I didn’t want to go to school that day. Actually, I just didn’t want to go to math class. We had a test and I wasn’t ready. By the time that class period had rolled around, I was determined to ditch and go to the library to study instead. I thought about going to the cafeteria. I had friends there eating lunch during that hour, but I decided the library was the most responsible way to avoid class.
As I got to the library, I remember feeling like I should turn around and go back to class. I tried to brush it off, but as I put my hand to the door I felt it again and I couldn’t shake it. I gave in and went to class.
Shortly after I sat down and started pulling out my books, the fire alarm sounded. “Weird,” I thought. “We just had a fire drill last week.”
Soon a teacher, not ours, burst through the door and yelled, “Everybody get the hell out of here!”
We filed into the hallway where there was a crush of people, hands to backs, slowly pushing their way through the halls. When I got outside, I saw cars stopped in lanes of traffic to avoid the kids that were just running into the streets without looking. We were all confused. Kinda frantic. “The school must really be on fire,” I thought. “Maybe there was a chemical explosion in the science lab. That might explain the popping we heard before the fire alarm rang.”
Once we got across the street to the park, other students joined us and we learned of the two boys in trench coats, the militia gear, and how they just started shooting people. I would learn later about the bombs planted in the cafeteria, and around the school, about my friends Daniel Mauser and Matt Kechter, and 11 others who’d be killed before the two seniors killed themselves in the library.
All I knew in those moments was the sense that I was not in my body, that I was an observer. I felt panic, but at the same time, the world didn’t feel real to me.
Path to Healing
It’s been 20 years since the Columbine shooting and I still feel that panic sometimes. Everytime I see news of another school shooting, I go right back there in my mind. I can’t help it. It’s a trigger.
But my life is so much bigger than the tragedy I experienced at Columbine. It’s full of so much beauty and meaning, much of which I credit to my four beautiful children and husband. But that can be true for any of us who go through tragedy or hardship, regardless of what comes our way. I am not defined by the Columbine shooting.
For me, healing has come slow, but it has come through my faith. In the 11th chapter of Matthew, verse 28, Jesus, invited the people to lean on him during their hard times: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
“Coming unto him,” for me has always meant, in part, forgiving others, seeking out those who are struggling, and being slow to judge a person. You never know what a person is really going through or how they might be hurting.
[pullquote position="left"]Early on, I decided to forgive the shooters. That was an important step for me and it really has brought me peace. The world is troubled. It can be a very scary place, but I constantly try to teach my children to look for the good, to be kind to everyone and to be happy with who they are.
Columbine changed me, but not just because of the trauma I experienced. My experience that day taught me to be less judgemental. I try to keep my heart open to everybody, to have compassion to all, no matter what they look like or their situation. If they’re angry or mean, I try to step back and think about what they might be going through, or what they might have gone through, to make them behave that way.
Mostly, I think people are just looking for love and validation. We could solve a lot of heartbreak through our connections with the people around us.
The sad truth seems to be that school shootings will continue. We can ask why we haven’t learned from previous experiences, why people with mental health issues are still getting their hands on dangerous weapons or why lawmakers haven’t put better regulations in place. I do ask those question. And I talk with the leaders at my kids’ schools to make sure they have plans in place. But ultimately, we have to realize that sometimes, some things are simply going to be out of our control.
It Does Get Better
If I could tell teens in high school right now a few things I would say this: Don’t get caught up in the frivolous things. Be a real friend. Listen and love.
Bad things happen and sometimes we can’t prevent them but you can be a force for good and you can change a small situation so it doesn’t become a huge one.
If you have experienced trauma or an event like I have, I want you to know the future is bright. It’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to go through the process; don’t deny yourselves those feelings. But do talk and open up to others. Let people help you. Let people love you. Serving others helps you forget about your own heartache for just a small moment.
In the 20 years since the day I almost stepped into that library, since the day I lost two friends to gun violence and met fear and grief like I’d never known before, I’ve learned that there is so much beauty and love and meaning in life available to you if you want it. Your tragedy does not define who you are. Have faith and hope. It does get better.
Photo courtesy of the author.
Liz Lancaster graduated from Columbine High School in 2001. She's a full-time mom and currently lives in Holliday, Utah, with her family.