A Lasting Tribute

Finding the right words for a Columbine memorial.

Mindful of the tile debacle with the school district, the families of the dead insisted on having complete editorial control of the texts dealing with their children. The intent is to allow for each of the thirteen to be presented as individuals, in the words of those who knew them best. Media portraits and church sermons have tended to blur the distinctions, lumping them together, but it was individuals who died, and it is their glorious particularities that the families want to commemorate.

Two sample texts were presented at the unveiling of the conceptual design. One spoke of Kelly Fleming's shyness and resounding laughter, her crush on 'N Sync and efforts to be a "big kid." The other describes Kyle Velasquez's love of Coke and pizza and his eagerness to make friends: "He saw good in everyone, even some people that didn't seem to have any in them."

The victims' families will also review the comments destined for the outer wall, which Savinar plans to blend into an episodic first- person narrative, without annotation or identification of individual sources -- a sort of collective community voice. That will be no easy task, yet the memorial will be remarkable not only for its text-heavy content, but for what will not be found there. No mention of specific police agencies, for instance, or individual officer heroics and command failures, the source of so much controversy surrounding the rescue effort.

And no mention of the names Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Ever since Rohrbough and others took down the crosses that had been planted on Rebel Hill for Harris and Klebold, as if the two were victims of a natural disaster along with the other dead, the killers have been quietly excised from any memorial plans. Their legacy lies elsewhere: in fading magazine covers and moribund Web sites devoted to their memory; in homemade videotapes and ranting diaries currently under court seal; in the pain and shrapnel still carried by the people injured in their rampage.

For those not directly affected by the shootings, does the tragedy still resonate? Raising funds for a Columbine memorial so long after the event may seem like a risky enterprise; after all, the world has moved on to fresh horrors. I remember standing on Rebel Hill two summers ago with a friend from New York. She wanted to see the school, to grasp the physical reality behind the terror she'd watched on television. A few months later, my friend was watching from a window in lower Manhattan as the World Trade Center's twin towers exploded and collapsed. Now New Yorkers are preoccupied with their own losses and memorials.

Yet there are monuments to Columbine all around us. Books and scholarships in memory of the dead. The new school library. The release of almost 30,000 pages of investigative records that police and school authorities never wanted to release -- a record of "warning signs" ignored or missed, of unheeded anger and threats, of bureaucratic ineptitude and parental blindness and the chaos that followed. Anonymous hotlines and dramatic changes in police response tactics that may well have prevented worse school shootings.

What is lacking, perhaps, is what only a permanent memorial can provide: A place to try to make sense of it all. To glimpse the innocence and vitality of those caught in the gunfire that day, to try to fathom the loss of lives cut so short, a loss that diminishes us all. To meditate on a society so prosperous and promising, yet maimed by senseless rage and violence.

A place for generations to ask why, even if the answers remain elusive.

For related stories please see the Columbine Reader

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