carpenter Greg Zanis came to Littleton after the shootings and
erected crosses, one for each of the dead, in Clement Park, adjacent
to Columbine High School. The crosses became the focus of public
The stories of Columbine's heroes rise like a "tide
of inspiration" for this Denver mother.
Text by Kathy Coffey, photos by James Baca
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Many of Danny's
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 St. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Presence of Churches
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
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 St. 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
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"?
outpouring of love at Clement Park showed "so much human
goodness," says Baca. "When I saw this Mary statue, I
thought, Somehow, this is helping to stop the bleeding."
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
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,
lives about 20 miles from Columbine High School. She is the
author ofHidden Women of the Gospels, Experiencing God
With Your Children
(both by Crossroad) andThresholds
(St. Anthony Messenger Press) and has been
a regular (and award-winning!) poetry contributor to this
Roots of Violence
John Bookser Feister
Chaput incenses Kelly Fleming's remains at her and Daniel
Mauser's funeral at St. Frances Cabrini Parish.
SENSE TELLS US THAT the violence of our music, our video
games, our films and our television has to go somewhere,
and it goes straight into the hearts of our children,
to bear fruit in ways we can't imagineuntil something
like Littleton happens." Those words of Denver Archbishop
Charles Chaput were addressed to a Congressional hearing
on May 4 in Washington, D.C., chaired by Senator Sam
days earlier Archbishop Chaput had presided at the funeral
Mass of Columbine High victims Kelly Ann Fleming and
Daniel Conner Mauser.
the last four decades, we've created a culture that
markets violence in dozens of different ways, seven
days a week," Chaput told the Congressional hearing.
"It's part of our social fabric."
archbishop testified alongside Motion Picture Association
of America CEO Jack Valenti and former Education Secretary
William Bennett, both Catholics. At the hearing Valenti
defended the vast majority of films and gave families
the responsibility of constructing "within the minds
and hearts of children an impenetrable moral shield,"
reported Catholic News Service. Bennett pointedly noted
the connection between an increase in mass murders by
the young and Hollywood's marketing of the notion that
mass murder is fun.
Chaput is lending his voice to his brother bishops who
have been speaking out against violence in recent months,
indeed, recent years. Numerous statements were issued
in the wake of the shootings, including Los Angeles
Cardinal Roger Mahony's
Our Hearts Cry: Not Againand a 10-point brochure by the U.S. bishops' Administrative
Family Guide for Using Media. Text
of the brochure can be found atwww.nccbuscc.org.
late May the bishops' conference released a 12-minute
video that grew out of an effort founded by the late
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin,
Renewing the Mind of the
Media: Overcoming the Exploitation of Sex and Violence
video features interviews with Baltimore's Cardinal
William Keeler, the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner of the National
Council of Churches and Dr. Jerry R. Kirk of the National
Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families.
video's executive producer, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M.,
St. Anthony Messenger, "Anyone who thinks
that sex and violence on TV don't affect our society
is living under a rock. Stand outside of any school
in this country at the end of a given school day and
you'll see 10-20 kids who think they're [martial arts-film
actor] Chuck Norris." The bishops' video is a discussion-starter
for parish groups and families.
as the story accompanying this box identifies parishes
as places of healing for some Columbine High School
families, Sister Walsh sees parishes with a social mission:
"The Church is looking to empower people. When they
come together in parish groups to discuss and understand
these themes of sex and violence in the media, they
companion to the 1998 message from the bishops' Communications
Committee, the video with discussion guide is available
from the U.S. bishops' conference, phone 1-800-235-8722.