April 20, 1999. I was substitute teaching in Boulder Valley School District and St. Vrain Valley School District while I applied for teaching jobs. That day, I was set up to sub for a 4th grade ESL class at Columbine Elementary in Longmont. I’d been subbing for ESL and Spanish classes a lot because fewer people wanted to sub for those and I’d taken 2 years of Spanish, so I welcomed the chance to learn more. That 4th grade teacher always requested me when she needed a sub, so I’d worked with that class four or five times and had been getting to know the kids.
At that time, Longmont still had a slightly blue-collar, midwestern feel. It was one of those towns where you could tell which way the wind was blowing by which neighborhood you were in when you smelled the chicken processing plant. Columbine Elementary was in the older part of town, a few blocks off Main Street. Some of the kids in the all-Latino 4th grade class had said their parents worked at the chicken plant.
A girl named Marta* had consistently had trouble fitting in with the class. She was bigger than most of the others — heavy and unattractive. The other kids all scooted away from her when they sat on the rug. They scrambled to avoid being stuck with her as their partner. She often annoyed other students by making noises, picking her nose, or bumping her desk against theirs when they were trying to work. “Marta” they’d say under their breath as her jolt to their desks made their pencil mark veer off their worksheet. “Marta,” they’d hiss when she sat down right next to them on the rug and then started to poke them.
We all know what happens after 4th grade. We know how groupy girls can get in 5th. We know what happens in junior high with kids who are awkward and can’t fit in.
I was just a sub, and I don’t know whether this was the right thing to do. But when Marta was pulled out to work with a specialist, I talked to the class. I told them, “Marta needs to learn to fit in. She needs to learn soon, or it’s going to get harder. And the truth is she needs to learn it from you. Your teachers can try to help her, but they can only do so much. You guys are the ones who have the best chance of helping her learn to get along with people her age.” I remember their faces, their dark eyes wide, as they stood against the brick wall of the playground, just after they had been doing the “avoid standing in line next to Marta” dance once again when they had lined up to come in from recess.
They all tried. They were inordinately patient with Marta once she came back to the classroom. They let her sit next to them. They ignored her when she picked her nose in class. They said nothing when she kept bumping her desk against the four others in her table group and instead quietly kept working.
Marta escalated. She made noises more loudly, poked people more painfully, and pushed other students on the rug until she became nearly impossible to ignore. When she began bumping their desks with hers repeatedly and with more force, they tried to scooch back from her. But she went into full bumper-car mode, continuing until they could not work at all. Even so, they continued to take it. Finally, I had to send her to the principal’s office so the rest of them could get something done. But I said I was proud of them for trying so hard, and encouraged them to continue to make the effort.
After school got out, I drove back to Boulder for a dentist’s appointment. The dentist was married to one of my former classmates from CU-Boulder’s Teacher Ed. Program. We had both just finished in December.
“Did you hear what happened at Columbine,” Dr. Wade* asked, his eyes wide.
“Um, I was just at Columbine,” I said. “It seemed like a pretty normal day.”
He said something about shooting in the cafeteria, and I said we’d been in the cafeteria for lunch and nothing had been going on.
It took a few exchanges to realize he was talking about a different Columbine — Columbine High School in some affluent area southwest of Denver. He was rambling a bit about kids being carted out in stretchers, the school still on lockdown with no one allowed in or out. Then he said his wife had gotten a call that morning to sub there, but had decided not to sub that day.
As the aftermath played out on the following weeks on TV, there was lots of speculation about motives. Goths. Bullying. Trenchcoat Mafia. Marilyn Manson and too much influence from MTV. Violent video games. And how had they gotten the guns? Where had the parents been? Why hadn’t the school noticed something was off about them?
We know more now, more than two decades later. We know Eric Harris was a psychopath and Dylan Klebold was severely depressed. We know a psychopath paired with a depressive can be a combustible combination. But both were also masters of deception and hid their conditions well.
Sure, various people had seen something or other that, on hindsight, gave them pause. Friends had gone shooting with them, or had filmed them blowing up pipe bombs. But lots of teenage boys like blowing stuff up, right? One of them turned in a violent story for his Creative Writing class, but everyone knows some teens’ writing can be dark. They’d had some minor legal scrapes — petty theft and vandalism — but that also seemed within the “bad decision” norm for teens, and both had completed their community service and group counseling without problems.
A few years ago, Dylan Klebold’s mother broke her silence by writing a book and doing an interview with ABC’s 20/20 (with all proceeds going to mental health services). She talked about what she’d learned since about depression, and how it can be difficult to identify in teens. At the time, she couldn’t see how her gifted son who had loved baseball and spent hours building with legos could be depressed. She and her husband had known Dylan was painfully shy and self-conscious, but don’t most teens feel that way? She knew he was unmotivated in school and often reclusive at home. But teens can be moody and anyway they were getting him help for that. He seemed to have nice friends. She’d had no idea of the depth of his depression, how he had reached the point where death seemed like the only relief for his suffering, and how his friend Eric had supplied the perfect plan. If only she had known then what she’d learned since, she said with the camera doing a closeup of the tears streaming down her face. If only she had seen the signs. . .
The day after the two Columbines, I took another substitute teaching job, this time in P.E. at Fireside Elementary. I had worked for their Before and After School Program and Summer Day Camp, so I knew the principal and quite a few of the kids. We all focused on keeping the day quiet and calm. The P.E. teacher’s lesson plan had called for them to practice throwing tennis balls. But she had a whole room full of great stuff which she’d consistently refused to let our program borrow. So I used a lot of it (putting it back in exactly the same spots, of course). We threw bean bags, koosh balls, foam balls, nerf balls of different sizes, and rubber chickens. Throwing rubber chickens is much more fun than throwing a tennis ball. There was laughter and controlled chaos as various projectiles flew through the air.
That afternoon I went to my first teaching job interview.
I never subbed at Columbine Elementary again, so I don’t know what happened to Marta.