev. George Kirsten. Valerie, though fired on at point-blank range, miraculously escaped injury to any vital organs, and lived.
The heroism of Dave Sanders, the teacher and coach who saved at least a hundred students although he was bleeding to death himself, has been justly celebrated. But we must also spotlight the efforts of his students to save him. They tore off their t-shirts to stanch his bleeding, and fashioned a stretcher from table legs to carry him to safety. Most touchingly, when they realized he might not survive, they pulled out his wallet and showed him the pictures of his family to bless his final hour.
Remembering for Life
At one level, telling the stories is affirming and uplifting. But we must move it to another level: reflecting on them. Perhaps in doing so, we can avoid the all-too-human trap of remembering what we should forget and forgetting what we should remember.
What can we learn not only from the immediate events, but also from the aftermath? In the tremendous outpouring of sympathy from all over the world, young people from area high schools took the lead. They brought huge banners to Clement Park, the memorial near the scene of the slaying. They left teddy bears, notes and flowers, in what is now becoming a sadly familiar ritual. They made shrines of two cars abandoned in the school parking lot by two murdered students and created videos celebrating the lives of the dead.
Over and over, youth demonstrated their need for ritual, their need to express wordlessly a grief that is beyond words. Perhaps theirs are not the traditional Christian rituals, but they are profoundly felt and personally shaped. They participated for more than a week in funerals that have one tragic twist: The huge majority of pallbearers, speakers and mourners are under 18. Meanwhile, they have poured out support and raised funds for hospitalized victims. In local hospitals, doctors contended with shrapnel, paralysis and brain damage in an age-group whose ordinary ailments are football injuries and flu.
Strong Parent-Child Bonds
As we reflect, we can take heart from two salient themes that ran through the tragedy and its aftermath. One was the scene of glad reunion for parents and survivors. Repeatedly, parents and children hugged each other with an intensity that took its edge from terror. Many did not want to let go of each other and, in a sense, they never will, always cherishing the life that is now more gift than taken-for-granted. Concern carried into counseling sessions for parents and practical efforts to make schools safer places.
Students trapped in the school shared cell phones, although their messages were whispered for fear that any noise might attract the killers' attention. It is heartening that their calls went first and foremost to their parents, assuring them they were still alive. They did not place these hurried, frantic calls to their friends, their employers or other relatives, but to their parents.
Zak Cartaya, 17, describes his call: "I just said, 'Mom, I'm O.K. I love you.' I had to be sure I told my mom I loved her in case I died." His sentiment was echoed by Matthew Depew, son of a Denver police officer. When he doubted he'd survive, he called another policeman with the vital message: "Please tell my father I love him." Such evidence under fire points again to the vital importance of the parent-child bond.
Healing Presence of Churches
The second pattern presents both affirmation and challenge. From the day of the tragedy and throughout the weeks that followed, young people gathered at the churches. They did not go in large numbers to the malls, the bowling alleys, the libraries or civic centers. The primary locus of community and healing was area Churches, across denominations.
And the Churches rose to the occasion. From the very outset, they provided counseling, prayer services, food, a place for reunions and tears. At Leawood Elementary School, where frantic parents waited for initial news, the priests, sisters and religious professionals outnumbered them four to one. Again, the efforts were ecumenical. When Light of the World Parish started running out of food, a quick call to the Baptist church brought immediate replacements.
Pax Christi Catholic Community in Littleton is, like many in the West, a priestless parish. But the staff is composed of many parents, who have had their own difficulties and joys with teenagers, and who, with no forewarning, were plunged into sorrow. They used the ancient Christian symbol of anointing with oil to console hundreds, distributed copies of St.
Francis' Prayer for Peace and posted it on their Web site. They offered sessions for parents and students, and offered relief to the staffs at Saint Frances Cabrini and Light of the World, the two parishes most immediately involved, where counseling and prayer went on nonstop.
The young people responded with unanimous gratitude to the efforts of the Church, affirming that their healing began there. In the wash of song and the comfort of Scripture came the first relief from the terrible images many carried that April day. With ancient, faith-filled words, Archbishop Charles Chaput prayed at the funeral of Daniel Mauser and Kelly Fleming, "Daniel and Kelly, may the angels lead you to paradise. May the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new, eternal Jerusalem."
Legacy of Compassion?
While the affirmation of the Church is immediately clear, the challenge to the Church may unfold only in time. In the first, emotion-packed days, teens turned instinctively to the faith community, and area Churches responded generously. Will the long-range effects be as inspiring? In the months ahead, will the teens still feel cherished, affirmed and listened-to in the religious community? Will we ask their opinions, value their experience, praise their virtues? Or will we, in our flawed, human habit, discount them because of their youth, take them for granted again, wish that "they'd just grow up"?
An odd but telling detail suggests one answer. In the weeks after the tragedy, the orthodontists of Littleton were flooded with requests to make new retainers. With purses and backpacks left in the school, and the area off-limits to all but crime investigators, young people couldn't wait months and endanger their orthodontia.
At first it sounded so familiar. How often I'd been exasperated with a teenager for losing a retainer, and had argued about the cost of replacement. But I hope that the parents of Littleton ordered retainers with heartfelt praise. It's a small inconvenience to bear in gratitude for a living child.
I shall feel that gratitude myself when my son graduates soon from the local Jesuit high school. Parents will applaud proudly as our sons walk across the stage in their crimson caps and gowns to receive their diplomas. But I suspect we'll also have a sadness that has not marked these occasions before.
With a catch in the throat, we'll remember Isaiah Shoels, buried in his cap and gown with his diploma at his side. Perhaps our grief, joined with our children's, will call forth heroism when we come to our own moments of crisis as did the youth of Columbine High School. Then the final word will not be one of vicious cruelty. The final word will speak of courage, compassion, life.
Kathy Coffey lives about 20 miles from Columbine High School. She is the author of Hidden Women of the Gospels, Experiencing God With Your Children (both by Crossroad) and Thresholds to Prayer (Saint Anthony Messenger Press) and has been a regular (and award-winning!) poetry contributor to this publication.
Acknowledgments© Copyright St. Anthony Messenger Press. This article was published with the permission of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, which provides study guides to accompany many of its articles. You can access these guides by going to the magazine's Links for Learners page. Teachers will find a wealth of other resources at the St. Anthony Messenger Press web site by clicking on this link: http://www.americancatholic.org/features/learners/
Published July 1, 1999.