Friday, December 18, 2015

A Teacher's Worst Nightmare: "Columbine" by Dave Cullen

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Published 2009 by Twelve
417 pages, Nonfiction

I wish I could remember which blogger was writing about audiobooks recently.  She recommended reading nonfiction that way, and then the clouds parted, angels started to sing, and I realized this was a great suggestion.  My main problem with audiobooks is that t h e y    a r e   s o o o o   s l o w.  I'm a plot junkie.  I read fiction because I want to know what happens next, and I want to know NOW, not in 32 hours.  But with nonfiction, I don't feel the same urgency.  This is why despite liking a lot of nonfiction, I hardly ever read any.  I get too distracted by my urgent need to read stories.

So what to read?  I narrowed my choice by comparing nonfiction on my to-read list with what the library's downloadable audiobook selection had, and ended up with Dave Cullen's Columbine.  I had confused Cullen with David McCullough, and didn't realize my mistake until after I'd started.  McCullough is a prolific and respected biographer and historian.  Cullen is a journalist who has, um, written a book about the attack at Columbine High School.  In my defense, it did win some awards when it came out in 2009, so I had this vague idea that it was a Should Read kind of book.


In spring of 1998, I was living with my parents and looking for a teaching job.  After living and teaching overseas for most of my twenties, I was getting ready to move my career back to Oregon.  I'd done my student teaching the previous fall, and my dad had sworn to never again make snide remarks about teachers' days off after he saw how hard I was working on evenings and weekends.  I continued to live at home, working a retail job, while I waited for the jobs to open up for the next school year.

Then Kip Kinkel murdered his family and shot up Springfield High School just an hour or two down I-5 from us.  Bizarre.  Shocking.  Sad.  We shook our heads at the tragedy, the waste of lives, the illness that left his older sister bearing all the pain and publicity.  But we moved on fairly quickly.

That summer I got my first U.S. teaching job and moved to the town I worked in for the next ten years.  I loved my job, although I struggled at it.  I loved my students.  I loved being independent again.

In spring of that first year, Columbine happened.  We called it a school shooting.  We were all horrified.  My dad told me, as stern as I'd ever seen him, "If that ever happens, don't be a hero.  Get out of there and save yourself."  This went directly against everything else he'd ever taught me, but I understood it as the plea of the loving parent that he was.  I told him the same thing I still know now--I have no idea what I'd do in that kind of situation.  I like to think my instinct would be to save my students.  I have no illusions, though, about how clear-headed I'd be in a terrifying emergency.  It's possible I'd crawl under a table and cry.  Over the years, I've had plenty of opportunities to ponder the question.  "Live Shooter Drills" are now part of the public school experience, and I hate them.  I hate the queasy mix of boredom and nervousness, the balancing act of getting students to take it seriously without actually freaking anyone out.  I hate knowing that no matter how rehearsed we are, the unexpected will always leave us vulnerable.  What if Jessica is in the bathroom?  What if Cory's allergies act up and he starts sneezing?  What if, inevitably, someone bumps into something and it falls over, launching a flurry of "Shhh!" and supressed giggles?

What if a shooter fires his way into our locked room and kills us?


I started listening to Columbine on my commute.  At first, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to follow through.  With so much terror in the world these days, why wallow in it?  I didn't own a TV in 1999, so I don't have many horrifying mental images from the event.  Did I really want to create them?  What could be gained by learning every detail of something I wish had never happened?

I thought of Holocaust narratives, of the importance of remembering, the danger of denial, and decided I'd keep going.  Soon, I was too caught up in the story to stop, even as it became more upsetting.

Cullen was onsite as a reporter through the whole ordeal.  He then spent years poring over evidence, notes, and documents, conducting interviews, reading and viewing the killers' diaries and videos, putting together timelines and organizing chaos.  Early in the book there's a minute-by-minute description of what went on that day.  There are also careful recreations of the last days of some of those killed.  In some ways, this feels manipulative, because of course you feel sad for all the last, unwitting goodbyes.  But again, it also honors the victims and their families by emphasizing their story.

He also delves into the pasts of the two young men responsible.  One kid is drawn as a psychopath, full of hate, rage, and inflated ego.  His family is described as being in denial, refusing to admit the truth--that their kid's behavior went far beyond youthful shenanigans.  The other kid is drawn as a self-loathing but brilliant young man from a loving and supportive family.  You can't help but wonder what would have happened to him if he'd never crossed paths with his murderous friend.  Would he have ended his own life without bringing others with him?  Would he even have gotten the help he needed to survive his pain?

Cullen has been criticized by some for emphasizing the killers' mental illnesses--one a psychopath, the other suicidally depressed.  What about the system? seems to be the main counterargument.  I just--no.  The system is flawed, God knows.  Donald Trump is a viable candidate for president, polite Minnesotan cops killed a handcuffed black teenager, health crises bankrupt solidly middle class families.  But we don't go on murderous rampages in response.  Institutionalized violence does not justify individual violence.

Besides the killers' mental states, there are a few key things Cullen wants us to know.

1. This was not a "school shooting."  This was a school bombing.  The plan was to blow up the cafeteria/library section of the building, taking out about 500 people, and then to pick of survivors as they fled.  When the bombs didn't explode (thank God for teenaged hubris and overconfidence), the killers started shooting and throwing pipe bombs in an impromptu change of plans.

2.  All that stuff we all knew--that the boys were outcasts, members of the Trenchcoat Mafia out to get jocks, girls who'd rejected them, and/or Christians--is bullshit.  They had plenty of friends.  They were athletes themselves.  There were no specific targets--they just wanted the biggest death count in terrorist history.

The "outcasts lashing out" theory is the one I had heard the most.  Schools scrambled to launch anti-bullying campaigns, to identify students who might be driven to violent despair by the unkindness of their peers.  It turns out that the recent focus on bullying victims as potential suicides is more realistic.

3.  This is the one that is super important.  There was a coverup.  Not just of decisions that turned out to be the wrong ones, like not getting inside in time to save the teacher/coach who bled to death in the science room, or allowing some parents to find out from the media that their children were dead.  Those things suck, but it was a horribly confusing and chaotic event, that despite their training, few police officers would really be prepared to handle anywhere at any time.

No, there was a deliberate coverup of the fact that another family had been sounding the alarm on one of the killers for a year and a half.  They had called the police 15 times.  The police had started to put together a search warrant to look for pipe bombs, then decided not to.  Again, nobody is prescient.  They made those decisions based on what they knew and their experience and training.  Horrifying, in retrospect, but not morally wrong.

What was wrong was calling a secret meeting of those involved and telling them to deny all of it.  Hiding and destroying records of the investigation.  Discrediting the family that had tried to warn everyone.  THAT is appalling.

As a reintroduction to audio books, Columbine was a success.  The narrator was unobtrusive, reading teenaged anger and excitement with appropriate energy, but otherwise conveying the story clearly without inserting his own personality.  I commandeered my husband's broken headphones for my commute.  They are the puffy, over the ear kind, which are far more comfortable than earbuds, and the fact that only one ear works was fine.  I don't need narration in stereo, and it made me feel more secure that I could hear sirens and other traffic noise as needed.   I am definitely going to continue listening to books as part of my drive--I can't believe I've been missing that opportunity for all these year!

I still have mixed feelings about reading this particular book.  I disapprove of rubbernecking, and try to resist that impulse to examine other's pain, to make public entertainment out of private tragedy.  It might seem silly to call this event "private," but for every single affected family, it wasn't just about the big public spectacle, but also about their own individual pain.  I'm not sure what good it does me to know more about what happened.  I'm glad that first responders have a different approach now, but that's not my job.  My job is to protect my students, and to not raise the next killers.  Does this book, with its description of mental illness and lies, really help me in that?  I don't think so.  Still, I admire the work Cullen put into it, balancing obsessive research with accessible story telling.

4 stars.  Difficult, but fascinating.  

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I don't think I could've read/listened through that, so thank you for your review here! I had no idea about the coverup, nor that everything we were fed was B.S. I think we all suspected it was B.S. at the time (every time there was mass violence at a school, there was shade thrown on anyone who dressed in black, or wore trench coats, or played D&D, or looked counter-culture. I was subject, personally, to a wave of persecution after Columbine (at my own high school) because I led a LARP group and several of our members liked to wear black long coats and trench coats. That poor family that, essentially, did their moral and community duty 15 TIMES and then had to endure feeling helpless and discredited? I can't even imagine. I hope the entire police department sent them an apology. I hope they didn't lose a child in the attack. I hope other police departments learn from this. And I hope you never have to deal with a shooter or bomb on campus. I remember, as a high schooler, it was a great excuse to hang out. I don't think any of us took it seriously, though we all followed the rules (except for when we DID have a shooter on the roof. Twice.) On reflection, although I appreciate our staff were prepared enough to have a plan in place (which I think gives the best chance of survival) but there was a lot of short-sightedness in it that made us vulnerable.


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