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In the Shadow of Gun Violence by Jesse Dobner, B.A.

I was drawing the Giza Plateau, shading the pyramids to convey centuries of desert erosion while trying to keep my extra ebony pencils from rolling off the uneven art table I was sitting at with three other students. It was only second period, intro to line drawing. The class was quiet, students poring over their sketch pads, the soft steps of our instructor traced between the tables as he glanced over our projects. I looked up when I heard the classroom’s television turn on and saw one of the administrators of my small, private high school flipping through channels. She stopped on the local news and took a step back, keeping her back to the class and her eyes locked on the screen. Everyone was watching now; a parking lot full of ambulances, cop cars, crying teenagers. It was breaking news from Littleton, about thirty miles away from my school in Boulder, and the anchor was saying “possibly twenty dead,” “national tragedy,” and “school shooting.” That was April 20th, 1999 and the first time I had ever heard of Columbine High School. 

An emergency assembly was called and it was debated whether or not my school’s one hundred students should be sent home or kept on the grounds for our safety. Parents were called, students lined up at the campus’s single pay phone trying to contact family and friends possibly affected by what was happening. Grief counselors were called in the following day and talked to us about what had happened and comforted us as best they could. Our lives had been disrupted, disturbed. I was fortunate in that no one I knew was hurt in that attack, but the doors suddenly felt thin, the walls flimsy, the glass brittle. I felt vulnerable in places that had previously felt safe. 

America has a sad history of school related gun violence that goes back to the 1850’s, but Columbine was the worst up to that point and changed everything. It has left an indelible mark upon our country and is still synonymous with feelings of tragedy and anger even fifteen years later. Eventually, my fear subsided and going to class felt like the routine it once had. Eight years after Columbine I was sitting in a lecture hall at a community college in Seattle when the campus alert system engaged and alerted us to a shooting occurring at Virginia Tech, with twice the number of fatalities of Columbine. Then again three years later, as a student at UW, it was a shooting at nearby SPU. I went home those nights with that same sense of vulnerability I had experienced as a teenager, but my relationship to it had changed. I allowed myself to feel it, but I did not allow it to control me. 

Gun violence has cast a shadow over nearly my entire educational career and has become a tragic reality for the 48 million children enrolled in our school system. Even our universities are now affected, but frankly, I’m more worried about my low-sleep/high-sugar lifestyle than I am about encountering gun violence. If there is a single message I would convey to a student, regardless of age or institution, it would be, “be aware, be careful, but do not let fear govern your life.” So much of our anxieties revolve around circumstances outside of our control and are not helped one bit by heaping our worries upon them. Life is precious and is better spent studying the things that interest you, pursuing your dreams, and achieving your goals – things that fear will not allow.

 Jesse Dobner is a writer and editor who joined Samaritan’s AR and IT teams in 2007.

© Samaritan Center of Puget Sound