Twenty years ago this week, I was in my high school biology class and over the intercom we were told to stay inside the school and not leave the premises. Our teacher finally relented and let us watch the unfolding horror on CNN through our class TV. Down the street at our neighboring high school of Columbine, we watched and listened as students, who many of us knew, climbed out of the windows and called in to describe the horror. All of us were scared, wide-eyed and climbing out of our skin. Yet we were stuck in the classroom watching a television that showed kids running for their lives.
To pass the time and deal with the stress, some of us started playing cards. I’ll never forget learning from a friend that day how to bridge shuffle a deck of cards. It eased my mind and energy as we watched in increasing anxiety as President Clinton took the podium to express the pain of our nation. Our town, Littleton, was on national news. It was a surreal and frightening experience. I have never shaken the feeling of being that close to such a tragedy but not actually in it myself.
The last twenty years have moved more swiftly than I could have imagined. But our generation’s experience with trauma never stopped. For those of my generation who were in middle school and high school during Columbine (folks who are 33-39 now), the rise to adulthood has not inspired new confidence in the country we have inherited. Not that younger or older individuals were less affected, but we were just old enough to be aware that we’re inheriting an increasingly fragile world. Of course, for many of our generation and previous generations, the reality of that fragility had been obvious for some time.
Cascading and consequential seizures in our collective reality kept coming for our generation. An invalidated presidential election (the first in which many of my generation voted). 9/11. Afghanistan. Iraq. Economic calamity. The election of our nation’s first African-American president. A Boston bombing that forced an entire city to stay inside for a day (I was also near this sad event). Newtown. The election of our first reality show president. Charleston. Charlottesville. Parkland. Children being torn from families at the border. And in between each of these and many others, our social media circus kept us shocked daily by a million paper cuts of trauma from around our country and the world. All along a constant has been that guns kept coming to schools and kids kept dying. Fragility sometimes seem even too strong a word.
Now this week. Twenty years later nearly to the day, terror of a gun wielding person struck new terror into kids across Colorado. On Wednesday, nearly 500,000 students did not attend school for fear of death. Many of these students are the children of those of us who were in middle school and high school during Columbine itself. Shared intergenerational trauma of school shootings now seems to be a nonstop feature of our lives.
All generations experience trauma or some dilemma that questions the foundation of the society they are about to inherit. Whether the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement or the end of the Cold War, all generation face some existential threat. I believe it is not a coincidence that violence in schools and places of worship has been a recurring theme of our past decades at the same time confidence in our institutions is eroding. This is our existential threat.
Living in a society where one person can cancel school for a half a million kids and where local trauma is reported (and experienced) globally is living in near-constant anxiety and fear. Our generation is coming of age right now when it is clear and evident that too many institutions are failing our society at all levels and require fundamental reordering. It will require honest reflection from previous generations about the world they are preparing to deliver. Our generation must be honest about what it would really mean to build a world where 500,000 kids don’t stay home out of fear of a lone gun person or actually worse, continue to lose student lives in sacred places of learning. In a world where institutions can’t trust themselves for the safety of their members and kids, we are in a real crisis.
The same woman who taught me how to bridge while shuffling remains a friend and now works to train teachers around the city and state. Yesterday she texted me, speaking in words that I imagine resonated with many others, “School shootings panic me for my girls, but at the same time I’m just as angry for them staying home because I feel like we’re all playing into this fear mentality. It feels like we’re letting them win.” She is asking and wondering the question of our moment – what have we given up? Are these false choices? Who is us and who is them? What would it mean to not live in fear either way? Or do we need to just come to terms with this, as a society, that this is the consequence of modern life? No one has easy answers.
For my part, I have hope and faith that we can find renewal in our schools and in our education system. I still refuse to accept we cannot fix this problem, no matter how cynical and brittle our society appears. Our educators, families and students are on the front line of this important battle for the future of our American soul. They are showing us the way. We must look to them for guidance on how to solve these issues. We should be prepared to think through all that it means to not balance the security and safety we value along with the freedom to live a life in an open space.
But we should be careful. Our generation must lead in a way to avoid repeating the same polarized patterns of our traumatized American past. Walls around our schools or nation are not a solution to the reality of an open society. Instead, we must build bridges. Bridges to either break the cycle of our sad politics or to repair the deep trauma inflicted in our communities.
Bridges are not always popular. People argue over their shape, size and location. Bridges don’t mean that we have to agree with everyone on the other side – we just have to acknowledge their humanity and perspective. Most consequently, bridges force us to confront the deeper reality of our moment – that we are all more interconnected than we would ever admit. That embracing interconnectedness represents the best bet to confront the institutional distrust we find everywhere.
If our institutions and democracy can be reborn through bridges, then schools must lead the way. We must not delude ourselves that we will all be on the same page or agree on similar solutions. I will never forget the feeling of being trapped inside the school while tragedy struck my community. My heart breaks for kids who experience this in any way. But I now know deeply that to prevent more kids living in fear or losing their lives, just reshuffling the deck and trying again with the same systems won’t solve the problem.
We will need to bridge.