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  • Marilyn Saltzman

The Columbine Tragedy – Through A Mussar Lens

April 20, 1999. It’s late morning and I’m sitting at my computer in the Communications Services Office of Jeffco Schools when the first call comes in from a local TV station.

“What do you know about a shooting at Columbine High School?”

An hour later, I am standing in the park next to the school with a rapidly growing crowd of eager journalists, frantic parents and traumatized teens.

Twenty years have passed but the images remain as vivid as they were on that sunny spring afternoon: Injured children carried into waiting ambulances; scared students with their hands behind their heads running from the building with a police escort; and Principal Frank DeAngelis frantically sketching a diagram of the recently remodeled building on a white board, so the first responders know where the exits are.  And the sounds:  helicopters whirring overhead; sobbing families; and the static coming over police and fire radios as they try desperately to communicate with those inside.

Yet reliving those sounds and images is not where I want to dwell. Instead I center myself on healing and what I learned by looking at the tragedy through my Mussar (Jewish ethics) lens:

Compassion –The students’ rallying cry, “We Are Columbine,” took on a new meaning after the tragedy. It seemed as if the entire nation became part of the Columbine experience, feeling the incredible pain and loss – loss of lives and loss of innocence. Alan Morinis, founder of The Mussar Institute, says that compassion grows when we understand that we are not really separate from another. In the aftermath of the tragedy, our school community pulled together as one to protect the students and staff. I became friend and adviser to Linda Sanders, wife of murdered teacher David Sanders, as she navigated the endless media requests. I learned that compassion means more than feeling empathy; it means taking action based on the needs of those who are suffering.

Generosity – In the days, weeks and months after the tragedy, the number of people who wanted to help from our community, our country and our world was mind boggling.  The school was overwhelmed with donations of backpacks, books, stuffed animals, paintings, poems, songs and funds. Our school public relations colleagues from around the state and nation left their jobs and families to come to Jeffco and help us with communications. Generosity covered us with a blanket of love.

Humility – Alan Morinis defines humility as “taking up the right amount of space.”  For me that involved setting and enforcing strong boundaries as we protected the students and their families. It meant asking a reporter to leave the graduation ceremonies when she ignored our ground rules.  It meant not being so star-struck by the arrival of Katie Couric  that we forgot to respond to our local media, who would stick with us when the national press moved to the next tragedy.

Faith – As a parent, I never had harbored a fear for their safety as I kissed my children goodbye each school morning. Until that April day, I believed that all our Jeffco students were safe in school. While I was never able to return to that state of innocence, I worked on rebuilding faith in what Rabbi David Jaffe calls “the goodness of the universe.” It was the only way to move forward. As Buddhist author Sharon Salzberg says, “No matter what we encounter in life, it is faith that enables us to try again, to trust again, to love again.”

Honor –Before the first anniversary of the tragedy, as the media gathered to begin its coverage, the parents of the children killed made a simple yet urgent request. “Please, focus on the victims and not the perpetrators.”  Thankfully, for the most part, the media agreed.

Twenty years later, we honor the too-short and never-forgotten lives of the teenagers lost:  Cassie Bernall, Steve Curnow, Corey DePooter, Kelly Fleming, Matthew Kechter, Daniel Mauser, Daniel Rohrbough, Rachel Scott, Isaiah Shoels, John Tomlin, Lauren Townsend and Kyle Velasquez. And we pay tribute to teacher, coach and hero, Dave Sanders, who lost his life while protecting his students.

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