Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Looking Back at Tragedy

We Are Columbine
Director: Laura Farber
Released: various dates in 2018 at different film festivals

The twentieth anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings was not that long ago (how is that possible? It seems like the ten year anniversary was only last year!) and I found this documentary on Hulu. The director is a former student of Columbine and she graduated in 2002, so, if you do the math, she was a freshman when the murders occurred. She interviews four of her former class of '02 classmates (two boys and two girls), a teacher who started his first year at Columbine as a freshman English teacher during the '98/'99 school year (yikes!), but is still teaching there, and Frank DeAngelis, who was the principal from 1996 to a few years ago when he retired.

So before you're wondering if any of the former students interviewed were in the library where ten of the thirteen murders and the two suicides occurred, no, they were not. Three of them were in their classes and one of them was in the cafeteria. The girl who was in the cafeteria tells the director it's very hard telling her memories of this horrific event, but she's only doing it because the director is her friend (she was also eating lunch with her that day) and she knows what she went through that day. As far as I know, she (or anyone else interviewed) didn't see anyone get killed in front of them, but if she has a difficult time talking about this, then there's no way someone who was in the library would want to relive their memories. I'm not saying that they had it "easier" because they're weren't at Ground Zero, because if I put myself in their shoes, where, if I was a freshman at my high school and two seniors brought guns to school and killed twelve students and one teacher before offing themselves, yeah, I would be pretty shook up and freaked out too. I'm surprised they returned to their school to finish their next three years of high school, because, honestly, I don't know if I would be able to do that. One girl said she knows where all the exits are anywhere she goes in case of something like that happening again and that any loud noises like fireworks or a balloon popping makes her anxious. I would also imagine a fire alarm going off also puts them all on edge since one was going off that day. I've never been in a situation like that and fire alarms make me anxious; I can only imagine what it does to them! 

The four former students go through their memories of that day. The girl who was in the cafeteria says she heard loud shots and thought it was a senior prank and then a teacher told everyone to get under the table, which she did with the other students she was sitting with. They later ran to a nearby house where the man who lived there called the police. She would later find out that one of the two duffel bags with a bomb inside was placed under the table she hid under...yikes! But luckily it didn't detonate. If you didn't know, this wasn't supposed to be just a school shooting: it was supposed to be a bombing that would rival Oklahoma City. Their plan was to "top" McVeigh and kill as many students and faculty members and then each one would be in a different parking lot with their guns and shoot any survivors streaming out of the doors, then they planned to kill any media and police that would make their way to the school. Yeah, their plan went a bit differently... In fact, DeAngelis points that out, saying they could have lost hundreds of people that day and that's how he knows there's a God. 

One of the former students who was in a locked classroom talks about how they were in there for hours (three or four, maybe by that time) before the police came in and told them to put their arms locked behind their heads and run out of the school. Unfortunately the police came right at the time he said he and a few of the other boys in the class had to use the bathroom so they got a trashcan to urinate in and right when he was about to go (in as much privacy the corner of the room could offer him), that's when they barged in. Understandably, that's the only humorous part of the film. He also says when they were locked in the classroom, he heard keys rattling in the door and a teacher came in without his shirt on, covered in blood, and rummaged through the cabinets before running out again. I have to wonder if he was helping the teacher who was shot and would eventually die? Or a student who was wounded when they got shot? We don't really find out what that was about.

The title of the movie comes from their rally cry which was created in 1989 by a coach. One of the interviewees said he thought that had transpired after the shootings, which, I can't blame him, as it has more of a poignancy. Before the shootings it jut sounds like an obvious statement. Also, he probably doesn't remember anything from his only normal year of high school, plus, as he adds, he was probably getting stoned somewhere!

Another former students says when he was running outside and a policeman told them to get away from the school, he had asked him if they had to return to class later that afternoon. He says now he realizes how ridiculous that was, but in that moment it was just a confusing and surreal moment. 

I never really though about it before, but the Columbine class of '02 had it pretty rough. They had one normal year of school before everything turned to hell and during their next three years, security was heightened to the max. That school probably became the safest school in America, ironically. They had all these security measures that was super frustrating for them. Think of the airports after 9/11. Remember how people used to be so lax about airport security? DeAngelis says that he knew the students hated the ridiculous security measurements, but the parents insisted on them. They also talk about how the media would always be harassing them for interviews and how tour buses would pull up to their school with tourists. Look, it's one thing if a couple of young idiots drive there in their own cars if they're into ghoulish things, but a tour bus? Someone is making money off of this? Ick. One of the girls was on the track team and volleyball team and when she would wear her uniform people at the other schools she was competing at would ask her if she was there THAT day. I won't lie; if I ever met someone that attended Columbine, I would probably think, Oh, they go to THAT school. (Why I would ever be conversing with a teenager from Littleton is beyond me, though!) 

As one of the girls says, "It's not a normal experience". Despite this, all four former students (who are in their mid-30s) have normal and stable lives. A couple of them are in steady relationships and they all went on to have some sort of career. One became a teacher at Columbine and he says he's one of five teachers there now who were students on the day of the shootings. Another became a social worker, another one is in the medical field, and one became a recording artist. One of these things is not like the other! Would it surprise you if I told you the stoner kid became the recording artist?

In this hour and a half documentary, there's probably really only about twenty minutes of interesting information. I find that even if you had never heard of this massacre, you really wouldn't be surprised by what the former students were saying. It's really more about their experience that day (though they don't really go that much into depth about it) and then how the rest of their high school career was like living after tragedy. If you are interested in the Columbine school shootings in much more detail, I would recommend two books. The first is called Columbine by the Denver-based journalist Dave Cullen. It's probably the most well known account of the shootings and goes into a lot of detail before, during, and after the tragedy. It's vey disturbing, insightful, fascinating, and while I was reading it, I would go, "What?...What?....WHAT??" Because there were a lot of things that shocked me; either things I didn't know or had forgotten or vaguely remembered. If you're into true crime stories, it's worth checking out. The other book is A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy and it's by Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters. Her story about what happened that day is much more interesting and devastating than any of the class of '02 graduates who were interviewed. The parents of the shooters went through absolute hell and she talks about what it was like. She's only started sharing her story within the last few years and the book is really quite interesting. Not surprisingly, she is an advocate for parents checking their kids' bedrooms. I think it's a terrible idea for parents to snoop through their teenagers' stuff, but of all people, I can understand why she would insist parents to do that. It's probably never a bad idea to check under your kids' beds or in their closest just to make sure they're not hiding any guns or bombs. Both of those books made me cry while reading them; this documentary really didn't evoke any emotion from me. 

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