Friday, March 5, 2010

Positively Columbine (Reprise)

"The name Columbine says it all..." Everything in me cringed when I heard NBC reporter Lee Cowan's words nonchalantly thrown out in the Today Show piece preceding Matt Lauer's interview with wounded Deer Creek Middle School student Matt Thieu, his mom Pattie, and his heroic teacher Dr. David Benke. The reporter was obvilious that making "columbine" synonymous with school violence contributes to the tragic hijacking of what the word and community represent.

Let's be honest. Have there been two school shootings eleven years apart in neighboring schools? Absolutely. I am not in denial about that. However, these shootings do not define this community. Any attempts to suggest they do, or to use the word columbine synonymously with these isolated evil violent acts are not only wrong, they thoughtlessly participate and contribute to these tragedies. Like I said, let's be honest.

Eleven years ago, I too thoughtlessly allowed this tragic hijacking to take place in my own mind and understanding from the senseless actions of two teenagers. I unknowingly went along with the cultural refining of a word and community - until I moved here three and a half years ago. I wrote about what I discovered last year on the tenth anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School. I also spoke about it publically last month. In light of the events at Deer Creek Middle School and the renewed public references to 'columbine,' I am re-posting my comments to seize a redemptive opportunity handed to all of us. I invite Mr. Lauer, Mr. Cowan and NBC to also harness their influence for this redemptive opportunity. I welcome your comments and ideas below.

Words define and so do moments. Columbine is an example of both.

Robi and I just came from the tenth anniversary community-wide remembrance event. It was itself a powerful moment filled with powerful words. Words have enormous power to create.

It made me think about how the meaning of a very familiar word can change. “Apple,” for example, brings to mind images of computers these days as much as it does fruit. “Tight” now means cool, and cool used to mean chilly. Sometimes a word’s new meaning can be the opposite of what it used to be, like the words “bad” and “sick.” There are plenty of others.

Ten years ago, the word columbine conjured images of flowers that decorate the Rocky Mountains and this region. It is the State flower of Colorado. They are beautiful and colorful. They are hearty enough to make it through hard cold winters to bloom again with all their vibrancy each Spring.

Ten years ago the meaning of columbine changed with a moment. For most of us, the beautiful noun became a shocking adjective and verb, used in ways no one could have imagined. It became synonymous with the worst of school violence and the tragedy of evil. In a day, the new meaning of columbine took hold across the country and around the world. “Columbine-like” no longer meant flowers. It was part of the tragedy.

Ten years ago we lived in Ohio. Like most in our country, I watched in disbelief and from a distance as media carried stories from Columbine High School nestled in the Columbine community within the city of Littleton. In the days that followed, the meaning of columbine was redefined. It was easy, from a distance, to accept the new meaning.

Two and a half years ago we moved to Littleton, around the corner from Columbine High School and the community it’s nestled in. What I have discovered is a High School and community not defined by the tragedy ten years ago, but the triumphs they have experienced since. It is a rare tight-knit active community with a shared resolve unlike any community I have seen. Like the flower, it is a beautiful and colorful community. Together, they have discovered they are hearty enough to make it through a hard cold winter and bloom all the more with familiar vibrancy. I don’t mean this in some trite esoteric way. It is true in the daily reality of how they choose to live and relate.

For me, Columbine used to stand for school violence and evil. That was when I lived at a distance. That was when I allowed its meaning to be changed by people (media) who didn’t live there and didn’t know better. No longer. It’s just not true. On the contrary. The truth is this community represents vibrancy, kindness, blessing and resolve. For me, “Columbine-like” does not mean evil, but good. It is not devastation; it is restoration. It is not despair; it is hope. It is not victims, but victors. It is not powerless, but a community of determined resolve. It is not defined by one act of senseless violence, but countless acts of intentional kindness. It is not death, but resurrection.

I challenge all who read this to no longer define Columbine by a tragic event, nor to describe a tragic event by the name of Columbine. It’s just not true.

It’s time to change the meaning of a familiar word to reflect its true essence. What if Columbine, like the flower and the community, meant beauty, kindness, regeneration and resolve? What if we call it “columbine” when neighbors gather around a family to see them through a difficult time? (I have seen that happen in Columbine neighborhoods.) What if a marriage is renewed or “columbined” through the encouragement of family and friends? What if it is called “so columbine” when volunteer teams gather in New Orleans to rebuild homes of people they have never met after Hurricane Katrina? What if a painting is described as “columbine” when a variety of colors or materials are brought together to create something beautiful? The possibilities are endless, but the essence is the same. It is positively Columbine.

Words have enormous power to create. Words define and so do moments. Columbine is an example of both.

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