The Columbine collection at the Colorado Historical Society stretches across fifteen linear feet. And this is just the paper collection. The three-dimensional items -- the T-shirts, the teddy bears, the beanie babies, the banner from a Texas church -- are kept in secured storage in two more departments in the building at 1300 Broadway.
And these are just the artifacts at the Colorado Historical Society, culled from all of the pieces left at what began as an impromptu shrine at Clement Park and grew to an immense outpouring of grief made physical. Only about half of these offerings survived those rainy days that followed the April 20, 1999, shootings, the decay of the floral remembrances that piled knee-deep at some points along the fence.
The collection at the Colorado Historical Society is just a fraction of the whole, and yet there are thousands of pieces of paper here, each evincing emotions still so strong in Colorado's consciousness -- in the world's conscience -- that it's difficult to get your arms around them.
But you can get your arms around box 9, which accounts for just a foot or so of those fifteen feet. You can carry it to a table in the society's research library and look through its contents, each piece preserved and individually inventoried. The posters, the cards, the notes from classes, churches, families.
"We will never forget," promise Buzz and Barb. "May the goddess grant you peace." "Dear Columbine High." "Take comfort." "With all our grief and sorrow," from Greenwood Elementary. "I'm sorry your kids got killed." "You are never forgotten in our prayers." "To every student of CHS," from papal youth of St. Louis. "Angels took everyone to heaven." "To someone." "We will always remember."
"I hope you get better soon."
Cards with pink, yellow, blue ribbons.
Cards with irises, pansies, morning glories, violets.
Store-bought cards, handmade cards. Cards with smiling faces, happy frogs, crosses.
Lots of crosses.
"I hope you will find a way to heal your heart," wrote Alex, a second-grader.
Another second-grader sent a card with a heart cut out of the center.
"It's an open wound," says Keith Schrum, associate curator of manuscripts. He pulled down box 9 on Monday, when he knew he would be talking about Columbine this week. It was impossible to look at everything; Schrum has yet to study the three-dimensional objects in the other departments, for example, confessing that "I just haven't had the heart to look at them." But from the dozens of items archived in this box alone, he pulls out a card originally placed at Clement Park by an Arvada family, created and colored by a child, with the words "In Loving Memory" and a cross on the front, and messages from family members inside.
From Zach: "Throughout time, schools have always competed. Who has the best cheerleaders, sport teams, etc. But now it doesn't matter anymore. Only life matters. Another minute to take a breath and be thankful for life. Life is a gift. Don't wish it away. All we want to do is live."
From S.A.: "I know you went through a tragedy. You'll be fine wait and see. If I knew you, you could see. Just how lucky you are to have a friend like me. I'll be praying for you."
Unofficial memorials are nothing new. They spring up across the country, around the world, at the sites of tragedies great and small -- outside Buckingham Palace after Princess Diana was killed in Paris, by Coors Field where a little girl was killed crossing the street two summers ago. "We've done this for a long time," says Schrum. "We have this need to recognize people. We hope that this life was not lived in vain."
After the battle at Gettsyburg, an attorney who lived nearby recognized that "something significant had happened," says Schrum, "and he started personally acquiring property with the idea that one day there would be a memorial at this battlefield."
Historians recognized that Columbine would need to be remembered, too. "We knew right away that something dramatic had happened," Schrum recalls, "and we knew we needed to be in a position to document the public response, or at least part of that." So Foothills Parks and Recreation, which oversees Clement Park, called together representatives from the Colorado Historical Society, from the Littleton Historical Museum, from the Jefferson County archives, to talk about what to do with everything that had been left at the park. The material was taken to the Federal Records Center in Lakewood, where a separate room was set up for things pertaining to each of the people who'd died that day.
After the items had been dried and inventoried, the families of the victims were invited to take pieces, and then the Littleton museum claimed its share, and then the historical society collected more. "We selected an estimated 5,000 items, many of them paper-based," says Schrum. Those paper-based items are the ones he oversees in the fifteen linear feet that account for just one of thousands of collections at the society.
This Columbine collection doesn't deal with what happened in Jefferson County before April 20, 1999 -- what complaints might have been made to police and ignored; what papers might have been written by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold for high school assignments and ignored. It doesn't deal with law enforcement's response at the school that day, or the never-ending investigations that have followed. "It does not document the shootings, or the events that led up to the shootings," he says. "It deals with the public and private response. It deals strictly with Robert F. Clement Park."
And that is enough. Aside from those days in the park, the pieces have never been displayed. A few years ago, the museum planned an exhibit on childhood and growing up in Colorado that would have included some pieces from the collection, but the show was canceled. "When we take a look at future exhibits," Schrum says, "we'll consider topics and themes, and we'll consider the impact and see where we need to go."
In the meantime, he holds up one piece of paper, "In Loving Memory," that says everything.
"We collect in order to remember," he says. "The tragedies as well as the triumphs. We have this desire, a need, to stay connected to the past."
We collect to remember what we have discovered. To remember what questions remain.
This past Tuesday marked the fifth anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School. It was also the first official Love-A-Teen Day.
Among other things, the Love-A-Teen Day 2004 Committee had encouraged "faculty and staff to greet buses and give incoming students a standing ovation." That didn't happen at Columbine High School, of course -- classes were canceled on April 20. Nor did it happen at any other school in Colorado, a state that seemed particularly immune to the Love-A-Teen Day campaign.
Love-A-Teen Day did have events in Santa Fe, organized by an actual teen who lives in that town; it had events in Louisville, Kentucky, organized by a grandmother who lives in that town. But there were no events in Colorado, even though the group's "youth spokespeople" includes Richard Hoover, billed as a "Columbine survivor."
Hoover wasn't one of the 22 people injured that day; he wasn't in the cafeteria or the library when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on their shooting rampage. He was in the weight room, and he got out, fast. He wouldn't have been at Columbine at all if his parents hadn't moved the family to Littleton so that their kids wouldn't have to go to unsafe Denver public schools.
A few months after the shootings, Hoover was talking to a friend in California when she mentioned mock threats at her own school. "I was obviously frustrated with that," he remembers. "I jokingly said, 'If I talked to them, maybe they'd shape up.'" She took him up on his offer, he went to California, and that's how his speaking career began.
Now, along with Julie Stoffer of MTV's Real World and Billy Hallowell, a New York college student who founded www.TeenWebonLine.com, Hoover's part of a group of "motivational, inspirational and educational speakers," he says. "We decided to take this on the road, put together a little tour." And then they discovered what Abby Lederman, a Philadelphia resident and motivational speaker, was doing with Love-A-Teen Day and joined up with her.
"The Love-A-Teen Foundation challenges the media to create a positive buzz about teens on this sober anniversary of a terrible tragedy by soliciting opinions from teens," reads one call to arms from Lederman. "Help raise awareness of Love-A-Teen Day and get teens involved in honest discussions about what it's like being young today and what teens have to give the world NOW in energy, activism, compassion, creativity and courage."
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"I looked at their program and what they were doing; it really did play along well and showed that Columbine was a pretty important historical event," says Hoover, who's barely out of his teen years. "National Love-A-Teen Day is good awareness; it says to the adult generation that these kids need you."
Even if Colorado didn't get the message.
But then, this state has seen Columbine memorial after Columbine memorial, from songs to plays to books to causes. It doesn't need another reason to remember a tragedy it can never forget.