On April 20, 1999, I sat in class and panicked as news started spreading of the Columbine shooting.
The memory is incredibly vivid, but marked by sudden tunnel vision.
You see, the first news we received was something along the lines of:
“Two kids who had been bullied opened fire on a school. We’re not sure how bad it is yet, but we do know they’re huge fans of Marilyn Manson and played violent video games.”
The classroom was dark. Blinds had been pulled down over the windows that’d been installed that year. You could still smell the silicone sealant if you got close enough. I sat on the left side of the room, right near the windows, but one row away. As it was springtime in CNY, it was chill, at least in my memory. The chill spread from those new windows and over the turned-off radiators.
We had those steel and laminate desks that left your tailbone bruised and misaligned at the end of the day. Sitting right next to the window was a friend of mine, Luke. He had a spinal issue that caused him to hunch over prematurely and was in the process of going through an incredibly lengthy and painful procedure to get it straightened out permanently.
When the news came, the thing I remember the most clearly is us turning and looking at each other. We didn’t say anything, just shared a single moment of terror… because we’d just had a target painted on our backs.
Why? Because Luke and I were easily classified as loaners who spent a large amount of our time outside of school gaming. I had four other friends — three of whom I’m still incredibly close with — who also fit the mould. Well, three. Shaun grew a foot the summer before, frosted his tips, and became “popular”, so no one ever looked at him.
Not the way everyone looked at us over the next few weeks and months. I vaguely recall someone attacking one of those friends — I think it was Pete — and threatening to kill him first. Nothing was done, of course. The “fight” was just broken up.
If it even happened. It’s fully possible that event only occurred in my frightened teenage mind as I walked home through the narrow forest between the school and my home. More than once, I encountered people I’d been friendly with out there smoking, well, whatever. I’d wave and walk away, their eyes burning into my back.
Maybe. Maybe they didn’t give a shit about me. Maybe that one is in my head, too.
But this one wasn’t.
Following Columbine, there was a new “fad” to call in bomb threats. It swept the nation — similar to what happened in the days following Parkland — and schools were constantly being evacuated. I still blame all of that for my 72 in Chemistry since we spent more time outside than in during those last few months of school.
Anyway, back in the late-90s libraries had computer labs and that was pretty much the only place you could type or print anything. Good ol’ Pentium machines using Token Ring for networking.
One day as my friends and I had just finished doing a rousing rendition of the Peasant Scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I walked out of the computer lab ahead of the rest of them because I needed to get to class early for something.
As I left, I passed by the Vice Principal.
Apparently, someone had printed a bomb threat and he had somehow walked in at the right time to see it spool through.
Aside: It never occurred to me until just now that it’s very possible that sonuvabitch printed it himself…
Back on topic… the vice-principal ended up keeping everyone in the computer lab — which consisted entirely of my group of friends — and then having them interviewed by the police without parental approval or supervision.
My friend Pete was grilled for over an hour and ended only when, face streaked with tears, he stood up to his police interrogator and screamed: “I didn’t do this! I’m a fucking Eagle Scout!”
Luke went through the same thing, as did my friend Ben.
Shaun got let out in minutes. He was popular now, remember? No way he did it.
(If it was a student, my money is still on Shaun. He’s kind of an asshole…)
Meanwhile, the rest of the school continued normally — except the Goths, who were harassed as much, if not more. There’s nothing quite as bad as being part of a lower social class in high school and then having everyone convinced you were a second away from mass murder.
And it all came back to that profile put together in the hours and days after the shooting. Somehow I never heard about their white supremacist writings or how they obtained their guns (legally as well as illegal direct sale). All I heard about was how much they were like me… and that I should keep an eye out for freaks like them/me.
Because guns don’t kill people, bullied teenagers who play violent video games and listen to Marilyn Manson kill people, right?
Such a load of bullshit… we should’ve tackled this gun problem in 1999. Maybe then the 208,000 kids who’ve experienced gun violence in this country would’ve been able to focus on learning and growing instead of active shooter drills and funerals.