I wrote this piece a while ago for one of my writing classes in school…thought I’d share it here.
Man, this is scary….but here we go…
*Disclaimer: I’ll only put this disclaimer up once, and I feel weird even placing it here at all. But as this is my first time posting any of my “actual” writing outside of blogging, I feel compelled to make clear that creative non-fiction/memoir writing is subject to memory, meaning MY memory of events and places and people may be different than YOUR memory of the same things. Also, while 99% of memoir is (should be) true, naturally, about 1% is either exaggerated or down played for artistic effect.
Twelve-hundred miles away from my current home in Sacramento, in the small Denver suburb of Littleton, Colorado, exists a similar binary. A town that, for more than one hundred years after Richard and Angeline Little staked their initial claim into its soil, maintained a general state of anonymity; Littleton not even a blip on the historical radar of Colorado. That is, until that warm, sunny morning in April of 1999, when Littleton’s history became forever split between the designations of Before Columbine and After Columbine. I suppose the same abbreviations that set up the timeline of human existence work in this situation as well. B.C., standing for Before Columbine, and A.D., standing for the often confused, but in this case highly relevant, After Death. Eerie how that holds up.
Honestly, my memories of that move are a bit hazy. I remember that my sister and I stayed the summer with our dad, his new wife, and her three girls, while Mom and the boyfriend set up shop in Colorado. When the summer came to a close, my sister and I loaded into a rented RV with Dad and his new family, and drove the monotonous eighteen hours from Sacramento to Littleton. I have since made that drive more times than I can count, but as a twelve-year-old girl it all felt very distant and epic; as if I was leaving Sacramento behind forever.
I spent that pre-Colorado summer trying to reinvent myself. I practiced new handwriting styles and tried on a new gender-bending nickname. I would now be called ‘Al,’ because that was so much cooler than Alaina, and the sassy tomboy on the popular Friday night sitcom, “Step by Step” also went by the brief moniker. New name and new style for what I was sure would be a shiny new life in Littleton.
As it turns out, Sacramento and Littleton were not all that different. Apart from Colorado’s icy winter weather and severe lack of oxygen, the towns were disappointingly similar. I had wrongly assumed that a city named Littleton would be much smaller than it turned out to be. Colorado was supposed to be cowboy country; mountains and horses and tiny towns full of nice country folk who knew every last detail of your life. Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kid may have altered my perceptions of what it means to live in a small, practically Midwestern town. When I first began writing about my time in Littleton, I thought it would be interesting to look into the town’s demographics for the year I moved there, to see how my memory holds up to actual raw data. Population-wise, in 1993, Littleton had 36, 875 people to Sacramento’s 401, 716. I must admit that this information shocked me. The density of Coloradans did not feel that drastically different than the Northern California crowds. I failed to take into account, however, that the Littleton borders are not visually obvious, so really, all of Denver and its suburbs felt like home to me. The entire Denver area had 508, 388 people that year, which was much closer to Sacramento’s population, and makes me feel a bit less crazy about my memory of my new town’s unimpressive expanse. What this all boils down to is this: Littleton was not so little; it was basically Sacramento with snow.
It is no surprise, then, that I also remember feeling disappointed that my new home was almost the same as the last, only now in Mountain Standard Time. It is a bit saddening now to recall just how little I appreciated all that was different about Colorado. For instance, one can never look to the west (or even know truly what direction is west), in Sacramento and find their view consumed by the awe-inspiring, snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. I miss that. You always know what direction you are traveling in Colorado because of those mountains. There is something comforting about always being able to place yourself, to always know which way is home, or which way leads you furthest from it.
I say first move to Littleton, because in typical me fashion, after spending just two years in Colorado, and upon entering into that wild landscape that is high school, I decided it was not enough. I should double-down on the newness and move back to California. I would live with my dad and step-family, starting high school in another foreign town with not an acquaintance to my name. Rocklin, California. As close in proximity to Sacramento as Littleton is to Denver, but that is where the similarities end. I have little desire for delving into the preppy boringness that was my time at Rocklin High. Almost nothing of importance, and surely nothing of interest, happened while there. No doubt this is why I adhered to my impatient internal change clock, and high-tailed it out of Rocklin halfway through my junior year to go back to live with my mom and sister in Littleton. The year was now 1998, and Littleton High had all the charms one expects from their high school experience. A “North Side,” where the punks and goths (and usually the jocks, too, but don’t tell anyone) went to smoke their American Spirits; an open campus generally running at about half-capacity due to an overabundance of freedom coupled with a severe lack of ambition; and a fun, wild cheerleading squad where I unsurprisingly found my home (I may know a thing or two about the North Side). It was the complete opposite of Rocklin High, and it was perfect. Little did any of us know that in just over a year, an event would take place that would rock this town, and the country, to its core, promoting the term “school shooting” to the top position in the hierarchy of social anxieties.
It is astonishing how drastically the landscape of a town can change in just a mile. The Southbridge movie theater lay just on the border of Littleton, the ten mile or so County Line Road serving as the border between the cracked and littered streets of Littleton, and the new suburban paradise known as Highlands Ranch. To get to the new theater, you would head south down Broadway for about a half a mile, past King Soopers and the old Conoco gas station, past a handful of bus stops with faded advertising signs scattered along the dusty streets, and continuing on down past the drive-through liquor store that never carded and supplied my senior year with a constant supply of Keystone Light. Just your run of the mill town. Nothing terrible, yet nothing exceptional. Old and somewhat neglected, but very much established.
Littleton is an old town, established officially in 1890, and because of that, manages to hold on to a bit of that old town charm, especially in regards to the homes. The street I lived on had not one house that looked alike, and I loved it for that. Every color and shape and size imaginable, the only unifying feature being basement windows lining the bottom of every residence. All houses have a basement in Colorado; it is a matter of safety. Tornadoes are common there, I am told, although I never had the thrill of seeing one first hand.
All of this changes, though, once you cross over West County Line Road on your way into the neighborhood of Highlands Ranch. No dirt, no sketchy liquor sales, no charm. Just rows and rows of the same stucco boxes, all a similar shade of peach, and this one giant movie theater. That was it. Sidewalks were ample, made for walking, I assume, yet not a person to be seen walking down the road. Back up the way in Littleton, there were pedestrians always on the move, casually side-stepping the potholes and drop-offs, sidewalks an unnecessary luxury. It is so funny to me, these new developments with their massive sidewalks. No one ever walks there. All the walking happens in the city, the older parts of town, the places with the shitty sidewalks.
My time spent working at the new theater in Highlands Ranch stands out in my mind for several reasons. It was the first real job I ever had, and I thought I was so mature to finish my classes at noon every day so as to be able to go straight to work. I moved up in the ranks quickly, and landed myself a position as the personal assistant to the Human Resources manager. At only seventeen years old, I had more responsibility and pull than any of the other high school students working there. But this is not the main reason this theater remains a fixture in my mind. It remains there because this is where I worked when it happened.
As it was all unfolding, I remember a palatable shift in the air, a feeling that we were entering a new landscape, that things, in the most unpoetic of phrases, would never be the same. Whenever I would go back to visit California before this day, there was never once a person who knew of the town where I lived. I would have to say, “It’s a suburb of Denver, much like Carmichael or Roseville is to Sacramento.” Everyone has heard of Denver, naturally, but Littleton had, until then, lived up to its name. Its history and significance being so little as to be almost non-existent.
That is all different now.
Littleton is now, and forever will be, synonymous with Columbine. We had finally made it. Recognition. But we didn’t want it anymore. Take it back. We want to go back to obscurity, a time when kids could be kids, and the worst thing you had to worry about being brought to school was drugs. Bring back the drugs; we want the drugs. Anything other than this.
I remember arriving at the church and being overcome with the beauty and stillness of the location. It was at the top of a small hill overlooking the city, Pikes Peak and the Rockies just off in the distance. The view was unobscured, the sky appearing to go on forever, as if standing inside of an unshaken snow globe. I did not believe in God, I still don’t, but I knew that Lauren did, and thought that there was not a better place for her to be released from this world and into the hands of her creator. If He did exist, this is where he would be, overlooking this church on the top of this hill, ready to receive yet another angel into heaven.
I have not been to many funerals in my life. Strangely enough, I think the only funeral I had ever attended prior to Columbine was for another young girl taken too soon. I had little experience, but this funeral, I was sure, was one of the biggest in recent history. Most of the funerals for the victims were open to the public, welcoming the community into these sad and personal moments, no doubt in an effort to bring the community back together, to prove Klebold and Harris wrong, and to remind ourselves that Littleton is a place where people come together with love and acceptance, not vitriol and gunfire. There were over two thousand people at the Foothills Bible Church that day. Two thousand devastated souls, not a single one able to contain their grief as the U.S. Air Force Academy Chorale sang a heart-wrenching rendition of “Amazing Grace,” and Lauren was finally laid to rest.
The answer to this question is not clear. It never is. Whenever these things happen, we are always shocked, horrified. We grasp at straws, trying to pinpoint where we went wrong, how we could have prevented this. But we always come up short. Soon after it happened many claimed the two as belonging to a group known as the Trench Coat Mafia; a group suspected as having neo-Nazi tendencies and a rampant hatred towards the more privileged and popular of Columbine students. The truth is, they were not part of this group, they were not part of any group. There is no reason, no comforting solace, no justifiable punching bag to seek out and unleash upon. It just is. And it is frightening.