Tuesday, AprilĀ 20th

I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did. – Marilyn Manson

I don’t like April 20th.  All day long people are telling me to have a happy 4/20 and making jokes about pot and stoner culture.  Nothing wrong with that necessarily, but I hate that it’s on this day.  Every time someone says “4/20” I feel pained.

It’s hard to believe that Columbine was as many as eleven years ago, on a Tuesday not terribly different than this one.  It was nearly the end of the school day when whispers started going around.  Not a lot of access to news in a high school, but people hear things.  I know they addressed it the following day, I can’t remember if there was an assembly or it was over the announcements, I do remember there were tears shed.

I was a freshman, and I’d very nearly survived my first year, only just over a month to go.  Of course, in high school time that’s eons, but there was a sense that I could make it.  High school is a horrible place and going to school was always a bit horrific.  I’d switched school districts, not made many friends, and dreaded the start of every school day.  That was, of course, about to get much, much worse.

Looking back, I’m torn between thinking the reaction to Columbine was completely absurd and totally understandable.  It hit a raw nerve.  For adults, it confirmed their fears that high schoolers were monsters and criminals; for high schoolers, it confirmed their fears that adults treated them like criminals and monsters.  It turned high school into a waking nightmare.

For the remaining month of school everything was topsy-turvy.  Parents were afraid to send their children to school, the students were afraid of the administration and each other, and the administration came down hard on anyone who seemed different.

Even I, one of the academic untouchables (people with scores the school needs for prestige/funding reasons), got called into the principal’s office for having been seen talking to someone who had worn a trenchcoat before.  I was terribly shy and hadn’t quite gotten the hang of being a smart ass in person rather than on the computer, but I was furious enough to tell them they were being ridiculous.

It would be hard to exaggerate how much high school felt like a prison.  Rumors always spreading.  Next year there would be metal detectors, see through bookbags — no bookbags.  Random locker searches, random pat downs and strip searches.  Don’t bring a birthday cake with a plastic knife or a utensil with your lunch.  Be well-behaved, be afraid and they might still punish you.  No one is safe.

They shortened lunch to just over 20 minutes, not actually enough time to get through the lines and eat.  They shortened the time between classes to 4 minutes, not enough time to pack your bag and get to the next class, much less go by your locker.  And woe upon you if you had to pee.  The hell of having your period while attending public school still gives me nightmares.  Mandatory pep rallies, the principal saying “Have a blessed day” over the announcements, nice kids getting expelled for no reason, back pain from the number of books we had to carry, you couldn’t leave if you didn’t feel well, you couldn’t leave if you needed something, you couldn’t leave to get lunch, you couldn’t give an Advil to someone else.

The people who graduated high school my year, 2002, had a unique experience — high school was bookended — Columbine our freshman year, 9/11 our senior year.  Both were collective experiences, we shared in the terror and catharsis of the rest of the country, but we were also unified in our resentment of the backlash from the administration.

I try to imagine how much different it would have been in college — where we would have been allowed to go home and watch the news instead of getting it in bits and pieces throughout the day.  How different it would have been to be too young to notice how much those two events changed the way the students were treated.  I wonder if those two events could have been less traumatic, if high school could have been less traumatic.

I don’t know.  I know that I will always hate high school, I know that I’d be incredibly reluctant to send my children into the public school system, and I know I will always try not to treat young people with contempt for the crime of being young.

And I will always owe a debt of gratitude to my chemistry teacher, Mr. Nance, who let us watch CNN instead of trying to have class the afternoon of 9/11.  It was an awful day, but it was a relief to see what was actually going on, instead of guessing which rumors were true.  We all watched, we all cried, and we all felt bad for Mr. Nance.  He couldn’t go home either.

Perhaps there’s something life-affirming about the fact that the largest celebration of 4/20 happens some 30 miles from Columbine High School, at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Tuesday, AprilĀ 20th