Magazine Feature

The Lesson I've Learned, the Lesson I Teach

This reflection accompanies the feature story "Voices of Columbine."

By Kiki Leyba

April 20, 1999: Reacting
Fourth hour. I'm hustling to Frank's office. The principal is going to offer me — a first-year teacher — a continuing contract, a career at Columbine for as long as I want.

11:10 a.m. I make my way into Frank's office for only the second time in my short career. We shake hands as he directs me to a seat on the leather sofa. Frank tells me he is pleased to have me on staff and hopes that I will accept his invitation to join the Columbine family. I tell him how excited I am to be here and that it has always been my first choice of schools.

Suddenly, Susan, Frank's secretary, slams into the window of the closed office door. Her face is pressed against the glass for a moment, distorting her appearance as she tries to find the doorknob with a hand that is out of my line of sight. She breathlessly pushes open the door, the walkie-talkie in her hand squawking. She stares at Frank and says, "They are saying someone is shooting a gun in the commons."

Nothing registers with me for a blink.

Frank says, "Are you kidding me?"

Susan says that it is coming over the radios that there are gunshots in the commons.

Frank and I awkwardly jump up and flee his office. Frank is two steps ahead of me. As we head out of the main office door that leads into the front entrance commons area, Susan asks what to do. Frank responds, "Call 9-1-1!"

I pause at the door as someone else behind me asks what they should do. I snap, "Call 9-1-1!" I turn to see Frank rushing his way west down the long main hallway. It is then I first hear gunshots.

Hearing gunfire in a school is impossible to imagine. I think how unnatural it sounds — like nothing I have ever heard. It sounds blasphemous, like screaming the F-word during a church service. It violates me.

Seven shots rapidly in succession with the sixth and seventh shots closer together than the previous five.

People behind me in the office are asking frantic questions, but the questions are sliding into background noise as I realize that there are kids milling about the main commons in front of me. The students are nonchalant and preoccupied. I begin yelling, "Get out. Run outside!" They stare at me blankly as if to question who I am and why am I yelling. Some students realize that something abnormal is happening, while others hurry into adjacent halls and toward the north hallway exit.

[Leyba moved to his own department, continuing to alert students and other teachers to the shooting, urging them outside.]

 I remember my cell phone is in my glove box; I race out the door, which is only a few strides from me. I break into the sunshine and hear a dull boom from within the school. I feel less competent than at any moment previous in my life. I spot my car, run full stride to the driver's side and unlock the door. I lean in and grab the phone from glove box. For the first time in my life I dial 9-1-1. It's busy. At almost the same moment as the signal enters my ear, I hear sirens in the distance.

[Leyba moves to a new vantage point, steering students to safety along the way. He ends up at a park next to the school, watching.]

 As I take a couple of steps, screams erupt; I see hundreds of kids running out of the building. Exodus. I begin screaming at the kids to run toward me. My arms are waving over my head to make myself more visible. As I scream my voice is cracking. I scream at them again — begging, "Run to me! Run to me!"

The kids are coming out of the building in waves now. Some students veer east to the neighborhood, others to the south. Some sprint to the smaller Leawood Park across the street. Bodies dodge in and out of the cars parked in the front faculty lot. The nearly noon light of the sun creates a multi-colored glare off car hoods and windshields. Screaming silhouettes run in every direction, like a herd with a predator infiltrating the ranks. What a beautiful spring day.

 One of my students runs up and begs, "Have you seen my brother?"

I reply, "No, sorry. You OK?"

"What the hell's goin' on, Mr. Leyba?" he responds.

"I don't know, buddy, but you get outta here."

April 21, 1999: Returning
I can't believe we have a meeting this morning. I can't believe there is electricity in my apartment or that water still flows out of my faucet. I peel apart the window blinds; I can't believe the neighbor is walking his dog. I slide into a pair of black wind pants and a turtleneck. It is cold and gray outside this morning. The faculty and staff are meeting at a local church. Even though the shootings are national news, I really have no sense of what I just went through and what I am about to begin.

As I approach the church parking lot, I see the police cars, both marked and unmarked. The lot is full, but I don't recognize many of the vehicles. Later, I learn that vehicles left in the school parking lot — which were many because most students and staff ran out of the building and into the surrounding neighborhoods, and parks — were searched and released by law enforcement at their discretion.

I exit my car and see Mr. and Mrs. Hayes. They teach in the history department and are longtime pillars of the Columbine school community. "I heard you were the Paul Revere of the building yesterday," he says. Or Chicken Little, I think. "I guess we all just did our best," I reply.

I enter the large room that once served as a sanctuary. I look for the faces of my English department colleagues, the ones I never saw outside the building yesterday. People are speaking in whispers and hugging. There are pods of teachers crying and comforting each other. I walk up an aisle toward the teachers I know. We whisper about the names of those confirmed dead. People gasp and weep in every pew.

It is dark. Our principal, district personnel, sheriff's officials and other law enforcement brief us. My mind races with the names of those murdered: Two of my students; the brother of one of my students; the sister of one of my students; friends of hundreds of my students; and one heroic teacher are all dead — murdered in our school. I need no more information today.

After the faculty meeting, I drive to Clement Park, which is next to the school, and park at the northernmost edge. I see the building through the trees.

Within 24 hours, the memorial at the park appears. There are two areas where people gather: The north boundary of the school grounds — extending from the faculty parking lot on the east to the baseball fields on the west — and then further away, at the northeast corner of the park, where students without parking permits left their cars during classes.

I fill in with the crowd and stare silently at the school building, which now is foreign to me. I feel locked out, excluded and unwelcome. Police cars guard the school perimeter. I hook my fingers in the frozen chain link fence of the third base line and lean into it feeling the cold separation, staring at my hiking boots.


 There are still kids in there. Some of my students are still in there. My contract paperwork is lying meaninglessly on a coffee table in Frank's office. There still are bodies in there. What can I do now? My career is in there. All I ever really wanted to be is still in there — without me. My briefcase and checkbook are in there. My handwriting is on the whiteboard in Language Arts 11. My lunch is in the refrigerator. There is blood in there. There is evil in there. I never want to go in there again. I have to go back in there. I must go back in there.

June 1999: Regrouping
We step out of the musty school bus and divide the tools. Everybody takes two. The tools of this trade are shovels, mattocks, picks, sledge hammers, bow saws, the heavy rock bar, and the McLeod. I have a new group of crew leaders with me: college students, hippies, teachers, bus drivers and others I know nothing about yet.

We are all wearing our green Jefferson County Open Space Youth Work Program T-shirts. It's my second summer as a supervisor for the summer work program. I'm training this eclectic group of people to manage crews of teens out on the Front Range Mountains to repair trails and build new ones. Some of the teens we will be working with have never spent the night in a tent, much less hiked an entire day, while carrying all their food, water, weather gear and heavy trail tools. We work them harder than most jobs they will ever have and for less money than they will ever work for again. I love this job.

I'll hike between 500 and 800 miles this summer. I'm looking forward to the hard work and the laughs that come with this gig — not to mention I need the money.

We begin hiking down the meadow trail, single file. I look West and notice the clouds building up on Mount Evans. We will be in rain gear soon.

I'm relieved the school year is over because I'll be working with people who aren't as damaged, fractured, angry and lost. I watch my boots kick out in front of me as I hike and strike the familiar trail.

I smell the rain approaching. Lightning booms in the distance as I count the seconds between flash and crash. Some people say this method is inaccurate, but it comforts me because I know what the lightning is going to do next. Three miles and that baby is on us.

We begin the easy descent off the top of the rocks, which is a relief. I don't want to be up there when the storm rolls over. Boom! Then again: Boom! That was a mile. We can't beat it. When the lightning is less than two miles away, I am to instruct all crew leaders to exercise the lightning drill. I yell for everyone to leave their tools on the uphill side of the trail, put on their rain gear and cover their backpacks with the trash bags I issued.

Crack! Boom! That was close. I want to scream and run down the trail with my arms flailing. I don't know why this is bothering me because I've waited out storms since I was in Scouts. I yell for everyone to spread out, squat down and balance on the balls of their feet.

I'm about 20 feet down slope from a new guy whose eyes are pushing out of their sockets. Crack! My arm hairs raise as the ground beneath me moves in a way that I imagine an earthquake tremor must feel. The rain is coming down so hard it bounces off the pine needle floor. I'm crying now, but nobody is close enough to know. I cried in the rain at Clement Park. Crash! I'm out of control now.

The new guy above me stares at me with dread. I try to steady myself before I speak as tears wander, lost on my face until they slide into my mouth. I can taste which are my tears and which are raindrops.

"That strike was right behind me wasn't it?" I ask the new guy.

He nods quickly like he couldn't wait for me to ask. I can smell the ozone now.

"How close behind me?" I ask. I can still see the flash.

"Right there," he points.

I don't turn to look because I don't want to know for sure. I want to curl up on the ground and sob and scream at God. I want to run to the bus and hide between the seats on the floor. I want to leave these trainees. I want to feel safe again. I need to run.

March 2004 Kamehameha
The upcoming five-year anniversary of the shootings was definitely on my mind. And, in the months leading up to the 20th, I began seeing my trauma counselor, Marguerite, again. I could feel the PTSD rising inside of me. I have an arsenal of tools and skills that she taught me, such as journaling, meditating, tapping and breathing exercises. I was using all the skills I learned. I began writing again to try and push out some of the emotions I was weighted with now.

In the past, the anniversary was a quietly sad day. This year I wanted to be mindful of taking care of myself because, in the past, the day always happened to me instead of my approaching it with an awareness of what I was experiencing.

Up late one night, I was browsing the Internet because I couldn't sleep. A colleague told me that there was news footage of me on the Internet. The footage showed me outside of the building on April 20, 1999.

I watched the video.

To watch myself outside the school that day was the most voyeuristic thing I have ever known. I sat in my family room watching myself on my laptop. What the hell am I doing?

Many blanks were filled in for me when I watched the replay of the time skewed minutes and hours outside of the building. I watched the 30 minute tape of the 6 hours I was outside the building. I felt like I was watching the footage of Oswald before he was shot. It was like watching The Wide World Sports intro, knowing that ski jumper is going to crash—again.

I was watching a stranger, but I knew his fate.

I needed to connect a new memory or ritual to April 20th. I began to wonder if anyone would want to know my story. Was my story worth telling? Did people still care? I really wanted to give something positive to the memory of our students and teacher.

This past spring break my wife, Kallie, our youngest son, Samson and I planned to take a family vacation to Maui. Looking on the Internet, I found a classroom website created by teacher Naomi McCall at the Kamehameha School, Maui Campus.

It was then that I reached out. I emailed her to ask if she would be interested in me speaking to her students. She emailed back to come ahead, complete with driving directions to the school.

When I arrived, I ran through the parking lot past a couple of students standing on the curb of the bus lane. As I hurried by, I asked where the administrative offices were; they directed me upstairs.

I signed in and turned to find the same students who were outside behind me, sheepishly waiting to talk to me. The male student said to me, "We thought you was a lady." We all laughed. Naomi sent the kids to greet me but told them to look for a woman named Kiki Leyba. It was then I realized that Naomi trusted me to let me in her classroom without ever talking to me on the phone, only email. She thought I was a woman.

The other student, a girl, placed a beautiful handmade flower lei over my head as she kissed either side of my face and slightly bowed and whispered, "Aloha."

The students were hyper-prepared because Naomi had them researching the events of April 20th online in preparation of my visit. I was given lists of questions.

I was stunned to see specific names and places on the question lists. The students wanted to know if I was still afraid; was there security everywhere; did we pray everyday; did I know any of the victims; how can we prevent another school tragedy.

Their questions were brave and courageous. Their questions were honest and forthright. They wrote down my responses and studied my eyes. Their eyes never looked away from mine. They listened as if I was laying out a plan of survival and safety.

My heart was loud, my lip often quivered, and my eyes spoke the truth. Halfway through the day, a student asked me a question that had never been asked. I couldn't believe there was a question I hadn't heard. "If I could go back in time, would I be there again?" he questioned.

Who would want to be there that day? Of course, I wouldn't want to be there, but I was there. That day marks me forever but does not define me. The Columbine flower I had tattooed on my lower left calf shortly after the shootings is a scar on the outside of me to honor and respect the pain I know on the inside. I respect that pain, but it doesn't rule me.

Some days are harder than others.

And, there are those who still don't like to talk about what happened to us on that day. I don't question why teachers and students feel that way. The questions, answers and reasons lie within each of us and are to be dealt with in due time.

But. It's getting better.

Every year feels closer to what I once knew as normal. Life is a shoreline, a wet-dry line between normal and the awkward. The awkward piece is that to return to normal I must walk in the very doors that we frantically exited one spring day.

Normal is teaching again. Awkward is talking about April 20, 1999, not knowing just how much information you want. Awkward was the moment in my classroom last year when Jeff, our student body president, shared with the class that he searched online to find information about Columbine High School.

I was sick. Why did this young man, our student body president, have to search online late at night to find information about the very school he gave so much to? People who want to know our experiences, especially our students, should be able to ask questions. If that day becomes a whispered about tragedy in our own building, then I will have failed as a teacher.

The return to Normal is now writing about that day, at least for hundreds of my former students and me. Sean Graves came back to visit me last year and to talk about how he should begin to tell his story. In my writing class, Sean shared his story of the day he was shot and nearly paralyzed. He was brave, and I was privileged to be part of his audience as he worked through the public telling.

Many days on this course of healing have changed and affected me but that moment when Sean shared his writing was all I could ever hope for as a teacher. Writing and sharing: it is medicine. Cliché? Perhaps, but Sean is changed for it; I'm better for hearing it, and, now, I'm doing what was modeled for me so firmly. I'm writing about what happened to me that day and it feels scary, big and secretive. I know enough to know that if something inside of you is scary, big and a secret—then it better see daylight before you're engulfed in the dark of it.

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