I was at school that day and remember being told that there was an active shooter in the building. My peers and I hid in classrooms; we ran together past the SWAT team, our hands over our heads, as the officers charged into the school. We retreated into the woods, afraid for ourselves and everyone still inside.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the community bonded, living off the motto ‘I Luv U Guys,’ the last words Keyes texted to her parents. We all rallied to do whatever we could to help our small town heal.
For history and geography teacher Kip Otteson, that meant using music to unite people.
Otteson grew up in the ’80s and loved punk but sometimes found the culture overwhelming. “It was difficult to see shows and feel safe, because there was always a threat of violence — or at least it felt like it,” he recalls. When he was fifteen, he learned about Fugazi and became pen pals with Ian MacKaye. He admired the band for capping admission at $5, ensuring women had space to watch at the front of the crowd, and aiming to make everybody comfortable.
“That’s the kind of shows I want — where people can feel safe, where it’s cheap, where it’s totally accessible to everybody and no bigotry or hatred is allowed,” says Otteson.
Following the shooting, as Platte Canyon teachers and staff worked to unify their school and community, Otteson made plans to start a concert series.
The school supported his vision, dedicating $30,000 for a new sound system in the auditorium. The first band to play, in October 2006, was the Flobots, whose members had reached out to the school community, asking if there was a way they could help.
Otteson says that first show in the auditorium was intense. He stood next to Emily Keyes’s twin brother, Casey, and describes the experience as healing. “It was beautiful, you know? This is what music is about — knowing people care, the sense of community it builds.”
Nearly everybody at our school attended that show as one — united, surviving hard times together.
“After the shooting, the concerts provided the students with a safe environment, giving them a place to feel comfortable being around people again and being around big groups,” says band teacher Jesse Walters. “I know there was apprehension and fear following the tragedy, and I like to think it helped students heal and overcome that fear.”
Both Otteson and Walters want the concerts to be a learning experience for the students, who sell merchandise and run the sound system during the shows.
“We want the kids to get educated in a style of music they maybe aren’t used to,” Otteson says. “They get to experience a live show, which is something they may not get often.”
The teachers hope that music will shift the course of their students’ lives.
“Your high school days have this profound effect on your life, whether you were the most popular person or hated high school; it takes you one way or another,” says Hugh Miller, a history teacher at PCHS. “When you hear about students who have gone off and found inspiration in areas that you love, you feel like you might have a small hand in that, and that’s what I love about teaching high school and about these concerts.
At a concert earlier this fall, singer-songwriter Anthony Ruptak performed and invited the students to come up on stage. “Their faces just lit up,” Otteson remembers. “Every kid was so excited to be up there with the band that they just loved it, no matter what kind of music they were into…. Ruptak came to me after the show and said that they played tons of shows, and playing here gave them one of the best feelings they’ve ever felt. They said they felt like rock stars!”
Says Otteson: “My dream would be for a national touring band to say, ‘Hey, can we play at your school?’ I would love for it to be like the cool place to play as you’re traveling through, its own little venue in the mountains.”
Indie-rock act Wildermiss will be the next band to perform at the high school, on December 1.
“When we were asked to play the show, we were told to pick a theme,” says Wildermiss guitarist Joshua Hester. “We really wanted to involve the students, and thought that it would be great to partner with the art classes to make the whole night about the arts.”
Normally, Wildermiss plays at bars, but the musicians are excited to play at Platte Canyon and bring their music to the students there.
“Our teenage years were very formative ones for our musical tastes and inspired our creativity for many years to come,” says Wildermiss guitarist Seth Beamer. “We hope the students are inspired to express themselves artistically and pursue their passions. Let’s make some future rock stars!”
Wildermiss, Friday, December 1, Platte Canyon High School Auditorium, 303-838-4642.