“We called it 'Littlefun'”

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

Topics:

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.



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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>