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The Community: The community refers to the cliques and crowds in which the killers and victims circulated, their churches, the high school itself, the town of Littleton and those from beyond its borders who were so strongly moved, or simply curious, that they felt a compulsion to journey to the place of the killings and join in a "community of bereavement." The term was coined by Edward Linenthal (1998), an authority on memorializing, to describe the crowds that amassed following the Oklahoma City bombings.
Certain objects that play a central role in adolescent life were important in the way students mourned the loss of their friends. Cars are a symbol of independence, freedom, and seemingly limitless possibilities. Rachel Scott's Honda and John Tomlin's pick-up truck, found abandoned near the school after they were murdered, quickly became shrines for grieving classmates. Surviving students found comfort in being near the vehicles, in decorating them with bouquets of flowers, notes and poems (often sealed in baggies to protect them from the weather) and blue and white balloons (the colors of the high school and of the Columbine flower). Adults erected a canopy over the car, as they did some of the other shrines, to protect them from Denver's wettest April in one hundred years (Dube, 1999; Kukel, 1999).
The Internet, too, is a pivotal part of adolescent life, allowing teenagers to keep in touch after they return home from school and often well into the night; it plays the part for some that the telephone did a decade ago. Within weeks of the shooting, each victim had his or her own Web site, the sites being interlinked as a "web-ring" so that visitors could move easily from one to the next, as though walking from room to room in a gallery. At some point during the following year the Web-ring concept was discarded in favor of independent websites. Most offered information on all the victims, or general information about the tragedy, as well as links to other sites about Columbine. As of March, 2000, only three Web sites remained that were dedicated to individual victims of the shootings. Although Web-rings differ only slightly from independent Web sites in the structuring of their hypertext linkages, the former may symbolize greater respect (for example, "Each student gets his own, nobody has to share") and certainly involves a higher level of maintenance for the site manager.
Yearbook signing is another important ritual of adolescents. For many teenagers the closest reference for the experience of death may be graduation from high school, when friends vanish into the mists of college and adulthood, often never to be heard from again. Lauren Townsend was buried in a white casket so that, during visitation, mourners could write farewell messages on it with felt marker pens (Lewis, 1999). This practice may strike some as sacrilegious, with its suggestion of graffiti and desecration of religious shrines. Others considered it the kind of "innovation" that is needed by a society many of whose mourning rituals have become hollow and perfunctory (Pine, 1976).
Soon after the Columbine shootings, a wall of two-by-fours and garden lattice was erected in imitation of the wall around the Oklahoma City Federal Building (Fagan, 1999, April 24). The Oklahoma City wall was constructed to keep the curious away from the dangerous rubble but immediately became a medium for mourners to express their grief by leaving notes and small presents within and along the lattices. Linenthal dated the practice to the opening of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial wall in November of 1982, where visitors frequently left medals, flags, family photographs, and boots and jackets (Linenthal, 1998; Niebuhr & Wilgoren, 1999). He attributed the growing popularity of the practice to people's desire to overcome feelings of powerlessness and to unite into a community of bereavement (Linenthal, as quoted in Niebuhr & Wilgoren, 1999). For some the wall may evoke more ancient images of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where visitors' prayers and messages are slipped into the cracks between the worn stones.
In addition to the anger and grief, some reported positive experiences, a growth of wisdom, a broadening of consciousness, a deepening of understanding of life. Classmates reported becoming aware, for their first time, of their mortality. "I realized that I could have been one of the students who didn't make it out alive... I started to wonder how I would be remembered... Would they say I lived my life to the fullest?" (Aaron Welsh, Columbine student, quoted in Kuntz, 1999, p. D7). Others described demonstrations of group solidarity: "...there were people I hardly knew, comforting me and hugging me" (Janelle Behan, Columbine student, quoted in Kuntz, 1999, p. DT) and surprising mobilizations of strength and courage: "There was a group of six boys who literally saved all our lives... It was kind of funny because many of these boys are thought of as goofy kids in everyday life..." (Janelle Behan, Columbine student, quoted in Kuntz, 1999, p. D7). Others reported experiencing reconciliations with their families, and a renewed appreciation of life.
Tom Mauser, whose son was a shooting victim, found himself drawn toward gun control advocacy. Ten days after the shooting he addressed a crowd of 12,000 protesting the National Rifle Association meeting in Denver. When President Clinton gave his State of the Union address in January of 2000, Mauser was one of those invited to sit in the gallery (Janofsky, 2000). Following this, Mauser took a yearlong leave from his job with the Colorado Department of Transportation to serve as director for political affairs for SAFE (Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic) Colorado a not-for-profit lobbying organization (SAFE Colorado, 2000). Most of the parents of victims banded together in a project to board up the library where the killings took place and to build a new library, classrooms, and atrium open to the sky. They met as a group two or three times a week to socialize, provide mutual support, and strategize about the 3.1 million dollars they had to raise to complete the project (Bernall, 1999).
During an appearance on the "Today Show" to mark the one-year anniversary of Columbine, Dawn Anna, Lauren Townsend's mother, acting as spokesperson for the group, described a sense of haste to get the renovation underway. "Because of the outdoor classrooms, it has to be built during the summer. Once we take care of the children, we can deal with our own grief which we have been pushing down" (Touchet, 2000). Apparently a year later parental grief had not been adequately addressed. The only parents to exclude themselves from the library project were Michael and Yolanda Shoels, the parents of Isaiah Shoels, the only black teenage among those slain. The Shoels filed a lawsuit against the parents of the killers, claiming that they had the responsibility and the opportunity to prevent the slayings. In other school shootings, parents of victims have sued parents of killers; however, none of the other Columbine parents had chosen to file suit (Belkin, 1999). Race played a pivotal role in their decision. Isaiah Shoels and his two siblings constituted three of the 16 black students in a school of 1,965. An eyewitness reports one of the gunmen remarking, "Look, there's the little n( )," before killing him. Isaiah's father remarked in a New York Times interview, "Should that be the last thing you have to hear before the last breath leaves your body?" (Belkin, 1999, p. 89). Before this, the Shoels had been the victims of Littleton hate crimes involving vandalism of their home and car.
Misty Bernall argued for forgiveness: It's normal, I think, to want to bite back, whether by filing a lawsuit of by other means... Even if we did sue and won, no amount of money is going to bring our children back. Besides, they lost children too, and it would cruel to act as if their grief were any less than our own (Bernall, 1999, p. 130).
Because the killing of Isaiah Shoels was a hate crime, and the other killings were random and opportunistic, the Shoels had a fundamentally different experience from that of the white parents. By filing a law suit, touring the country speaking on his son's behalf, and allying himself with community organizers like the Reverend Al Sharpton (Belkin, 1999), Mr. Shoels brought the killing to the attention of the American public, increasing awareness of hate crimes, and hastening the day when such crimes are a page from the past.
- Fast, Jonathan D.; After Columbine: How People Mourn Sudden Death; Social Work, Oct2003, Vol. 48 Issue 4, p484-491
Reflection Exercise #10
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