What The Ordinary Can Do

Today is the sixteenth anniversary of a sad and surreal day, when the unthinkable began, when lives were taken inside Columbine High School. It was just up the road from where I grew up. I can assure you that the neighborhoods around Columbine are ordinary places. My mother drove me past the school on my way to piano lessons every week, and again whenever we visited my mom’s friend Dianne and her beloved dogs, the German shorthair pointers she referred to like children. Later, the summer after I graduated from high school, I drove past that same Columbine High School on my way to my first job, where I earned minimum wage taking care of babies in the day care center. It was just streets and houses, big parks, the branch library that opened in later years that my information-loving mother began to frequent. It was near the mall where I wandered as a tween and teen, buying cassette tapes and impractical 16×20 posters and porcelain unicorn figurines.

The most harrowing experiences I had in that vicinity were all innocent and silly — Dianne’s two sons caught a frog one year and kept it trapped in a plastic punch bowl. It startled me, squeamish, when it jumped against the sides of the plastic. Then there was the time one of the babies at the day care center got a hold of her own piece of poo from her diaper and held it in her hand. I took it from her, aghast. That was all there ever was around Columbine, my slice of suburbia, a place where coming of age for an ordinary kid like me meant sneaking into an R movie or riding my bike alone down the greenbelt that followed a local creek for miles.

I was a young adult on April 20, 1999, living in another state, anticipating my wedding just several weeks away. Yet hearing the news of the violence within those halls defined surreal for me, as if the sky were torn like a paper backdrop and in one morning, nothing was as it was. My mother, a librarian at a high school six miles away, contacted me to tell me her school was on lockdown. I turned to the news to learn what was happening.

Certainly my home turf had known its share of sad events and unsettling news through the years — even the ordinary has its sorrows and its secrets. But this recalibrated it all. This knocked those of us with roots around Columbine with a velocity especially merciless. And it was different. It was different because the sad stories any of us had ever told til then — the accidental shooting, the house fire, the life lost to disease, although heartbreaking, sent their sorrows from node to node within a local network of just the aggrieved and the sympathetic. Columbine instead sent those streets and parks of my youth onto a world stage. There is a part of my head that still struggles to believe it. My corners. My routes. My neighbors. My history. And my little childhood friend Coni with the perfect chin and the bobbed hair.

In kindergarten, I had two friends whose names both ended with an “i”: Holli was one and Coni was the other. Coni’s mom, I have never forgotten, was a mom of uncommon beauty with movie-star eyelashes and a sparkly style. She called me “sugar” instead of the more pedestrian “honey” and although Coni moved away, I remembered her and her mama for years. That mom was a savvy cat, I suspected, when she tracked me down almost a decade later in the pre-internet era. Coni was back in town, she told my mom on the phone, and she wanted to invite me over.

Coni and I were young teenagers by then. The interval since our baby days was vast to our young selves and although I remember enjoying my afternoon at Coni’s new house, we didn’t keep in touch. I heard about her life here and there through the teenage grapevine. I moved away myself, off to the west coast and to college and graduate school. Then came that April day, the school year beginning to wind down toward summer, and the shock of the news multiplied when I realized that amid the grieving parents of the students who lost their lives that day, there was one grieving widow. And that grieving widow was Coni’s mom.

The story of Dave Sanders, the teacher who gave his life for his students, is one that deserves to be told and retold. The neighborhoods around Columbine always were, and still are, just places where kids ride their bikes and where moms set up banners at the side of the field for the soccer teams on which their sons and daughters play. Little boys might be lucky enough to catch a frog. Babies grow. Dads bring buckets of fried chicken to the team picnics where four-inch trophies are handed out and make boys grin. That is the American scene, the everyday scene, that harbored a crushing alienation that led to an act of unspeakable violence.

But focus here: that is the American scene, the everyday scene, that wrought Dave Sanders. And Dave Sanders was the ordinary man, the teacher and coach with glasses and beard, who left this earth a man whose courage one cannot exaggerate. There is no hyperbole here: this was absolute valor. He died protecting innocent teenagers, the kids he knew and didn’t know. He chose the route up the proverbial stairs rather than down.

And so that patch of Colorado, and all the similar patches in similar places in other years, should pulse with an extraordinary pride. I know the little girl with the perfect chin and the bobbed hair does. Coni counsels violent offenders now, in a career so fraught with meaning that her list of admirers is lengthy. Consider too what the rest of us should take from the beautiful courage of Mr. Sanders.

The mom who called me “sugar” found true love all too fleeting, the poignant cross of one who must love a hero. There is no sense to be made from it all — it will all always be senseless. But a scar earned such as this leaves a reminder that never recedes: there are heroes among us. There is courage under the park pavilion. There is beauty on the lakeshore. There is a place and a point and a reason for each of us, no matter how lonely, no matter how unremarkable we may feel, no matter the failing or the wishing or the uncertainty that marks another Tuesday. From the story of Dave Sanders, from the life his daughter Coni now leads, take pride. And to honor the grief of his widow and of all those who lost their dear family members that day, listen far and listen near, listen wholeheartedly, and then love your reason in this world. There is a part of your soul too that chooses the route up the stairs rather than down.