by Krista Hanley
At seventeen I was just beginning to find my voice, my body, my creativity, my self. I was a junior in high school with dreams of the future, and for the first time in my life I realized I could be who I wanted to be. Then that arc, that path that I thought I was on, was interrupted mid-flight.
I’ll always remember that Tuesday, a spring day three days after the junior/senior prom. My fingernails were still painted a dark red to match the dress I had worn. That day, as usual, I went down to the cafeteria for lunch, picking a table with my friends and preparing to go over the English paper due next class. The table was at the far edge of the large, crowded room away from the windows that curved around two sides.
A short time later a friend and I were waiting in the nearby lunch line when there was a commotion outside. There might have been the sound of breaking glass, but it was hard to tell in a room full of over 450 teenagers. Suddenly there was someone running through the room shouting over and over, “Get down! Get down!”
Jolts of fear went through me as I crouched low, wondering what was going on. Part of me thought it must be a senior prank; they had been pulling them off for months now. But part of me realized this was something different. All I could see were hundreds of others kneeling under tables, scared.
A shift suddenly happened somewhere out of sight, resulting in a panicked rush of students emanating from the far sides of the cafeteria near the windows. As I watched, a wave of people, liquid as water, surged up and started running full speed toward the stairs in our direction. The thunderous scraping of chairs and tables on the tiled floor with urgent screams to “Get out!” created a loud din. That panic was a contagion that spread through my body, thrilling along my spine.
Freaked, my friend and I scooted around the corner nearest us, still low to the ground. We found ourselves in a short hallway with a couple of closed doors. No exit. My heart pounded hard in my chest. There was chaos in the cafeteria behind us as the stairs up to the second floor become bottlenecked, but there appeared to be no other way out. I felt trapped and cornered. Then a door across from us seemed to magically open. “In here,” an unfamiliar teacher said, motioning us into the darkened room beyond. We entered the backstage of the school’s auditorium and climbed up some stairs. Timidly, I pushed between the curtains and walked across the empty stage, then up the aisles of seats.
At some point during this trek the fire alarm started wailing, piercing the air and all sense that this was a prank. I remember pausing at the exit at the top of the stairs and looking both ways down the abandoned main hallway. The hall was empty. Eerily empty. To the right was the principal’s office, and to the left was the library.
It was so quiet on the second floor, versus the commotion in the cafeteria below, that I experienced a sensation of deep dread. “Keep going!” someone shouted. I jogged across the shiny tile floor to the art and music halls, the flashing strobes and keening of the fire alarm filling my eyes and ears, shattering thoughts.
At the end of the hall was an emergency exit with a red bar across the middle. I stopped, feeling trapped again, but whoever was directing us said to go outside, to get away.
It was a relief to be out of the auditory path of the fire alarm and outside. A chain link fence ran very close to the school here, blocking us in yet again. But we were told to keep going, to climb over the fence. My stomach was queasy from trepidation. I couldn’t understand why they were making us climb over the fence instead of walk around the school to the main entry where we usually gathered during drills.
I awkwardly climbed over the silver chain link fence, almost embarrassed at my lack of dexterous fence-climbing skills. I broke three of my dark red nails in the process. We were directed to wait in the park next to the school. It was a warm, fair spring day. The sun shone on the tops of our heads.
Then the sirens of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances started. I heard the whomp of the helicopters circling overhead, and saw the arrival of vehicles marked 9 News, Channel 4, and Denver Post. I stood with a growing mass of students who had escaped, listening to the rumors that had started spreading immediately. As each new batch of students joined us, there was new information, creating an unfolding story that knocked the breath from my body.
By the time I made my way home it was still very early in the afternoon, probably not much past when the lunch break would have ended. I was alone. I turned on the TV. Only then did I begin to fully understand the bleak reality of what was happening.
The next few hours, days, and months are still fuzzy. Columbine High School entered the consciousness of a nation, of the world. Time molded itself around April 20, 1999.
A sleepless, heartbroken night and day were spent waiting for the names of the victims. I was consumed with the reports on television, flipping from channel to channel in an attempt to absorb more. I couldn’t fathom what had happened and why. Thirteen dead. Twenty-one injured. Two propane bombs had been placed in the cafeteria set to detonate shortly after lunch began. But they didn’t go off.
Nowhere felt safe any longer. I felt trapped everywhere I went. At all times I had to see where the exits were, plan my methods of escape, and watch for suspicious people. I went back to Columbine for my senior year. It was a year of re-traumatizing already fragile psyches. Bomb threats, suicides, and even more murders rocked our tenuous foundation. It was a struggle to show up each day, and a relief to leave.
They had replaced the floor tiles in the cafeteria, fixed the broken windows, and placed rows of lockers all along the doors that lead to the library. I hated walking down that haunted hallway, knowing what had happened there. We had to wear picture IDs around our necks every day, and we frequently practiced emergency drills. I felt imprisoned, anxious, and angry that entire year.
On graduation day, after the longest year of my life, I stood on a stage with 18 other valedictorians. I remember wondering if my life would be normal now.
But it wasn’t that simple. I went through college and even the years after avoiding telling people where I went to high school or where I grew up. I lived with anxiety and felt myself pull away from opportunities because I was so fearful. The direction my life had been going felt changed for something lesser, something diminished. Somehow I was having trouble learning the lesson. It was like I wasn’t moving on or getting over it fast enough.
I think some survivors of trauma live after with a deep, cold guilt. I know that guilt. I see it make some become highly vocal experts, the voices heard whenever an opinion is needed. Unfortunately, though, they seem to become the assumed voices of all survivors, because they are the only ones being heard. Meanwhile, others are silent, suffocated by memory, and not wishing to draw attention to themselves. But this means our voices, words, and gestures of memory are never shared, our stories kept locked in our hearts.
But there is a point in which it would be better to hear more voices—a divergent, diverse population of survivors—speaking out to understand, to find solutions, to offer support, to never forget.
As more of this country, from theater goers, to shoppers in malls, to workers at places of business, to children in schools go through horrific, terrifying events, I see less and less reason to stay quiet about my own past. My aim is to share my experience so that others may be inspired to share their own.
I used to think I was a totally different person after Columbine. That there is no way I could have emerged without being radically altered. And trust me, I was. But what I realize now is that at my core, at my very center, there continues the essence of who I was before, and maybe more importantly, who I was meant to be.