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The Princeton Anthology of Writing:
Favorite Pieces by the Ferris/McGraw Writers at Princeton University
Edited by John McPhee & Carol Rigolot
With a Preface by John McPhee

Book Description | Reviews | Table of Contents

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 2001, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to

"Massacre at Columbine High School" by Nancy Gibbs

High school is a haunted house in April, when seniors act up because the end is near. Even those who hate it sometimes cling to the devil they know. And for the kids who love it, the goodbyes are hard to think about. Two weeks ago, Sara Martin was chosen to be a graduation speaker for Columbine High, and she was struggling. She wanted to write about all the people she loved, in the choir and the Bible club and even the ones who turn left out of the right-hand lane in the parking lot.

She was in the choir room last Tuesday when something very different was walking the halls. By the end of that gruesome day, by the time fifteen people had died, her friends among them, she had her yearbook of humanity and integrity signed in blood. As Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris prowled the school with their guns and bombs, this is what the children did: a boy draped himself over his sister and her friend, so that he would be the one shot. A boy with ten bullet wounds in his leg picked up an explosive that landed by him and hurled it away from the other wounded kids. Others didn't want to leave their dying teacher when the SWAT team finally came: Can't we carry him out on a folded-up table? A girl was asked by the gunman if she believed in God, knowing full well the safe answer. "There is a God," she said quietly, "and you need to follow along God's path." The shooter looked down at her. "There is no God," he said, and he shot her in the head.

Before we inventory the evil we cannot fathom, consider the reflexes at work among these happy, lucky kids, born to a generation that is thought to know nothing about sacrifice. They had no way of knowing what would be asked of them, what they were capable of. Among the kids who died and the ones who were prepared to die were the students who stayed behind to open a door, or save a friend, or build an escape route or barricade a closet or guide the descending SWAT teams into the darkness.

The story of the slaughter at Columbine High School opened a sad national conversation about what turned two boys' souls into poison. It promises to be a long, hard talk, in public and in private, about why smart, privileged kids rot inside. Do we blame the parents, blame the savage music they listened to, blame the ease of stockpiling an arsenal, blame the chemistry of cruelty and cliques that has always been a part of high school life but has never been so deadly? Among the many things that did not survive the week was the hymn all parents unconsciously sing as they send their children out in the morning, past the headlines, to their schools: It can't happen here Lord, no, it could never happen here.

Sure it can. It can even happen in Littleton, a town of 35,000 near the dusty-tan foothills of the Rockies, just southwest of Denver. It was once a small prairie town of gold rushers and traders, where the biggest scare was getting hit by a prairie dog. Now it's a stretched finger of the big city, with aspiring families who don't lock their doors, enclaves with names like Coventry and Raccoon Creek and Bel Flower, scrubland turned into golf courses, houses than run anywhere from $75,000 to $5 million or so. There's an arch over a hallway in the high school engraved with a motto: "The finest kids in America pass through these halls."

It was Free Cookie Day in the cafeteria, and there were hundreds of students draped around the tables and waiting in lines at the 11:30 lunch hour when the sounds of the firing erupted outside. Students saw two boys in trench coats and masks firing at kids; one tossed something up onto the roof of the school, and it exploded in a flash. Some kids thought it was the long-awaited senior prank; they had been expecting balloons filled with shaving cream. Surely those are firecrackers, they thought. Surely those guns are fake. Is the blood fake? Can a fake bomb make walls shake? Then they were screaming and running. One boy could feel the rush of a bullet past his head.

All the while the killers were still inside, going about their business. And in the end, they did their deadliest work in the school's quiet place, the best place to find people in a school when finals are looming and everyone worries about getting term papers done on time.

The killers went round the room, asking people why they should let them live. Students heard one girl pleading for her life, then a shot, and quiet. They told wounded kids to quit crying, it will all be over soon, you'll all be dead. They approached another girl, cowering under a table, yelled "Peekaboo!" and shot her in the neck. Anyone who cried or moaned was shot again.

The murderers were utterly without pity. Survivors said they treated it like a video game. "We've waited to do this a long time," they said. At one point one of the gunmen recognized a student and said, "Oh, I know you -- you can go." And then, "We're out of ammo gotta reload. We'll come back to get you three."

Before they fired their last two shots into their own heads, the killers fired off an estimated nine hundred rounds, using two sawed-off shotguns, a 9-mm semiautomatic carbine and a TEC-DC 9 semiautomatic handgun. And as the smoke cleared, police discovered more than thirty bombs in all: several pipe bombs in the school and others outside in cars in the parking lot, an arsenal so large that suspicions immediately arose about whether Harris and Klebold could possibly have acted alone.

The hardest thing about the search for an explanation was the growing fear there might not be one. There would be lots of talk about the venomous culture that these boys soaked in--but many kids drink those waters without turning into mass murderers. There would be talk of deep family dysfunction, something in their past or their present, but nothing in the first days of archaeology turned up anything tidy that explained something so massively wrong.

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File created: 4/15/02

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