Posted: April 20, 2007: 11:19 am MDT
In 1999 I was the Electronic Communications Manager for US West’s internal comm group, and my team rode herd on several channels used to communicate with 44,000 employees in 14 states and DC. Mornings were usually really busy – we posted things when they happened, but we did a big daily update by noon every day. Sometime around lunch Joe Lopez, who handled a variety of things for us, said, “hey, Sammy, there’s been a school shooting in Littleton.”
At first we thought it was Littleton High, which is several miles to the east of Columbine. In any case, this was important for us because we had offices down in that part of town (and one really large facility at Mineral) and that meant that there were a lot of US West employees with kids in that school. I told Joe to find out everything he could and headed down the hall to notify my VP. I broke into a meeting she was running and told her what was happening. She wasn’t happy with me – at that point, I don’t think it really registered on her what this meant, and at that point, this was probably understandable. Of course, in the years since we’ve developed some familiarity with the words “school shooting.”
Eight years ago today was one of the worst days of my life. We had to work through it, though, although nearly the entire city simply stopped what it was doing to watch in horror. Parents of Columbine students had to be kept informed and my group had to stand ready to support our external communications (since we were the main telecom provider, we were the ones providing all the communication infrstructure for authorities). I think a lot of us wanted to just go find a dark room where we could collapse emotionally. And I think maybe I did steal five minutes in the afternoon to do just that.
Days later I finally visited the Columbine/Clement Park site, and I re-read the piece I wrote about that experience on April 20 every year. This year I find myself wishing I had something especially new or profound to say, because I know that across the country, only a couple hours from where I grew up, the people of Blacksburg are enduring the same thing I was eight years ago. Nothing I can say will make it better.
Perhaps the one thing I can say is that Columbine taught me something important. Without my realizing it, Colorado had become home. Tragedy teaches you about home, it teaches you about family, and rips away all the artificial workaday details that distract us from the task of understanding precisely what we value. You stand before Eric Harris’ cross on the top of that hill, standing amidst those of his victims, and it is nearly impossible to be anything other than who you are at your essential core. You will be confronted by what matters to you most in life, and in that moment you will know what you truly hate as clearly as you will what you truly love.
No, this doesn’t make it better. But if anyone from Blacksburg is reading, don’t feel guilty for how you feel just because you didn’t know anyone there personally. Don’t feel unentitled to what you’re feeling. Listen to the things you can’t keep inside, no matter what they are. This may be the only moment in your entire life where you can freely and completely express exactly what you think and feel without having to worry about what others think. Pay attention to the details, and when you pass other people who are grieving, lift your head and look into their eyes. I regret that I know more about the boots people were wearing as we slogged through the mud of Clement Park than I do about the pain on their faces.
Consider death and what it tells us about life. Consider tragedy and set your feet on the path to triumph.
And prepare yourself for what you’ll have to say when the time comes to memorialize the dead. To create policy. What will you say to those who will seek to exploit your tragedy to further their own agendas, to act and speak in your name?
:xpost Lullaby Pit: