By the echoing crash down the empty corridor, I thought a teacher's desk had been dropped from the balcony walkway onto the floor of the "commons" where the students hung out before the first bell rang at 8:05 am. My mentor-teacher and the student there early to take a make-up test before school both stopped what they were doing to look around for a couple of seconds. We heard the echoing crash again. Then again and again. We all stared at each other, not knowing what the noise was but knowing it wasn't normal.
My mentor-teacher figured it out first. She jumped up with her keys in her hand and ran to her classroom door, slamming it shut and locking it. She grabbed me and the student, yelling at us to get under her desk. All three of us scrambled under, and she sat between us with both her arms around us, rocking us back and forth. I can't remember what she was saying now, but I do know she was praying. She was crying.
I think it was only then that my naive brain let me process what was going on, only as I found myself sheltered under the soft arm of the woman who was my beloved high school AP English teacher and now my mentor as I followed in her footsteps towards a degree in English Literature. We stayed under her desk through the echoing crashes, which we now knew was the horrific noise of a shotgun being fired in a cavernous high school gathering spot/lunchroom. I would hear this sound every night in my restless sleep for months afterwards. It haunted me for years.
Eventually, it got quiet. Too quiet. My mentor was crying at this point, sobbing the name of her oldest daughter, a junior who she'd last seen in the commons about fifteen minutes before. We couldn't hear a sound. About ten minutes after the initial shots were fired, she crawled out from under the desk and told us to stay there, that she was going to look for her daughter.
She left us there alone.
We waited another fifteen minutes, just me and that ninth grade honors English student there to take a test. I don't even remember her name.
I started hearing sirens outside. I climbed up on chairs to look out the windows, and saw students running on the lawn and into the surrounding woods where the chemistry teacher had created a nature-trail the year before. The students were running there to hide. I saw an ambulance. Police cars.
I stepped down from the chair and told the girl to stay. I assumed that with police there now, it was probably safe. I left the classroom and shut the door to lock the girl in. The hallway was empty for several moments until I saw a disoriented and very large football player amble up the back stairway. He was crying. I told him to go outside, to get out of here. He just kept crying, so I yelled at him. I yelled at him to get out. He did. He turned and ran down back down the stairs.
I looked the other direction down the hallway towards the balcony walkway that overlooked the commons area where we heard the shots. Two teachers were standing there, so I walked their direction. I don't remember now which teachers it was, but I joined them on the balcony and looked down at an image that kept me awake for weeks afterwards.
On clean white floors was smeared blood in about eight or nine places. Several students were sprawled on the ground. It was so quiet. Such little noise at all. I finally heard some voices below me, so I looked down and saw a pair of legs surrounded by blood. One of the teachers standing next to me took my arm and pulled me away. I found out later that those legs belonged to one of the two fatally-wounded victims. She was being cradled by the French teacher who had run down there in the mayhem and found herself offering the touch of a mother as a teenage girl took her last breaths.
I don't know how, but I found myself outside wandering around. It truly was mass confusion. This is the part of the story I remember so little of. There were police cars, ambulances, parents, students, school buses, hysterics and silence. The moment I remember most was this: one of the late-blooming ninth grade band kids was walking aimlessly on the lawn near the band hall. I was near the car I had borrowed from my grandparents for my semester of student-teaching. What I remember is that he stood still and looked at me. For a few seconds, we looked at each other, not knowing what to do. As an adult, I knew I needed to do something to help him, but I didn't know what that was. I was myself a graduate of this exact school by not even four years and as shocked as he was by what had just happened.
I don't know how long we stood there looking at each other. It may have only been half a second, but what I know for sure is that the gorgeous blue eyes of marching-band Greg locked with mine in a way I'd never experienced before. I was the grown-up, and those eyes were needing me to help him make some sense of this shit storm. I couldn't.
Eventually I know I got two random kids in my car and drove them home. I remember having to clutch the steering wheel so tightly that my joints hurt. I was shaking so badly that I was afraid I was going to crash my grandparents' car. I somehow got those kids to their houses and myself back to my grandparents' house. I remember walking in to their house via the garage and simply laying down on the kitchen floor. I don't know how long I laid there. It must have been a while.
This was before the days of cell phones, so as the news hit the radio and TV stations, my family had gone into panic-mode knowing where I was. All I remember from the rest of that day was sitting in front of the TV as various family members came over. I'm sure I didn't eat. I definitely didn't sleep, not for days.
Eventually everyone went back to school. These first days back are also a blur but a few things stand out.
One was the English teacher across the hall grabbing me on the first morning back and shoving her copies of The Catcher in the Rye into my hands with the stern and worried directive to hide them somewhere. She'd heard that the boys involved in the shooting had read it as inspiration (which is most likely not true, but in a small community like this, all sorts of crazy rumors were amok at this point), and she didn't want to be connected in any way even though she had never taught the shooter or any of his friends.
I also remember another ninth-grade honors English kid named Curtis writing in his journal how ashamed he felt that when the first shot rang out, he left his best friend Robbie to go run out the door. His friend was shot in the leg, and I also have vivid memories of watching his healing process over the next several months, as he came to and from class on crutches. I remember the anger I felt that this great, funny, smart kid like Curtis was beating himself up for self-perceived lack of bravery in a school shooting.
I remember the ninth grade honors English girl who was pregnant and shot in the leg by a rifle. I'll always remember her and wonder about the kid she birthed who is now maybe a student at this same school.
I remember an AP English senior in a brown suit and tie who approached me several days after the event and said through tears that he was scared this awfulness would scare me off from teaching. I remember crying with him and telling him that the opposite was true.
A few months later, I graduated from college and moved a few months after that to teach high school in Slovakia. Not even one year after the shooting, I sat on my Soviet-built apartment balcony and spent an afternoon reading an international magazine article about the event I witnessed a few more that followed it. I only told one of my classes in Slovakia about what had happened the year before. Telling them completely changed the dynamic in the classroom. They finally understood that I was on their side. I never said the words, but I think they understood that I loved them. By the way a few cried when I left at the end of that school year, I know they did. Life can be snuffed out so quick, so it's best to love the ones we're with, no matter how arrogant and pissy they can be, as this class was at times.
In the second year of my marriage, we went to Colorado to visit Ted's old college roommate and his family. His daughter was starring in The Wizard of Oz as Dorothy, and we really didn't want to miss it. I had just joined this amazing new social networking site called f*cebook at the urging of a teenage niece, and one of the first friends I found was ninth-grade marching-band Greg. Except he was grown up and living in Denver. We found each other online one day, and the next day we were making plans to meet up at the airport before we left town in a beautiful example of the serendipity that trails me in life.
I wish I had some dramatic story about our meeting at the airport, me the student teacher and the 14-year-old who went through one of life's worst experiences together. Seeing him all grown up, drinking coffee, with a goatee, and working as a social worker was so reassuring to me. Turns out that my failure to give him the answers he needed on that awful day hadn't scarred him too bad.
I remember that I made a point of looking into his eyes at the Denver airport as we sat across from each other and drank coffee. They were still beautiful and blue, huge, open to wonder, holding the spark he had as a ninth grader. The fear from that day wasn't there, thank God. Groundedness was though. He was grown up. He had his feet on the ground. He had chosen a life profession that let him take care of people.
He takes care of people. It just now occurs to me... so do I.
On October 1, 1997, we grew up together and fifteen years later, I made a point of checking those eyes of his online.