I remember Columbine.
I was 12.
My dad had a subscription to TIME magazine and I used to flip through the issues whenever he wasn’t reading them. I read all about the major news stories in TIME. I kept the issues about Princess Diana’s death and about Mark McGuire’s and Sammy Sosa’s home run records. Hype was easy to grasp with TIME, but Columbine was something different. I was captivated by every article, every photo of teenagers crying outside of their school. Pictures of the victims were always arranged in yearbook format. I read and reread all the small details about who they were and how they died.
All I ever wanted as a kid was to grow up and go to high school. I wanted to emulate all the characters in the shows on ABC’s Friday night “TGIF”. I wanted to be cool and popular. I wanted a boyfriend. I wanted to use the word “like” over and over and over. There was something cool about shrugging with indifference.
Columbine unearthed a lot of emotion in me. Part of me was intrigued with the macabre. I pictured myself hiding under a desk in the library, pictured myself running from the school with my hands in the air. Over the years I’ve forgotten many of the details that I once absorbed, but one question has always stuck with me. It was the question one of the shooters had supposedly asked of student Cassie Bernall before she was murdered:
“Do you believe in God?”
At the time I considered myself a devout Christian. I grew up in the church. I followed the doctrine, but at 12, I was starting to find myself swayed by secular society. By books and music. By television. By then I’d finally learnt all of the profanities. Sometimes I even used them because the boys always laughed when I’d say things like “Stupid bitch” or “Fucking shit!”
Sunday would follow. I would go to church and be good again.
Then I’d go back to school on Monday and I’d think, “Do you believe in God?”
Cassie said Yes.
Cassie was a good Christian girl, and then she got shot.
In 1999, the media blamed the Columbine shooting on bullying, on violent video games, on Marylin Manson. Many theories and stories that arose from the early days post-shooting were later found to be false or misreported. We now know that the “Do you believe in God” question was a myth perpetuated by hearsay, but in 1999, Cassie Bernall said Yes and was made a martyr.
I remember putting myself in Cassie’s shoes, wondering which response would keep me alive. Would I say Yes and face the bullet, or would fear take over and I would say No, assuming that I’d be spared? Natural selection could be cruel. Perhaps I was weak for even questioning my own faith. Or would the trigger have been pulled regardless? Did nothing matter?
Post-Columbine, I’d spend a lot of my time knowing that I needed to swear less and pray more. I straddled my balance between the secular and the Christian, always looking ahead, looking down a barrel whenever I thought about God.
Was it better to believe in God or not?
By the time I got to high school, I realized just how much of a goody-goody I was.
A girl even called me a goody-goody to my face and it was the most humiliated I’d ever felt. I met many Christians in high school, but they weren’t Christian like I was. They were Christians who swore and drank and had sex. I spent a lot of my early years in high school struggling to find friends with the same values. Morals seemed to be a thing that only I possessed.
By then Columbine had slipped from my mind, but the answer to that question never did.
Do you believe in God?
I was sick with a cold on September 11th, 2001. I stayed home from school and watched the footage over and over and over, captivated just like I had been with Columbine. The aftermath of 9/11 was different, however. The issue was no longer about bullies or music or video games. The early 2000’s George Bush era of American politics became a spotlight for hatred. Perhaps I never paid attention before, but dogmatic issues like gay rights and abortion and morals and decency seemed to plague me at every corner.
I remember the gay rights debate. When I was 16, I used to think that homosexuals allowed to marry would eventually want to marry animals or objects, that the “sanctity of marriage” would be desecrated. I never voiced my opinion out loud. The other kids would judge me.
I remember thinking that abortion was murder, that unintended pregnancies were karma for women being sluts. I’d spend a lot of time hoping that the girls I knew were having sex would get pregnant. I still strayed from the discussion whenever abortion was brought up. I’d sound like just another Christian.
I read the Left Behind series. In one of the books, there’s a scene where the survivors of the rapture must profess their servitude to the Anti-Christ by having a barcode chip embedded in their forehead. Christians in the book are magically marked with a cross on their forehead that only other Christians can see. In one scene, a lost Christian follower ends up with both a barcode and a cross, and I always pictured myself in that halfway camp.
Do you believe in God?
I invited a lot of my friends to youth group. We often played cool games and had a lot of fun. At the end of the night, we’d always have a devotional, or sometimes a lecture. Once we heard about how having premarital sex was pretty much equivalent to taking a piece of tape and sticking it to a bunch of different surfaces. How if you stuck the tape to too many things that it wouldn’t stick to anything. I hoped that my friends would listen. I hoped they would live with morals.
Don’t have sex.
Don’t do drugs.
Those messages were always regurgitated with warnings. I still wanted to do all the things I was told not to. They were the things everyone else was doing. I spent a lot of my time reading V.C. Andrews novels for the sex scenes, writing sad poems, listening to nu-metal music. I liked songs about self-harm. Sylvia Plath was my hero. I gave myself a haircut whenever I found out that the boy I liked didn’t like me back. I gave myself a lot of haircuts.
During one youth group, a leader said, “If you read the Book of Psalms, your life will instantly change for the better.”
I read Psalms and I didn’t get a boyfriend. I cried a lot about not feeling loved the way I wanted to be loved.
I read a lot of books that my grandparents gave me about living a pure life and not dating until I was old enough to get married. I used to listen to Rebecca St. James’ “Wait For Me” on repeat. I still wanted a boyfriend, but the purity doctrine gave me plenty of reasons to judge my friends.
Before graduation, when I found out that my best friend had had sex with her boyfriend, I wrote a blog post about how she’d done the wrong thing. She read it. That’s why we’re not friends anymore.
Throughout high school, I’d ask myself over and over, “Do you believe in God?”
I’d picture the gun. I’d picture the shooter and my answer meaning the end or not. Maybe if I were a better Christian teen I’d have no fear and I would look forward to seeing my maker. But I was a teenager. I was human and hormonal. The extensive self-doubt built up and I found refuge in writing sad poems or listening to angry music, or simply in having another day where I could potentially get the guy I had a crush on to finally notice me.
Do you believe in God?
My answer would come from somewhere deep; always a tiny little voice saying, “Yes.”
I still say Yes.
My parents raised me to believe in God.
That’s apparently what Valeen Schnurr said to one of the shooters in the real breakdown of what happened in the Columbine library on April 20th, 1999.
I’ve had plenty of chances to stop believing. There’s no real answer as to why I haven’t. Growing up in the church, I watched many of the kids get baptized at young ages. I remember asking my mom if I could get baptized and she told me that I wasn’t old enough. Plenty of the kids who were baptized have left the church, abandoned the faith. I grew sick of much of the moral doctrine, but I still believe in God.
I remember when I first took my husband to my church. He was and still is a lover of science. I thought he’d hate church. I thought he’d think I was nuts, but he kept coming back. He said he liked the community. When he told me that he considered himself a Christian, I was shocked.
We were baptized on the same day.
Do you believe in God?
At times I feel a bit on the fringe. I either feel judged or I feel guilty. When my book, Vile Men, was published, it was the judgement of my church that I feared most. I don’t speak of my writing at church openly. One woman in the congregation saw my name on a display of Vile Men books at my city’s major bookstore and bought a copy. She prompted returned it after reading the first appearance of the F-word. It’s awkward when I talk to her at church because I know the judgement is there. I feel it always.
When Vile Men was published, a different woman at my church congratulated me. She asked if she should attempt to read it. She said that she’d read the back synopsis and was wary. I told her she probably wouldn’t like the content within. She still said, “I’m happy for you.”
Whenever I come clean about my religion to new acquaintances or co-workers, the response I get is along the lines of: “You’re a Christian?” My response now is always to raise my hands and say, “I’m a Christian but I’m not like, a crazy Christian.”
Meaning that I’m pro-choice.
Meaning that I support gay rights.
Meaning that I don’t quote Bible verses to argue with the choices of others.
I just try to have empathy. I try to listen and to understand.
If I’ve learnt anything from attending a public high school, it is those things.
I’m thankful that my parents couldn’t afford to put my sister and myself in a Christian school. I’m sure the experience is nice for some, but I’ve appreciated my time in secular society and plan on raising my daughter in a secularized Christian life as well. I plan on sending my daughter to a public school. It’s where critical thinking is taught. It’s where debate occurs. It’s where teenagers face reality when they should.
It was only this week after watching the Murder with Friends episode on Columbine (you need to watch MWF because it is amazing) that I dug a little deeper and finally learnt that the story of the “Do You Believe in God?” question had been misinterpreted by the media. Valeen Schnurr’s answer wasn’t one of defiance, but one that came from adrenaline and fear.
I still struggle with identifying as a Christian. My writing has a lot to do with it, but so does my political stance.
All I want to do is try to understand and empathize, like Jesus did with the adulteress when everybody wanted to throw rocks at her. If you haven’t committed a sin, feel free to cast the first stone. Otherwise, stand back and realize that you’re likely guilty of something, too. As a Christian and a sinner, I feel that it’s important to at the very least have a mutual understanding of sin.
I’ve watched Columbine documentaries all week and I feel that I understand why the shooters did what they did. One was most likely a sociopath with a grandiose sense of self. The other was misguided and depressed and self-loathing. I can empathize with depression because I’ve dealt with it. I can identify with feeling superior to others because I once lost friends for sitting on my own high horse. I can understand the human struggle that the shooters dealt with without lessening the impact of what they did. They both existed in extreme. They complimented the worst parts of each other. Their extreme actions should be condemned, but it’s worth understanding what drove them to do what they did.
I hate the idea of detaching from the far reach of what humanity can drive a person to do. The last thing I want to be is the person asking, “What kind of person could do that to another human being?” in the comments section of the next mass shooting.
Giving teachers guns, running extensive “active shooter” drills, and hiring a zero-tolerance school police force isn’t going to fix the source of the problem.
We talk more about mental health now than we did in 1999, but there’s still more to discuss. There’s still more to listen to. There will always be more to know.
A woman at my church will often ask me if I’m worried about my daughter growing up and becoming a teenager.
I always tell her, “No.”
We were all teenagers once, and it’s worth looking back. There’s nothing that I can do about my kid growing up and learning things, potentially doing terrible things. My daughter’s teenage experience will take place in a different time than mine, though I’m sure her emotional response will be just the same as any teenager’s hormone-ridden, angst-fueled, rage-inspired reality.
Every so often I listen to Marilyn Manson just for the sake of remembering what it was like being a teen, because the older I get, the more fearful I am of losing touch.