The sun was still climbing up over the horizon as I drove into the near-empty high school parking lot. The sky was clear and the air was crisp and I was probably late for 0 period.
April 20, 2000.
Four months earlier we’d survived the panic and hysteria of “Y2K.” Me and my friends lived through the stroke of midnight that launched the new millennium without so much as a flicker of the light bulbs. All of the anxiety and over-preparation ultimately amounted to an ordinary New Year’s celebration with a few more batteries and bottles of water.
We’d all evaded catastrophe, for now.
On that late Spring morning, our community had distant thoughts of another, imminent threat. It was the first anniversary of a suburban school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, an event that awakened parents of affluent white school kids everywhere to the possibility that even the privileges and advantages funded by their high property taxes couldn’t insulate their kids from violence.
My mom and I reviewed our options on the eve of the anniversary. We discussed the rumors of “copycats” and the possible existence of a chapter of the “the trench coat mafia” in my hometown.
Back then, the threat of a mass shooting could be measured by the likelihood of a socially isolated loner type gaining access to his parent’s weapons. Columbine gave us a narrative to track and a set of signs and symptoms we could evaluate. I remember scanning through the students in each of my classes, trying to identify who, if anyone, would be capable of a massacre.
The next morning, as I looked back to note the location of my car in the parking lot, I felt only moderately certain my assessment was correct.
The year after Columbine, the conversation about school shootings was still dominated by the particular characteristics of the shooters and the collective failures of their parents, teachers and administrators. At least where I lived, there was still a sense that we could prevent “another Columbine” through vigilance and awareness about the individuals who might be capable of perpetrating such an act. Teachers received training and parents attended information nights and those of us who were still teenagers were taught to see something and say something about our peers.
In the 20 years since, I’ve lost track of the mass shootings. If given an infinite timeline and access to Google I might be able to list the ones that took place in schools. Most days I can list the many venues of my public life where I now worry about being gunned down by an entirely preventable act of violence.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think often about what might be different now, if we’d reacted, then responded, differently, back then.
I imagine our parents using their immense social and political power to lobby our state legislators about gun safety and regulation. I picture the parents who came storming into the principal’s office, or roaring into a PTA meeting, wielding that same anger and entitlement to advocate for local, state and national action to protect their kids. I think about those parents who never hesitated to lobby for a different grade or a different teacher or a less severe punishment when their kids got caught drinking at a dance or leaving school property for lunch. I wonder what would be possible if they’d mobilized that energy for the future, long-term prevention of gun violence for their kids, for their grand kids, for all kids, forever.
In the same way that I mentally scrolled through the images of my classmates on the evening of April 19th, nineteen years ago, checking for signs of a “school shooter,” I now scroll through their pictures on Instagram, searching for signs of action.
We’re grown ups now, our social media feeds filled with tiny, innocent, beautiful children, sweet kids with big dreams, who will some day attend schools where they’ll hide under their desks and stare at the back of a closed classroom door during an active shooter drill or, God help us, reality. Those babies smiling up at the camera, proudly or reluctantly, wearing cute stickers indicating an age or development milestone will soon be teenagers. They’ll be casually walking through a shopping mall with friends or dancing to their favorite band in a club or at a concert, when their life will be suddenly changed by the sound of gunfire and the ensuing chaos at the scene of another mass shooting. Their bright eyes and bubbling energy are signals of futures with limitless potential. They’ll be powerful executives or ground-breaking physicians until their office building or hospital or place of worship is destroyed by an assault rifle that should have been banned when their parents were kids.
Their parents, who were born before the internet and graduated from high school after 9/11, who went to fancy schools and have advanced degrees, who have all the resources and access and education to raise their kids on organic food with the latest parenting techniques and gadgets. Parents who belong to online and in-person communities that organize around everything from mom-and-me workouts to creating nut-free classrooms. Parents who bought nice homes in well-manicured suburbs so they could send their kids to “good schools” and even better colleges. Parents who would spare no expense in trying to guarantee the best possible outcome for their kids in every aspect of their lives.
A guarantee that is only as certain as their kids’ survival in a country where thousands of people have already died from gun violence this year.
If I could go back and tell the 1999 version of my mom what I needed from her I would tell her this:
Columbine is only the beginning. The years to come are woefully challenging for innumerable personal and political reasons but this tragedy, in particular is the start of a nightmare that gets unimaginably worse. I need you to talk to your friends about gun control. Next weekend, on the sidelines of my soccer game and all next week at the gym. Every time you get the chance to influence someone, I need you to make sure they know what we’re up against. Tell them to trust you that the future safety of their kids, and grandkids, and multiple generations of young people, depends on their willingness to demand action from their legislators and to hold them accountable if they fail to act. I need you to talk to me about activism and justice and what it means to create institutional change. I need you to both be and set an example by what you talk about and how you act. I need you to go to the next PTA meeting not to promote a more strict dress code, or heightened security on campus, but to demand that our history and government classes teach us about collective action, social change movements and legislative advocacy. I need you to ask me, on my eighteenth birthday, if I’ve registered to vote.
I need you to text me on every election day to make sure I voted.
My mom’s children are adults now and time travel is still just a plotline in fantasy and science fiction. It’s too late for our parents to impact the last 20 years of gun legislation, but it’s not too late for their children to change the next 20. We can use the same script for the conversation, but have it with more urgency and conviction. We can have it with more people, more often, and we should keep having it until we live in a country that found a way to end its epidemic of mass shootings.
We inherited the failures of our parents and we own the failures of ourselves. We do not have to pass those failures onto our kids.