The Rocky Mountain Columbine

I am a pretty obsessed flower gardener, of which I claim that I inherited naturally from my mother, aunt, and grandmother. Our backyard garden has lots of Rocky Mountain columbine. It is a perennial, blooms early in the season, and comes in multiple colors. Once the bloom is finished, you can pull the flower off of it’s stem, turn it upside down, and shake seeds out into your hand. We sprinkle the seeds around each summer and wait to see what columbine surprises we might have next Spring.

The columbine is the state flower of Colorado; it is also the name of an infamous high school. We live less than ten miles from Columbine High School, and the impact of that school shooting nineteen years ago is still felt today. Since moving here a few years ago, I have visited the Columbine Memorial twice, of which is in a park near the high school. It is also by my closest Bed, Bath, & Beyond. I point this out because it is still eerie to me when I drive by the high school, just to run a simple errand… what is it like to teach there? What is it like to walk those halls or go to that library? What is it like to be a student that just happens to be zoned to go to school there?

I remember being nineteen years old, having just completed high school the year before, when the Columbine tragedy occurred. I was shocked, confused, and saddened by the pain that the shooters caused. The video recording of a student jumping from a second story window as shots were fired inside is forever embedded in my brain. I watched the valedictorian deliver her speech at their graduation on CNN. As a country, we mourned with the family and friends that were so deeply affected. Fast forward eleven years to 2010, and I had become a high school theatre teacher. Many more mass shootings had occurred, and not just in schools. It was a common discussion among faculty regarding what we would do if an active shooter entered our school. In 2013, the principal enclosed the atrium to give one more level of locked security into the building. On a random Monday morning, we sat through a faculty meeting that had been organized with local police to train on what to do if an active shooter entered our school. They advocated for a door locking device that was yellow, kept in each teacher’s desk, and could be kicked quickly under the classroom door to lock it. (It functions similarly to a chair being placed under a doorknob.)  We spoke with our students later that day and did a lock down drill. I remember a male student asking me what I thought my job was if a shooter were to come into the building. It was in front of the rest of the class, and I was a little caught off guard. My response was one that most teachers would give: “My job is to protect you and save your lives.”

That day at work made me sick to my stomach. Am I actually capable of that? I didn’t take a job as a police officer; I took a job as a teacher. I felt as though the students could see that question in my eyes even as I answered them with a steady, determined voice. It was part of our training though: to fight back. If you fight, it slows down the shooter, and lives are saved. (And by fight, they mean tackle the shooter.) The following thought also entered my mind, as I was single at the time: I’m the one without a family, unlike the other teachers on my hall… I would need to be the one to fight back. The other teachers need to be able to go home to their spouses and children. I don’t go home to anyone that is dependent on me. That was also a reality that I had not thought of until that day.

On this past Valentine’s Day, the day of love, my love was working on a show. Instead of sitting alone, I took advantage of the warm, sunny Colorado day, and took Maggie Dog on a day hike. One of the beautiful and peaceful aspects of living in Colorado is that a stunning hike with a view of the Continental Divide is only a 45-minute drive away in Eldorado Canyon State Park. I breathed in the crisp air in the canyon as Maggs and I ascended the mountain slope to the peak. I love a good hike alone (well, without other humans), as I think and process and feel much more clearly by the end of it. I thought of my days as a high school teacher, as I watched the kids bring each other flowers and balloons. I was aware that I was able to hike that day as opposed to working. I missed my hubby and looked forward to seeing him that evening. I watched Maggie charm, as she always does, the couples that we met on the trail. I climbed off of that mountain and headed home with the intention to leave Maggs there and go to Ash Wednesday mass. Instead, I landed to the news that the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School had been surpassed in death count by an active shooter at a high school in Parkland, Florida. The local Denver ABC affiliate reported the event from the Columbine Memorial, interviewing local survivors. I sat and stared, feeling like an anvil and helpless. I didn’t make it to mass. Each news station continues to report daily of the shooting with the angle of being the home news station to a community of survivors.

A good friend of my husband’s lives in Littleton, in the neighborhood across from the high school. We have attended cookouts and have made s’mores with their neighbors. The driveway was poured by the previous owner of the home just after the tragedy at Columbine; there is an outline of an angel drawn in the cement to honor a young friend of the homeowner that was murdered in the shooting. The impact of that image is not lost on anyone who roasts a marshmallow in that backyard, nineteen years later. In our backyard garden, many yellow and purple columbine flowers grow wild and bloom each Spring, and I think of the Columbine angels. I think of every shooting victim.

The overgrown Columbine in our backyard, before I trimmed plants and weeded.

If you are ever in the Denver area, please visit Clement Park in Littleton, Colorado. You will see breathtaking mountain views, true prairie dogs running wild, and a circular memorial on a hill in the center of the park honoring the thirteen victims of the Columbine shooting. I wonder how we will honor the seventeen people that became victims at Stoneman Douglas High School? Maybe it is by protests, marching, and finally pushing forward some change.

To paraphrase a student who spoke to a journalist in Parkland, Florida:
“I was born after Columbine. I have grown up watching shootings continue to happen and I participate in lock down drills at school. It has been my norm throughout my entire school career. This is the primary issue of our generation. Then it happened where I go to school, and we have had enough.” 

A quote that is en scripted on the wall at the Columbine Memorial:
“A kid my age isn’t supposed to go to that many funerals.”

I agree, kids. I agree.

The view of the Rockies from Clement Park on January 29, 2018. It was an exceptionally pretty day.