In April 1999, I was a seventh grader in a small town. On the 20th of the month, I started a normal day. In homeroom, the girl behind me and I said weird shit to each other. I spent class periods trying to be the center of attention. I had lunch. I had band. No one got shot.
At home, we had a TV downstairs, and I often used it, I am pained to admit, to watch Total Request Live and pump myself full of the teen mainstream: Backstreet and *NSYNC, Britney and Christina, Eminem, Marilyn Manson, Korn, Limp Bizkit.
This was the culture we were living in.
When I turned on the TV that afternoon after school, every channel was the news. Columbine. They counted the deaths and non-fatal injuries. Then the suicides – two. A couple of pimply white Colorado kids. With semi-automatics and bombs.
My brother was upstairs, playing Twisted Metal on PlayStation. My mom, who came home an hour later, walked in and stopped at the TV. I remember being shocked and terrified, but not shocked and terrified like my mom. This was not the world she grew up in. It hadn’t really been mine, either, but the news on the screen, maybe due to my age, the culture, didn’t seem too far from possibility.
We sat with it until we shut it off. The dial-up Packard Bell PC on the desk was my holy place. I went on the internet. Back then, it was easy to avoid the news. I looked up pro wrestling rumors. I logged into AIM. Friends messaged, and we asked if we saw the news, but there was not much to say except it was crazy, or sad, or what the fuck.
The next day, some teachers wanted to move on to the next lesson, but some wanted to talk about the massacre. In those classes, we rehashed the talking points. We blamed bullying and cliques. We blamed music and video games. We blamed depression and anti-depressants. We blamed trench coats. We blamed bombs. We blamed guns.
By the end of the day, we could have been quizzed on the timeline. They set their car bombs for noon. They set twenty more in bags in the cafeteria. They shot rounds at classmates outside and continued through the school. In the library, they shot until they decided it was no longer fun to simply shoot them. Maybe we should switch to knives, one said to the other.
Eventually, on the count of three, one put a pump-action shotgun in his mouth, the other a semi-automatic handgun at his temple, and shot.
It wasn’t normal.
My remaining years of middle school were the years of bomb threats. We had two, ourselves, in the school. One was from the girl who sat behind me in homeroom. She wrote it on the desk. We developed protocol and walked outside to the church parking lot down the street. Most of us were happy to get out of school.
Soon, we had drills. It became part of the fabric of our education.
Eighteen years later, I still go to school, except now I have my own classroom where I can always be the center of attention. It’s February 14th in Florida, and I start a normal day. I teach writing to students who would rather not write. I read and grade. A few times that day, I hate my job. A few times, I love my job. No one gets shot.
In my car, I check my phone. I use the internet often on my phone, I am pained to admit, to absently look at social media accounts. I scroll opinions and comments on opinions. I grow sick. The mainstream seems less interested in music than words and pictures and words.
This is the culture we are living in.
Before I can even log in, a news app notifies me of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School. The subtitle counts deaths and non-fatal injuries. I do not feel shocked, but I do feel terror. I pull the car out of the lot and turn on the radio. I keep hearing the word Columbine.
On the drive home, I find this time it only took one pimply white boy and one legally purchased rifle. He took an Uber to the school just before it let out. He hit a fire alarm and shot streams of people with rounds of bullets. After six minutes, he fled the school.
The report tells me they don’t know his whereabouts. I assume it’ll end up suicide. That’s how they all seem to end. Virginia Tech. U Texas. Umpqua. Northern Ill. Red Lake. Sandy Hook. We know the drill. We’ll blame mental health. We’ll blame guns. We’ll send thoughts. We’ll send prayers. We’ll argue about whether we should send thoughts or prayers. We’ll take action until we get tired of taking action and nothing happens. In class, I’ll go on to the next lesson.
I arrive home. I greet my wife and baby. The baby has been fussing most of the day, and my wife hasn’t showered or had a second. I reach out, and she gives him to me. She asks how I’m doing.
I tell her there was another school shooting. She grumbles at the nonsense of it all. She paces, almost unsure what to do with her free hands. She finds her phone. There’s a notification. The shooter was found and arrested. He was on foot a few miles from the school. The report says, afterward, he went to Walmart for a soda.
A soda. At a Walmart. It’s that normal.
I say hi to my son in a silly way– Hi baby boy, Mr. Gaboogoo, little big boy, hello. He smiles, all seven teeth, and I smell something.
I make a face he finds funny and ask him if he made poopy doopy. That’s what, for him, we call human shit. Poopy doopy. It makes him laugh sometimes. He laughs, again, this time.
Somebody has to change him.
header image: columbine high school & marjory stoneman douglass high school / wikimedia commons