Minnesota soccer team member Liz Wagner was fidgeting, slightly contorting her body around and covering her face.
She was antsy, searching and thinking for answers to questions that cannot be explained with words, expressed by sheer emotion, or justified by any logic.
Teammate Meghan Jones had no better approach in responding to similar questions. The tone of the voices and long pauses between words are offered as evidence of a fight to try and put a horrible life experience into text:
Life in Littleton, Colo. on April 20.
“I still am in shock,” said Jones. “It doesn’t seem like a reality to me. I live in an upper-middle class, suburban area. You would think the perfect area to raise your kids. You would never imagine something like that would ever happen. It’s just a total shock that it could just as easily have been my school.”
Wagner and Jones are not from Columbine High School. Wagner went to Green Mountain and Jones was in Chatfield, both within 10 miles of the infamous school.
No matter, the events at Columbine shook the country and it goes without saying that it rocked neighboring schools then and now.
“We went into total lock-down,” Jones said. “We couldn’t leave, and our principal told us what was going on. There was total chaos in our school. Everyone was in the hallways, no one was in class. The teachers didn’t care that much as long as you were in the school. We had three TVs in the commons and everyone was watching.”
Watching was all you could do that day.
After the shootings, the kids at Columbine were sent to Chatfield to finish the school year. Chatfield kids went to school from 7 a.m. to noon, Columbine kids went from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. in order to keep them together.
“As you go into the doors of my school, there’s a bridge that goes over the library and it has glass on both sides,” Jones said. “So we covered it all up because we didn’t want the kids to see the library (and remind them of the shootings). Our soccer team covered it with posters sent from all over the world.”
Not only was it strange going to school for only five hours a day and sharing Chatfield with those from Columbine, the two schools were not bosom buddies before the shootings.
“We played Columbine their second game back,” Wagner said. “We brought them flowers and everything. We didn’t want to tackle them and we didn’t play hard at all because we couldn’t believe they were out there and we admired them so much for getting back on the field.
“Then we played them in the state finals. The stands were packed and the only people who really wanted us to win were our parents. We wanted to support them in every way we could, but we also wanted to beat them.”
Coincidentally, Wagner’s two goals beat Columbine that day to win the state title. She was named the championship MVP in a game featured on ESPN and CNN in the wake of the Columbine tragedy.
Wagner and Jones also played together on the Colorado Rush club team, along with three players from Columbine.
The reverberations of the shootings were felt not only by students but by teachers as well. Sheila Jones, Meghan’s mother, is a teacher in Englewood, a Denver suburb next to Littleton.
“My sister had been home that day and called me asking what school Meghan went to,” Sheila said. “I told her ‘Chatfield,’ and she was telling me what had happened. I thought about it, but those things happen. We had a shooting in my school four or five years ago.
“About 20 minutes later, my oldest daughter at Trinity University in San Antonio called and goes, `Mom, what’s going on there?’ That’s when I got nervous, because if she knows about it and she’s in San Antonio, then what is going on?”
Usually it takes unprecedented tragedies like Columbine to awaken people’s attention about certain issues. The various clothing and gun control regulations are proof of that. But often times the general attitude elsewhere is that “it can’t happen to me.”
“You pick up People magazine and all of a sudden, one of them had the mother and younger sister of a girl Meghan had played soccer with,” Sheila said during a phone interview from Colorado. “You see things like the Oklahoma City bombing and it seems distant and you don’t identify with it. Now these are people you know.”
Since that April day, schools in Colorado have undergone a face lift in rules, procedures, and more importantly, attitude.
“The tone of the community was real somber, but at the same time it felt like everyone really wanted to help each other,” Wagner said. “The community totally came together. The blood centers had lines down the street. I went to church and there were lines outside. I think that helps me a lot, just being with family and concentrating on what was really important.”
Social groups in high school and college are acknowledged, and although there have been problems, it usually takes something like Columbine to highlight problems in youth and schools. At Columbine, it was clothing (i.e. the Trenchcoat Mafia) and cliques.
“You could definitely see the cliques,” Meghan said. “Not everyone gets along in high school. The two boys — Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — were friends with some kids from our school. It was cliquish, but I don’t know it was to that point. I don’t know if Columbine was to that point either where they were totally shut out. It was more feelings of being left out and they just dealt with it badly.”
Obviously security was extraordinarily heightened after the shootings. The craziness of Columbine is leading to changes in the way schools handle security.
“One of the problems they had at Columbine was when the students and teachers fled the building, they had no record of who was supposed to be there,” Sheila said. “If we have any kind of evacuation or fire drill, the secretary has to grab the book with students names and phone numbers in it and then leave the building. All teachers are now required to carry grade books and rosters out of the building when we leave.”
Colorado schools are now talking about putting in security cameras, metal detectors and security dogs in the schools. All schools now must go through a crisis evacuation drill by the end of September.
But the cold realities of what happened at Columbine can not be justified or answered. Life’s outlook has changed at least in part for Wagner and Jones, and no soccer game or passage of time will bandage the scars of being around Littleton after one fatal day in April.
“It’s difficult to talk about and comprehend,” Wagner said. “We can’t find an explanation for what happened and so it’s hard to find a solution. It’s very tough to discuss.”
Said Meghan: “I still trust people and give people the benefit of the doubt, but there is a precaution I’m going to think about that someone will have a moment where they can’t think rationally and do something that terrible. It can be any person. Everyone in their lifetime feels left out; I felt left out too sometimes. Not everyone is perfect and they’re not always what they seem.”
Mark Heller covers soccer and welcomes comments at [email protected]