Opinion: I Taught At Columbine. It Is Time To Speak My Truth.
Twenty years after the mass shooting at Columbine, a former teacher grapples with the warning signs.
Twenty years ago this month, I was hiding in the basement of a house just across the parking lot from the high school where I taught, trying to comfort the students I’d shepherded out of the school cafeteria when the first gunfire came echoing from beyond the windows to the west. We’d made a desperate dash together, first into a classroom and then, when the roving gunshots seemed to be getting closer, out into the open and toward the first house we could reach. That afternoon is seared in my memory in that particular way only trauma can be, and I remember well the moment I learned of my own place in its history.
It came when a lone student joined our stunned and reeling group after what must have been his own awful sprint across the pavement. He knew who the perpetrators were: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two of my students. Though I knew Eric somewhat, it was that second name that came as a jolt, because weeks before, Dylan had written a vicious, violent short story. That story is now a part of history, part of how we understand warning signs. And it’s for history’s sake that I write this now, 20 years on — for in the last few years, a falsehood has begun to replace our knowledge of what happened at Columbine and why.
It’s just an English teacher ritual — a Sunday afternoon and a pile of ungraded papers to conquer before morning, and this was what I was doing when I encountered the story for the first time. It was a few weeks before the shootings, and on that particular Sunday, I was delving into short stories from my senior creative writing class. Memories sometimes are seared into consciousness by the strong emotions they elicit, so when I reached the end of the narrative, I paused, horrified. Dylan Klebold had written about a “god-like figure” dressed in black, brutally gunning down fraternity-type boys. As a literature teacher, symbolism is not lost on me. The narrator seemed to revel in the graphic violence he was depicting, but it was the final passage that was particularly disturbing, where Dylan conveyed unabashed awe and reverence for the killer.
“If I could face an emotion of god, it would have looked like the man,” Dylan wrote. “I not only saw in his face, but also felt eminating [sic] from him power, complacence, closure, and godliness. The man smiled, and in that instant, thru no endeavor of my own, I understood his actions.” At the bottom of the paper, I wrote, “I’d like to talk to you about your story before I give you a grade. You are an excellent writer/storyteller, but I have some problems with this.”
Those problems disturbed me throughout the night, and the next morning, the first thing I did when arriving at school was to call Dylan’s guidance counselor. I left a message: I would be bringing him “a troubling paper,” and I would be talking to the Dylan about my concerns. When I did speak to Dylan about the nature and tone of his appalling story, the tall, lanky young man shrugged his shoulders and told me, “It’s just a story.”
But it wasn’t just a story to me. As soon as my first free period came around, I took the counselor a copy of the story and spoke of my concerns. He later brought Dylan in for an assessment, and they talked, and he left the meeting thinking Dylan had plans to go to college. Back then, there was no roadmap of what to do in these situations.
Later, I had the opportunity to speak with Dylan’s parents, Sue and Tom Klebold, at parent teacher conferences. Usually, because of our size, the English department met in the cafeteria. That year, however, we were assigned to the science hallway, where only weeks later my colleague Dave Sanders — who saved my life and hundreds more by recognizing those first shots for what they were and bursting into the cafeteria to warn us — would be fatally shot, perhaps by Dylan himself. (Because Dave suffered two in-and-out wounds, and there were shell casings from both killers in the hallway, it is impossible to determine who killed him.)
I was seated at a small desk when the Klebolds came to speak with me. Because I’d never read a student work anything like Dylan’s, I recall vividly what I first said to them about it: “I have to tell you about a story Dylan wrote.”
I recall the word I used to describe the horror I felt when I read their son’s work: visceral. I told them about the content of the story, the alarming imagery of people being gunned down. I told them about the disturbing tone. I shared that I had made a copy and given it to Dylan’s guidance counselor, who was at conferences as well.
I recall being dismayed when Mr. Klebold immediately shifted the conversation to a cerebral, philosophical discussion of teenagers today. I remember being surprised that they did not ask me more. Because of the depth of my concern over Dylan’s work, and how adamant I was about it, I recall having the expectation that they would at least be talking to the counselor that night.
After the shootings, I shared my still-fresh memories with law enforcement, first to local police in that basement refuge, with SWAT still in the school and chaos everywhere, and then later with the FBI and State Patrol. My recollections are there in the official documents, in my own handwriting and in the words of the special agent and investigating officer: “[She] also stated she spoke to Klebold’s parents at length about him handing in a disturbing story. [She] stated that they did not seem worried and made a comment about trying to understand kids today.”
Only the truth can bring healing, and the understanding necessary to make sense of what happened at Columbine. I write now, reluctantly but also feeling I have no choice, in the spirit of truth — for the sake of history, and, more personally, for Dave Sanders, for my seriously injured students Anne Marie Hochhalter and Richard Castaldo, for Lauren Townsend, who I once led on a school trip, and for all the other victims of April 20, 1999. I write for my own daughters, who lived my grief over the tragedy and then shouldered my disbelief and despair upon reading and hearing Dylan’s mother’s revisionist history, which not only rewrites what truly happened 20 years ago, but has changed from telling to telling.
Mrs Klebold has endured the unendurable, and it was hard not to sympathize with a mother in her grief. But I was unprepared to read her version of our meeting, published in O Magazine in 2009, a decade after the shootings. She wrote that at the parent-teacher conference, I never described the contents of the story that had shaken me so badly, only calling them “disturbing.” In this version, Dylan’s mother claims to have asked for a copy but never received one. I was astonished: I’d had a problem from the moment I read the story, and had given the story to the counselor immediately, certainly before the three of us ever sat down to talk. I would also have made sure to provide them a copy had they asked.
I was astonished all over again when Mrs. Klebold then came out with an expanded set of claims in a 2016 memoir, A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. Dylan’s mother now recalls that she and her husband had only “asked for details” of the story rather than for the story itself. She claims I called the paper “shocking” but refrained from going any further, saying only that “the paper contained dark themes and some bad language.” She writes that instead of providing any details, I made the bizarre choice of explaining what is appropriate and what isn’t in a short story — of explaining what was so wrong with the content of Dylan’s work — by describing the content of an entirely different work by an entirely different student: Eric Harris. I would never have conversed with a parent about another student’s writing in that manner, simply as a matter of ethics.
A Mother’s Reckoning goes on to suggest that the Klebolds asked me if they should have been concerned — and claims I said I “thought it was under control,” that I’d asked Dylan for a rewrite and “planned to show the original to Dylan’s guidance counselor,” again contradicting what both I and the guidance counselor attested earlier to having happened. The book claims I promised to call if I thought the story was “a problem,” even though I’d thought so, and said so, from the beginning. By Mrs. Klebold’s own accounting, I had already told them as much.
All these years I have remained silent but deeply hurt. I have no reason to be anything but candid, and some of the more benign moments in Mrs. Klebold’s recounting did happen: at conferences, I spoke with the couple about a novel I had taught their son, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany — a book I love, and one of the most important I’ve ever taught. In it, Irving writes, "If you care about something you have to protect it." Now, on the 20th anniversary of the Columbine tragedy, I write this remembrance because I care about and must protect my truth — both for myself, and for the historical record, as we as a country continue to grapple with how to prevent the proliferation of these horrible shootings. I have painful memories of attending victims’ funerals, of speaking at Dave Sanders’ service “on behalf of the students in the cafeteria” and thanking his family for his bravery. I mourned Lauren Townsend, who had been under my care when I chaperoned a student group to the British Isles. I grieved those who had died, and recalled with great sadness my encounter with the Klebolds.
The next year, Anne Marie Hochhalter, whose mother killed herself after the shootings, sat in her wheelchair in my humanities class. She was there with Richard Castaldo, also in a wheelchair, as we studied Hamlet and Mozart, Dante and dance, high culture in the face of heartbreak. I helped the school order Richard a voice-recognition computer; I sat after class while one of my seniors cried from seeing those wheelchairs and having been away at lunch on the day of the shootings. He felt he could have been a crusader, the archetypal knight, had he just been at school. I will never forget that young man whose anguish is also etched in my memory. I continued to teach at Columbine for another seven years, leaving after over two decades there, and drew strength from students while comforting them, too, all of us still traumatized by what we had witnessed, but healing together.
“Columbine” now is a brand, a marker, a symbol, an event, a verb, a metaphor, a label. Certainly it was the event that changed everything and set in motion a discussion of protocol for school shootings — what Dylan’s mother speaks of as “threat assessment” guidelines. And I write today not to place blame, but to provide yet another voice for those who, in the future, will study school violence. I write to protect the truth, because “Columbine” is now a part of history, and to do justice to those who died and those who still live with that grief, we must never look away from all of its realities.
Judith Kelly is a retired English and humanities teacher who taught at Columbine High School for over 20 years.