“We called it 'Littlefun'”

A Columbine High School outsider looks back at his alma mater, and doesn't recognize it on TV.

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Nothing ever happened at my high school. There were parties and proms,
fistfights and car accidents, but there was nothing that made it special,
nothing that made it remarkably different than any other suburban high
school in southwest Denver — or really any suburban high school anywhere.
There were some state champion soccer teams, and half the kids went onto
college in 1990, the year I graduated, but not one student ever left and
changed the world or won an election or even starred in a Hollywood movie.

Then on Tuesday, with 16 dead bodies scattered around the
cafeteria and the library, my school, Columbine High, became famous.
Something finally happened. Two kids in black trench coats — armed with
semi-automatic weapons and explosive devices that may have included hand
grenades and pipe bombs — swept through the hallways for an hour or so and
casually, mercilessly, opened fire on their fellow students. Columbine High
School, home of the Rebels, became the home of the largest
high school killing spree in American history.

I heard about the massacre minutes after it happened and, like the rest of
the country, watched the news reports as the numbers jumped from five
injured to 11, and then to 16 teachers and students
dead, 20 others injured and both of the murderers killed by their own guns.
I thought the reports were wrong. And they still might be — about either
the body count, or the murky facts and so-called motivations connected to
the spree and its instigators.

When I see the school on the television I hardly recognize it. Yes, there
have been some major physical changes ever since the resoundingly
Republican local voters finally reversed a four- or five-year trend and
passed a school improvement bond in the early ’90s. But other facts didn’t
add up. Associated Press and CNN even Salon News called Columbine and
Littleton, Colo., “affluent” — which makes them sound like something they’re really not.
One of the gunmen drove a BMW, but I’d gamble it was parked next to three
beat-up Datsuns and a rusting VW Bug. Columbine wasn’t “Dangerous Minds,”
but it wasn’t “Beverly Hills 90210″ either.

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When I go back to visit my parents and my grandmother — never my friends;
they’ve all left — I barely recognize Littleton. The stores are all shiny
and different, like they were dropped out of some sort of alien chain-store
mothership. There’s always an entirely new city of tract homes in some
field where I used to ride my dirt bike.

Although there is a tiny Main Street miles away, the part of Littleton
where Columbine sits, still bloody and wet with tears, isn’t really a town.
It’s more like a huge amalgamation of unincorporated subdivisions with
10-plus large high schools. (The strategy keeps the property taxes low and
the schools wanting for money.) It’s the kind of place that parents think
is the perfect location to raise a family.

At the same time, Littleton, and most suburbs for that matter — as
everyone from David Lynch to Edward Scissorhands to John Cheever has
pointed out — are inherently alienating. The center cannot hold. There
isn’t one.

For me, the strangest thing about the entire experience has been watching the
news media struggle to nail down the facts. I sat and wondered what was
real. Right now, there are far more questions than answers. Were the two
boys part of an organized gang, dubbed “the Trench Coat Mafia,” or just a
small clique of outsiders gathered together under a stupid name? Were they
white supremacists who targeted jocks and minorities in their lunch-hour
rampage, or are they as misunderstood in death as they were in life? This
isn’t sympathy for a couple of brutal killers, but when one reporter said
that the Trench Coats had targeted minorities, I wondered how hard the
gunmen must have had to look: There were two blacks and a handful of Asians and
Hispanics in my 400-person graduating class.

One student told “Nightline” that the killers burst into the library looking
for “that nigger,” and when they found the lone African-American there,
they shot him. Ted Koppel asked his panel of three Columbine students
whether the fact that the killings happened on April 20, Hitler’s birthday,
mattered, and they shook their heads, bleary-eyed. The students took more
seriously the fact that the date — 4/20 — was a supposed code word for
marijuana. The suspects were also, we’ve learned, computer savvy, and at
least one reportedly had his own Web site.

All of which means what? If racism turns out to be part of the motive, that
may be reassuring. Because racism is something we can identify, and combat.
The problem is that everyone is looking for a magic answer, pasting
together vague clues and innuendo to create some sort of context to frame
what looks like, as all the worst crimes do, an awful, unspeakable act of
fairly random violence, this time executed by two very, very fucked-up
kids.

I tried to resist a lot of the sinister hype. Most press accounts say the
two gunmen were “outsiders.” So were all of my close friends at Columbine.
They listened to German industrial music. So did I. Maybe the gunmen wrote bad
poetry, too, did drugs on the weekends and spent as much time as they could
in downtown Denver, which is culturally light years away from Littleton. My
friends and I did all those things; we called the suburb “Littlefun,” and
still do.

The obvious difference is that we never armed ourselves to the teeth and
slaughtered the people we privately resented and abhorred.

I’ll probably never understand what happened at Columbine High, and neither
will you. We will all, however, hear no end to the guesswork, the
misunderstanding and the political posturing that Tuesday had President
Clinton saying that the nation needs to “do more to reach out to our
children” and “recognize early warning signs.”

The early warning signs of what? Deranged mass killers? High school
students with automatic weapons? Alienated kids? Jock-hating,
computer-savvy racists? We will never understand what happened here; we
will just stop wondering, when we’re distracted by the next unfathomable
outbreak of chaos.

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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