School shootings of the past claimed three new victims in late March: Sydney Aiello, whose friend Meadow Pollack died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre of 2018; an unidentified youngman who also attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas; and Jeremy Richmond, whose daughter, Avielle, died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 2012.
Only a few days before these deaths, Alan Prendergast published a longform feature in Denver’s venerable alternative weekly, Westword, about survivors of the shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999.
Columbine became the most iconic of school shootings in American memory, although dozens of school shootings had preceded it since the 19th century.
What changed? The Columbine shootings provided the template for revenge killings in the social-media age: leave homemade videos that explain your ever-growing list of resentments; dress like a killer in a video game; taunt and shoot your victims point-black; kill yourself, or spend your remaining years asking judges or juries to step inside your vortex of death. The event was also packed with haunting questions linked to religious faith.
Prendergast focuses on the people who are often lost amid the headlines: classmates who live with survivor’s guilt. His subjects have found the will to survive. Prendergast leads with Amanda Stair, who has made several videos about her life as a Columbine survivor.
Stair’s brother, Joe, fell under suspicion amid early reports (which proved inaccurate) that the killers were part of the Trench Coat Mafia, which he helped found. Joe Stair committed suicide in 2007.
Prendergast’s narrative make Stair’s story more anguished because it so focused:
Before the killers entered the library, two other students took cover under the same table where Amanda Stair was hiding. One of them was killed. The other barely survived, her shoulder shattered by a shotgun blast. No bullets struck Stair, but that’s not to say she emerged unscathed.
“Only half of the kids in the library were shot,” she says. “But the others saw and heard things that nobody should see or hear, at any age. I’ve had people tell me, ‘It’s been all these years, just get over it.’ But it’s not something that you just get over.”
The narrative takes a brief detour when it touches on the friendship between Rachel Scott and survivor Alisha Basore:
In the hagiography of Columbine, Scott’s story looms large, her journals and drawings forming the basis of several inspirational Christian books published by her parents. Basore knew her in a different context entirely, as a giggly, exuberant seventeen-year-old who made friends across Columbine’s elaborate social strata and did a pee-your-pants-funny skit involving various characters from Titanic. “I knew who she really was,” Basore says, “because she was my best friend.”
Scott and Basore knew many of the same people from working at Subway, dished about boys, went shopping together. Over spring break they’d gone on a road trip to Albuquerque in a purple Hyundai. They had talked about getting an apartment together after the semester ended, even though Scott was only a junior. None of that was going to happen now. Basore wouldn’t even get to groan again as Scott made her listen to Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of an Angel” for the umpteenth time.
The claim to know one’s best friend better than her parents did is not unusual — for a teenager. But in this case it misses the reality that the best friend’s parents knew her for 17 years, in her best and worst moments, and have insights that are undiminished by the experiences of her closest friend.
Basore has a merciful breakthrough when she revisits the scene of her horror — not only the high school, but an art room where she learned of the shooters’ presence and escaped from the building:
For years she had persistent, recurrent nightmares about shootings and explosions. Her reluctance to go to sleep led to chronic insomnia. She developed an eating disorder — and began to suspect it had something to do with Columbine.
Respite came unexpectedly during the tenth-anniversary ceremonies. A silent remembrance in the Commons was followed by longtime teacher and coach Ivory Moore leading an emotional chant of “We are Columbine!”
“We were just bawling,” Basore says. “At the end of that, they let us go walk around the school. For a brief moment, it felt like I was back — everyone walking the halls, passing each other and saying hi. I got to go back to the painting room. It was quiet. It was dark. I remember calling my brother and just crying. I got to go back. I haven’t had a single nightmare since.”
Sam Granillo, who was featured in a Dateline report in 2014, cuts to the spiritual heart of his experience as a survivor:
With the aid of Facebook and Instagram, Granillo has fashioned an alter ego known as the PonderMonster, who leaves colorful, psychedelic, blissed-out paintings in public places for people to stumble upon or seek out in an organized treasure hunt. A handwritten note asks the finder to send him a pic of the artwork in its new home so he can post it; the response rate is around 95 percent.
“This is the direction I like better,” he says. “I feel like I’m putting more love back in the universe than was taken from me that day.”
The equation is an important one. In their basement tapes, the Columbine killers talked about the kind of lasting harm they hoped to inflict on the survivors; they would haunt their dreams, [Eric] Harris boasted, and “create flashbacks from what we do and drive them insane.” PonderMonster, the Rebels Project and other survivor efforts to create something meaningful out of the worst experience of their lives denies the killers their posthumous victory.
Prendergast writes of how people only want to talk about the Columbine massacre, once they learn that Stair survived it. He addresses people’s questions about what Stair and others experienced, but in writing about their struggles with grief and guilt, and the experiences that renewed their will to live, he engages the most interesting angle — their dignity.