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What Did We Learn?

by Rachel Williams


"What did we learn?"

Thatís the first line of the poem "How Many More" I wrote the day after the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

All over the country people were affected when they heard and saw what happened that day when two boys brought guns and bombs to school and killed one teacher, 12 students and wounded 20 others. It scared me and messed me up inside when I just heard about it so I canít even imagine how bad it was for everyone who was at Columbine. 

Now its almost six months later and I still wonder about that question. 

"What did we learn?"

Iíve been trying to see if people really learned anything from Columbine. I know the senators and congressmen and other politicians didn't learn anything because they're still arguing about how much safer schools would be if we just hung the Ten Commandments on the walls in every classroom.  I thought maybe if I looked at what was happening in Littleton where Columbine was then maybe I'd find what people were doing to make things better.  So I went to the Denver Post Online and their special Columbine section. I read almost all the articles they wrote since the day it happened. 

"What did we learn?"

I think most of the kids at Columbine are really trying to make their school a better place after what happened.  But I think there's some adults who are in the news a lot because of Columbine that aren't helping things get any better.  And maybe even they're making things worse even if they don't mean to.  

"What did we learn?"

I read about people like the principal of Columbine who made a big show of telling the students to take back their school. At a rally on the first day of school this year he said, "At Columbine High School we will have zero tolerance for cruelty, harassment, excessive teasing, discrimination, violence and intimidation.'' 

"What did we learn?"

I think maybe the principal meant he wanted the jocks to take back their school because just two weeks after the shootings a girl who was a senior got a restraining order to try to stop her ex-boyfriend from harassing and intimidating and stalking her. Too bad for her the boy was a junior and was a star on the Columbine football team. When the principal found out about the restraining order he told the girl's parents he thought she should stay home and not attend the last few weeks of school before graduation with her friends. The popular football star was allowed to continue in school but his victim was told she should stay home like she was the criminal.

"What did we learn?"

Maybe thatís what the Columbine principal thinks is justice. Maybe he thinks he can get rid of the schoolís history of taunting and intolerance and discrimination by getting rid of its victims. But all he did was send the message that jocks are still special and they can keep on getting away with abusing and mistreating other students. 

"What did we learn?"

I read about people like the family of one of the murdered students. Thirteen people were murdered at Columbine and only one was a minority. But that boyís family is making public appearances with a man in New York who is famous for being someone who stirs up hatred, bigotry and racial tension. The family is saying they think the shootings were a racially motivated hate crime. I donít think they were but I donít think weíll ever know for sure. But if thatís what the family really thinks about why their son was killed why would they want to have his name linked with someone who only seems to be interested in stirring up more hatred?

"What did we learn?"

I read about the family of another boy who was killed at Columbine. First I read how the boyís father tore down two of the fifteen crosses that were put up in memory of all the dead at Columbine because he was a Christian and he didnít want the murderers to be honored by having crosses. That was right after the shootings happened. Then I read how last month the boyís stepfather helped chop down two of fifteen trees planted at a church to "honor the families that have been hurt". I can understand why they feel the way they do but does that make it right?  Is it really ok for them to go around destroying other peopleís property that was put up as religious symbols and memorials just because they think its wrong and it offends them?

"What did we learn?"

I read more about this same family. Now they're suing the school district because the school took down commemorative tiles the family had painted with religious themes.  It was part of a project at the school and the families knew the rules made by the school were that "they could not place dates, names of their slain children, initials or religious symbols on their tiles".   Maybe that rule was stupid.  But according to the paper, the family deliberately broke the rule as a protest when they made their tiles. Then when the school took down the tiles the family sued the school district for violating their freedom of expression. So this family wants a court to protect their own freedom of expression but they haven't allowed other people to have that same freedom. 

"What did we learn?"

When the trees were chopped down at that church, the newspaper reported that the boyís father "said he'll continue to watch for similar memorials.'' It also quoted him as saying, "This is not an issue that's going away. We can tell the rest of the world what's right.'' 

"What did we learn?"

Is that we learned?  That some people are entitled to express their beliefs and others aren't?  That some Christians are entitled to tell other Christians when they can and can't use a cross as a religious expression?  That some people are able to decide that they are entitled to decide for the rest of the world what's "right" and what's "wrong" and that those people are allowed to destroy the rights and property of anyone they decide is "wrong"?

"What did we learn?"

Don't these families see that what theyíre doing is just another kind of intolerance and lack of respect for others?  Is that really  the legacy these families want to leave from what happened at Columbine?

"What did we learn?"

I read about one of the girls who was killed at Columbine. The girl who supposedly said "Yes" when one of the killers asked if she believed in God. I read how this girl has been turned into a martyr for Christianity and held up as an example to Christian kids all over the world. I also read how people are so eager to have a martyr and find something "good" from Columbine that they don't seem to care about the truth about what happened that day.

"What did we learn?"

I read how according to police and other students who were in the library that day its not clear that this girl was even the one who was asked if she believed in God. I read how even the girlís own parents admitted they donít know for sure if she was asked or if she did or didn't say "Yes".  ("Faith In Cassie's Last Words Waivers")  I read how investigators and eyewitnesses believe it was another girl who almost died from being shot but survived who was the one who answered "Yes" when she was asked if she believed in God. ("Bernalls Defend Book's Accuracy")

"What did we learn?"

Then I read how this girl who was almost killed has had her honesty and her own Christian faith challenged by other Christians all because the truth of what happened that day doesnít match up with what those people want it to be.  ("Schnurr's Memory Corroborated By Other Witnesses")  I guess to a lot of people its more important to have a dead martyr than a living survivor.

"What did we learn?"

The girl who said "Yes" and survived became a victim of Columbine when she was shot. Sheís still being victimized by all the people who are so eager to have a martyred girl that they're determined to create one no matter what the truth is.  I guess this just shows how truth isn't really that important when it comes to what a lot of people are willing to believe for their religion.

"What did we learn?"

The people I wrote about aren't bad people.  Most of them are good people who are still trying to get over a very terrible traumatic event.  I know how hard it is to control your feelings and how you can react in bad ways when something like that happens  So I can understand why they act the ways they do.  Itís just sad they canít see how they're hurting other people.

"What did we learn?"

What these people are doing won't help make schools like Columbine better places for kids to grow up.  It won't help change the way people get along with others who donít share the same beliefs or interests.  

"What did I learn?"

Where are the lessons of tolerance, love, compassion and understanding?  For some people those things all seem to have died on April 20th as well.  That's what I learned.  Thatís the other tragedy of Columbine.

 

Rachel
October 10, 1999

Copyright © 1999 Rachel Williams

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