Monday, April 20, 2009

Ten Years After. . . .


It was ten years ago today that the name of the Colorado state flower became associated with a grizzly massacre and not the flower. I think it's safe to say that when most people hear the word "Columbine," they think of the at-the-time-unprecedented school massacre perpetrated by two teens named Harris and Klebold that dominated news coverage 24/7 for weeks.

I remember what I was doing that day. After lunch, I drove to Lancaster Bible College to speak to an English class on writing and getting published. I quickly hopped in the car to drive down the road to McCaskey High School where I was speaking on music and media to a group of at-risk kids attending an after-school support group run by one of the school counselors. I can still remember parking my car and hearing a radio report on a school shooting in Colorado. The reporter said that a couple of kids were injured. By the time I emerged out of McCaskey High and got back into the car, a different and more horrifying story was unfolding.

April 20, 1999 was a watershed moment in youth culture. The event that demarcated modern American youth culture into pre-Columbine and post-Columbine is one that we can all think back on and remember where we were when it happened. I came home and was glued to my television set throughout the night. It was clear that a large dose of innocence was lost. We were forced to start asking difficult questions about kids, their development, and the role culture plays in shaping worldviews, values, attitudes, and behaviors. And, we asked "How?" and "Why?"

Within hours I was fielding phone calls from people on site at Columbine High School, and from local news outlets that were trying to get something to run on the story. Within hours I was asked to come out to Littleton, something I refused to do until the dust settled and the last victim was buried. I believed - and still do - that it's best for local folks to deal with their tragedy and pain without the hassle of all the outsiders who want to come to town to grab some media time and attention for their usually off-base theories and commentary.

Within a few days, I traveled to Littleton at the invitation of some local youth workers and schools, not to talk about the massacre, but to talk about kids and the pressures they face. Crisis leads people to try to figure these things out. I agreed to travel to Littleton only if my two co-workers, Paul Robertson and Tom Piotrowski - could come along.

I asked that we be able to do two things upon our arrival. First, we wanted to spend time with some of the youth workers whose heads and hearts were still spinning from the tiring and confusing whirlwind of stuff that they had to face. Rich Van Pelt was leading the charge with those folks and it was sobering to hear firsthand about what they had been through. Second, I wanted to get some time alone at the high school campus. We were taken over to Columbine High School and for more than an hour, I walked alone around the school, through the grounds, to the victims' cars (still in the lot), and to the rapidly growing memorials. I wanted to soak it all in as I knew that was important.

When I got home, some additional things went up on our CPYU office walls. Remember the Kurt Cobain photos I blogged about a couple of weeks ago? Right above those photos are three magazine covers from the week of the massacre. In a fourth frame sits a clump of dried flowers that I brought back from the mountain of flowers that had grown in the school parking lot. Like Cobain's photos, these mementos of that day serve as a constant reminder for us of why we do what we do at CPYU.

This weekend I had the great privilege of spending time with a group of parents from the Woodale Church in the greater Minneapolis area. On Sunday morning I shared my little summary of how the world of teens has changed since we were kids. If we didn't believe these things about youth culture prior to Columbine, April 20, 1999 served as a wake-up call that couldn't be ignored. And since Columbine, the volume on each has only intensified.

First, there's more brokenness and suffering. Kids are hurting. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold didn't just simultaneously snap one April morning. Their hurt and pain had simmered and grown over the course of a long, long time. Then, the only way out they could find was the way they chose.

Second, the stuff that kids should never have to deal with is having to be dealt with by kids at younger and younger ages. It's called age compression. What the Columbine student body witnessed was horrible. It would have been horrible for an adult. It's even worse for kids.

Third, nobody is immune. Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime. It doesn't matter where you live, where you go to school, where you go to church, if you go to church. . . . nobody is immune. Youth culture's issues, pressure, problems, challenges, and choices exist without borders.

And finally, sooner or later. All of our kids will have to deal with difficult stuff and make difficult decisions.

Not only is this their world, but it's the world in which they live and grow as we've been called to nurture, love, guide, and lead them. So don't turn your eyes away from the ten-year old images that are sure to be all over the papers and TV today. Let them serve as reminders of what we've all been called to do. Let them serve as reminders that all creation is crying out for redemption. Let them serve as reminders of our calling as signposts pointing to the Cross. Let them serve as reminders of our need to pray for all kids and their families. . . . families and kids represented by people with last names like Scott, Bernall, Mauser, and Rohrbough. And families and kids represented by people with last names like Klebold and Harris.

7 comments:

Dave Flaig said...

Thanks Walt. Good article & insight. I was there leading the Southwest Connection youth network in Littleton. Rich Van Pelt came to be alongside us. Many once wounded are thriving and living for Jesus. Others still stuck, unable to reconcile tragedy and faith.

Dave Flaig

Joe said...

Columbine is definitely one of those watershed moments... I still remember sitting in my room working on a project for my english class that afternoon (I was in 9th grade) and just being floored by what was on the tv. Then there were all the endless conversations at school over the next couple of weeks. I remember friends being terrified because there was a group of kids at our school who wore trenchcoats all the time. For the millenials (my generation), Columbine is right up there with 9/11 in our collective psyche.

bran_and_shann said...

Thanks a lot for your reflections, Walt.
First, I remember where I was. I was at Flower City Work Camp with close to 500 of my peers, working over our spring break to serve the city of Rochester, NY. During our evening worship, Steve Matson, who used to be a youth pastor in the Denver area, came through the doors, abruptly stopping the worship to announce, with tears running choking his tongue, what was happening so far away.
As a senior in high school, I could not help but look over my shoulder, looking around at the students, wondering which one of my peers could be the one that was broken inside the same way those boys were. It was one of those moments where I was absolutely shocked, but not surprised. I guess I saw the culture around me, and I saw the hurt and the pain that so many suffered around me, that it came as no surprise that there were hearts so broken and shattered that they had no other way of escape than this.
Second, your article was a wake up call to me this afternoon. I am a youth pastor in this small, rural town of Pauma Valley, CA. I look at the 30 or so kids in my group, and it is so simple to think that these kids do not face the pressures that everyone else faces. It is easy to think that there is not one person in here who faces "real" struggles. These are all farmer kids, right?
Wrong.
Each one of these kids face the same 50% divorce rate that everyone else faces. Each one of these kids face the true wicked hearts of their peers that comes out in statements of ridicule and sheer pride when they do not measure up to their enemies...or their friends. These kids face these same pressures that every other kid does, only the rural face of the pressure may look a bit different.

bran_and_shann said...

Thank you for your report, David.

RC said...

Walt, thank you for your post, I have shared a link to your post on my post about Columbine.

I think your perspective is important.

As a father of a young child the think I wonder about the most is the idea of age compression you mention. This trully is a challenge I wrestle with in thinking about how to handle these issues.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this still important weighty matter.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post. Thank you for coming to visit us in Littleton. As a teacher, and youth worker, I will never forget the confusion of being less than 10 miles from Columbine, the confusion of trying to comprehend just what had happened that had never happened in our country during my lifetime, and having to work through the anniversary for the next 10 years, reliving it again and again as the media, etc. drug us through the event. You came to my classroom and hung out, speaking with my students about their world and their culture. The students I teach today view 4/20 as Pot Day. Columbine is merely history to them in a world they don't understand.

Howard_M said...

Thanks Walt - like so many I can clearly recall what I was doing while watching this unfold from the east and wondering what would I do if it was me in any part of the situation. And I agree with your article wholeheartedly except I want to hope, to believe with everything I have, that there was another way out for Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold than the one they chose. I believe another way out is always possible, just not always or easily identifiable or taken. Without that hope and belief, I would be afraid of any outcome our future would have in store. Thanks for bringing about deeper thought and evaluation of our conscious.