Joe Higgins remembers walking back into Columbine High School, weeks after two teenage gunmen slaughtered 12 classmates and a teacher before killing themselves.
His math lessons were still on the chalkboard. His calendar was on the same page, April 20, and his students’ calculators and books were still on the desks, left behind during what they thought was a fire drill.
“It was like time had frozen,” Higgins said.
The memories of that day remain crystal clear for Higgins and dozens of other teachers who survived the nation’s deadliest school shooting six years ago this Wednesday. Many have moved on, and one is writing a book about it. Others, including Higgins, have had trouble putting the attack behind them.
Higgins says he was once unemotional and strict. Last year, he wept upon hearing a student he had never met died of cancer. Fire alarms make him jumpy to this day.
“I would like to be unemotional again, but I don’t have control over that anymore,” says Higgins, who teaches part-time at another Denver-area high school. “I don’t have total control over my emotions anymore.”
For years, the anniversary of Columbine has brought media attention to relatives of the slain, student survivors and authorities, still blamed by some for failing to notice problems with Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris before their killing spree.
Teachers, meanwhile, have fiercely protected each other as they sought healing in private, while school officials have refused to release details of their investigation.
Scores of teachers stayed at Columbine until that year’s freshmen class graduated. Roughly 30 teachers who were at the school on April 20, 1999, still work there.
‘You could not abandon those kids’
Paula Reed returned part-time to Columbine this spring after a two-year leave during which she became a novelist. Every story she wrote had a happy ending.
She stayed at Columbine until students who remembered the shootings first-hand graduated, though the pain of coming to work was making it harder to walk in the door.
“There was such a sense as a teacher, you could not abandon those kids,” Reed says. “I didn’t want to go back in a lot of ways, but to actually not go back was unthinkable.”
She finally left to get away from the constant media attention and what she describes as the ripping of a scab that came with other deaths within the Columbine community, including suicides and two students killed at a nearby sandwich shop in 2000.
‘We had absolutely no control’
After a shooting last month at a high school on a Minnesota Indian reservation, officials blocked outsiders. But Columbine became became virtually a tour-bus attraction, with tourists leaning out windows to take pictures.
“If we had been able to shut the world out the way they had done that, it would have made such a huge difference,” Reed says.
Former Columbine art teacher Barbara Hirokawa Gal, whose work to tout the healing power of the arts has grown since 1999, agreed.
“They’re really lucky in a way,” she says of the Minnesota tribe. “They had total control of the situation. We had absolutely no control.”
‘It feels like a stranger’
Klebold and Harris opened fire at 11:19 a.m. and killed themselves 49 minutes later after fatally wounding teacher Dave Sanders and 12 classmates, including 10 in the bullet-riddled library. While Higgins and his students were filing out, English teacher Paula Reed was helping students get over a fence and away from the school near suburban Littleton.
Afterward, Reed suffered from headaches, hives and having her hair fall out. She says she felt uncharacteristically withdrawn, angry and depressed.
“Right afterward, I looked back at who I was before the shootings. It feels like a stranger,” Reed says.
“I will never be the person I was on April 19 and before, but I’m closer now than I thought I would be,” she says. “I truly thought, ‘I will never be happy again.’ I don’t feel that way anymore.”
Renewed sense of purpose
Douglas Craft, who retired from Columbine in 2001, wishes he could teach again. The day of the shootings, the biology teacher gathered eight students in his classroom, locked the doors and waited four hours for help to arrive. He tried to divert students’ attention from the sounds of gunfire by saying things to make them laugh.
Craft had five of the slain students in his classes.
“I think about those kids all the time,” Craft says. “I remember their names, I remember their faces, I remember where they sat in my classroom. I review their names in my mind quite frequently.”
He taught in Denver Public Schools for a few years after leaving Columbine, realizing he wasn’t ready to quit, but he now sells cars in Golden. The attacks reinforced his understanding of a teacher’s purpose.
“It just reaffirmed the notion that teachers are there for more than just to teach their subject matter, which I knew all along, but to be part of the overall school community,” Craft says. “That means to be a good listener and a good watcher and to be involved with our students.”
For some, lingering guilt
Former librarian Mary Swanson confronts memories of the shootings each day as she works on a book some teachers asked her to write to record their memories. Swanson might have been in the library when Harris and Klebold opened fire if she hadn’t returned home to make sure she had turned off a television.
“I lived with a lot of guilt that I wasn’t in there with the kids for a long, long time,” Swanson says. “I decided the reason I wasn’t in there was I needed to do this book.”
The book, which has not yet found a publisher, will be dedicated to Theresa Miller, who was with Sanders before he died and helped keep students calm amid the gunfire. Miller died of cancer a few years ago.
“These are stories of typical teachers. Your kids come first when you’re in the classroom, no matter if gunshots are going off,” Swanson says. “None of them thought they were heroes.”
Gal has spent her retirement from Columbine telling others about art as therapy for healing. She says the shootings changed her perspective on teaching.
“It made me realize even more how important I was for the kids. The next two years we spent using art to recover from the trauma. I am so passionate about that now,” she says.
Gal and other artists encouraged students to pour their hearts into their journals and artwork, expressing feelings that regular “talk therapy” couldn’t unleash. It was all part of helping traumatized teachers, parents, students and community members deal with the pain.
“I tell people I will never do anything that difficult again in my life,” Gal says. “I know I won’t. I hope I won’t.”