Saturday, May 23: The rows of blue mortarboards tilted downward, together, in silent memory. Within an hour, those same hats caught the gleam of the warm spring sun as Columbine High School graduates tossed them high in joy and celebration.
Commencement for the Columbine Class og 1999 was a poignant mix of tears, gold tassels, joy and sorrow. There was "Pomp and Circumstance" and even, just for a second, a beach ball flying back and forth in Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre where the ceremonies were held.
The 440 graduating seniors wanted it to be normal, and it was -almost.
But no one could forget what made it different, nor did they want to.
And so, there was a moment of silence for graduates Lauren Townsend and Isaiah Shoels, killed April 20 in the worst school shooting in U.S. history, and for teacher William Sanders, slain as he tried to save hundreds of students that day.
Nearly 8000 people later rose as one and applauded as Lauren's family accepted her valedictorian honors and her diploma.
The 18 year old senior, who had wanted to be a wildlife biologist, had never received less then an A. Lauren's mother and volleyball coach, Dawn Anna, also accepted her daughter's blue and silver gown, with the gold collar worn only by honor graduates. Anna held the gown close, kissed it, then signed "I love you" to the crowd as the family walked off the stage to cheers. Isaiah Shoel's family found it too painful to come to the ceremony. Shoels had looked forward to graduation, marking off the days on a calendar. His cap and gown were buried with him last month, and his diploma was on display at his funeral.
Senior Lisa Kreutz Graduates
The crowd also stood to applaud as diplomas were awarded to National Honor Society members Lisa Kreutz and Jeanna Park, together in public for the first time since the gunmen sprayed them with bullets as they crouched with Lauren and classmate Valeen Schnurr under a table in the school library.
Lisa Kreutz rolled up in a wheelchair to receive her diploma. Jeanna Park, with fragments of a bullet still in her knee, wore the gold collar as she walked a few feet from a chair on the stage to the podium for her diploma.
"I was just glad to be at graduation. At first the doctors weren't even sure that I could walk," said Jeanna. "It was exciting enough to just be able to walk up to get my diploma."
Shot in the right knee, left foot and right shoulder, she said she has recovered the full range of motion in her knee and uses crutches only occasionally.
Jeanna Park plans to attend the University of California at Berkeley in the fall and was recognized Saturday for finishind Columbine in the top 10 percent of her class.
"It was kind of a suprise. I was really honored", she said.
Valeen Scnurr, another National Honor Society member, was also wounded but was able to walk with the rest of her classmates to receive her diploma.
Valeen suffered nine gunshot and shrapnel wounds. She has since made a full recovery and plans to attend the University of Northern Colorado in the fall.
"I was glad that I could celebrate graduation with my classmates like it was normal", she said.
She was one of several graduates to receive a William Sanders Memorial Scholarship, one of many memorial funds established in an outpouring of worldwide grief that sprang from the shooting that left Sanders and 14 students, including the two shooters, dead. The killers, seniors Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, committed suicide at the end of their rampage. Their names were not mentioned Saturday.
The ceremony's two keynote speakers, who won the honors in competition, wrote their speeches before April 20 and changed them to reflect what they'd learned.
Senior Jennifer Wallick took issue with poet Robert Frost, who once wrote that in nature "nothing gold can stay".
Wallick argued that even tragedy can't dim golden memories.
She remembered her times with Lauren during a class trip to England, and a teacher introducing Isaiah Shoels to her class as an "awsome person".
"If we remember them all, then they can never leave us. Never let them go. They are waiting for us in thet realm of pure blue, that mysterious place where the earth meets the sky. Those pieces of gold will stay forever", Jennifer Wallick said.
Senior Sara Martin said the losses of April 20 have taught her "to love deeply and to apperciate every word and every gesture of every person I love or will love".
Sara Martin, who was on the same class trip to England, used the story of a church in Cambridge as a metaphor. When King's College Chapel was threatened by bombs in World War II, residents dismantled the ancient stained glass windows, numbered the pieces and hid them in their homes. After the war, people returned the pieces and reconstructed the windows. "Though rebuilt, visible still between the replaced fragments of the window are the lines where the pieces were broken and then put back together."
"Now we are being called upon. . .to rebuild the window of our community", Sara Martin said. "Though we have faced disasters of our own and our window may appear to have been shattered, we can achieve a greater beauty as we put the pieces back together again. Let the light shine through the stained glass. Like the people of Cambridge, let us recognize what is worthy to be saved, to be restored, and in unity rebuild the Columbine window from which others may draw their inspiration."
The speeches drew smiles from teachers honored to have been mentioned and occasional tears from the crowd at the references to the tragedy. Attendees said they were pleased by the blend of celebration and solemnity.
"We thought it was extremely wonderful", said Lauren Townsend's stepfather, Bruce Beck. "It recognized Lauren and Isaiah, but it was not done in a depressing way."
Graduate Ryan Love called the ceremony "upbeat. . .as much as it could be in light of what had happened. It was good. It was a lot better than anyone expected."
Graduate John Skeels agreed. "Things are finally getting happier. Everyone has become more accepting of the situation. We're ready to move on." No students were seen wearing a Columbine ribbon or pin on their gowns, but many wore them underneath. The blue and white ribbon have become a symbol of showing respect for those dead and injured. A federal judge Friday upheld a school district rule banning adornments on gowns.
Children played in the grass next to the stands, and during the procession parents tracked their kids.
People used the programs to fan themselves as the morning sun grew hotter.
Music ranged from classical to alternative punk. The concert choir sang "Ave Maria" and "The Last Words of David". There was tears as senior Stephen Cohen, 18, and his brother Jonathan, 17, performed "Friend of Mine", the song they composed shortly after the tragedy. "Heartbreak overflows my head. . .Columbine, friend of mine. . .Peace will come to you in time. . .
The ceremony closed with the turning of the tassels. Students walked from tehir seats to the top of the amphitheater and stood in a semicircle looking west to the snowcapped Rockies.
They moved their tassels from the left to the right, then yanked off their mortarboards and tossed them high.
The crowd left to the recorded music "Time of Our Lives", by the alternative punk band Green Day.
"It was great", said Valeen Schnurr after the ceremony. "It was as normal as it could be without Isaiah and Lauren. It was hard without Lauren. She was a good friend of mine."
Leigh Kamens, who graduated in the top 10 percent of the class and is headed to the University of Colorado in the fall, said, "We'll always remember these people in our minds." "They will stay with us. If you can get through this, you can get through anything."
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During World War II, with threats of disastrous bombings, the people of Cambridge, England, set out to preserve the exquisite stained-glass windows of the King's College Chapel.
The people rallied together and took apart the windows and numbered each piece. Then, families took the fragments and hid them within their homes. They tucked them away in sugar bowls and sock drawers. The chapel made it through the war unharmed, but visible still between the replaced fragments of the windows are the lines where the pieces were broken and then put back together.
Maybe the beauty now revealed in the light is that an entire community came together and restored the vision. Though flawed, I believe, it is stronger than ever.
In a way, each and every one of us is a piece of a Columbine community stained glass through which the sun shines bright and against which the wind blows cold. The piece we carry into our homes is made up of elements given to us by the literature which we read, the great teachers we learn from and the models we observe. It is a vision within us of which the totality is unknown until we die.
And in some ways our piece of the greater window is a stained window in itself made up of pieces from our own experiences. Our window is not unlike the first window of the Annunciation within the Chapel; it is made of pieces of glass given to us like messages to a child. It is our responsibility to accept those pieces. If we cherish them, we begin to create the pictures of our window and determine the colors and their hue.
For me, the "Iliad'' combined with the "Odyssey,'' as an examination of human civilization, is painted in a rich medieval blue, somewhere on my own window. Alongside it, decorated in deep, fragrant yellows and greens, are John Steinbeck's great works of literature: "Of Mice and Men'' and "Cannery Row'' - stories of simple human beings achieving great acts of love.
For all of us here, our teachers are often the greatest givers of the glass. For example, Mr. Sneddon and his vision for his students, which extends beyond the curriculum of earth science but encompasses life lessons. Skills he considers valuable that I now consider priceless! These are gifts if you open your heart. There's also Mrs. Sampson, who met a ram at the stock show with spiritual eyes and sees books as a thicket which one must subdue. I've never been a poet but with her guidance I've learned to live the poetry. Mr. Tonelli and his overflowing love and support for every single student who walks into his classroom; Mr. Andres, senior and junior, who have brought dedication to a Columbine tradition of music and have provided me with a personal melody for my past four years; and Mrs. Jankowski and the quilts we made in journalism just so she'd have a square of cloth to remember us by.
These are pieces that make up my window, which adds to the overall window of our Columbine community.
The models in my life: my mom as a teacher and Paula Reed as a coach and an encourager have added greatly to the colors that enhance my glass. I watch these women who bring grace and beauty to motherhood and I take those pieces and I hold on to them.
It is our job to hear the message and recognize the pieces. We are created by the choices we make. Our window can be vibrant in color and spirit, a collection of the gifts given to us by the people who surround us. Or our window can be blurred and colorless.
We must recognize the pieces, hear the message and create the window within us.
Because of what occured on April 20, I am beginning to see what my personal window must reflect in order to fit into the larger window. I must live life with a concentrated purpose and a dedication to each moment.
I must remember our friends who lost their lives, especially my friend Cassie Bernall. And as I wish that I had had more time, and more opportunities to tell her what she meant to me, I must remember what I have learned: to love deeply and appreciate every word and every gesture of each person I love or will love. So, now, we are being called upon particularly at this time to restore the vision - to take our numbered pieces and rebuild the window of our community. And though we have faced disasters of our own and our window may appear to have been shattered, we can achieve a greater beauty as we put the pieces back together again. Let the light shine through the stained glass, colored by this last four years, by these last four weeks. Like the people of Cambridge, let us recognize what is worthy to be saved, to be restored, and in unity rebuild the Columbine window from which others may draw their inspiration.
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Robert Frost wrote a poem once. A portion of it reads, "Nature's first green is gold, but she's the hardest hue to hold.'' He was writing about a temporary beauty which shines bright like the colors of autumn only for a season. After the radiance of the moment has passed it will disappear from our eyes forever. He argued that "nothing gold can stay,'' that everything pure will soon vanish, gone from our fingers in an instant. For a time I agreed with him and thought this to be true.
I remember moments in my life when I saw the golden experiences of yesterday fading and falling slowly like dead leaves from the branches of my mind onto the ground. A memory which had once been so pure and true simply turned to dust, and I forgot the sweet smell of my old room, I forgot what it felt like to run my hands through the thick fur of my old black-and-white dog, and when I thought about it, I realized that I could not remember the feeling I had on my very first day of school. All these moments I have had to ask parents about, and even when they said, "You were so excited,' I still cannot remember. In this way, I suppose Robert Frost was right in saying nothing gold can stay. Most of the golden moments of my childhood ran past so quickly, I simply forgot to remember them. However, there are other moments much greater in impact and magnitude that I do remember, and these instances seem to fully compensate for the loss of a few childhood moments. They are turning points in my life which I will play over and over again in my mind, and that is why I believe that everything which is truly precious and truly golden does stay.
When I was little and my eyes were new to the art of seeing, I wished to travel to the edge of the sky. I wanted to know what it was like where the misty blue joined with the golden fields. This I pondered countless times with the innocence of a 4-year-old looking out the car window at the rolling landscape, the tall grass waving in the wind like outstretched fingers reaching up to the heavens which lay above them. I always imagined what I would do when I got there, to the place where the earth and sky were stitched together like in a quilt. I would reach with my little hand and touch the blueness of it, I would look to see if the Earth simply stopped dead in its tracks. I would touch heaven and earth in one motion. Of course, my mother and father attempted explaining about such things as the roundness of the planet, and that we could never reach the edge of the sky because there was no edge of the sky. Convinced I was not. Vision was the only thing I knew, and I trusted as reality anything which passed under my two little eyes. Clearly, there was a place where the ground met up with the sky somewhere on the horizon. Clearly my mother and father were dreadfully mistaken. As I grew, I found out for myself that it was I who had made the mistake. I saw my golden vision of heaven and earth joined together with Elmer's glue vanish from my sight, never to be reality again. I only just recalled this theory about the world recently, wishing that heaven and earth could be joined as one, and I have to smile at the memory. For even if the pureness of the reality has departed in me, and even if I see that there clearly is no edge of the sky I retain within me the golden memory of what it felt like to imagine a place so wonderful and so mysterious. That piece of gold did stay.
There is another that I think of also. I remember that my grandma had been ill for some time, struggling with the cancer that had invaded her body. As the sun was setting on another June day, the phone rang, and the voice on the other end announced that the sun would also be setting on my grandmother's life. It was like a blow to the head - a sense of fear, panic, and sadness set in all at once, overloading my young mind. Thus I discovered mortality with the passing of a great and noble heart. My parents spoke of memories: "We will always remember who she was.'' That night I sat in bed with tear-stained sheets, and I searched my mind for all the experiences with her that I could remember, I found many, but to this day I only vividly remember one. Today I struggle to remember every single visit to grandma's house and I don't even remember what her skin felt like to touch. There is a photograph of us in an album though. We are smiling, laughing, and it shows me that we were all happy at one time, and that we were all there together. I don't remember posing for the picture. My one shining memory of my grandmother comes from another source other than photographs. I remember her dancing. lt was at their 50th wedding anniversary, and everyone was outside except grandma, Aunt Christy and myself. The only sound was the Spanish music that drifted through our minds. The two, mother and daughter, were in the corner speaking softly to each other when, without warning, they both rose from their seats as a new song came on. Both of them drifted to the center of the room, and Christy took Grandma's frail hands in hers, and they began dancing, sliding slowly across the floor. Grandma sang along in Spanish, and so did Christy. They were both so enraptured by the sweet melody that tears glistened in their eyes. I thought to myself that perhaps Grandma had sung this song to Christy when they were both years younger, and they were remembering a moment long lost by the passage of time. . . I remember the way Grandma's lips moved as she sang along, I remember the expression on her face as she seemed to be wishing for a time when she sang with a younger voice and danced with a younger step. Even though they are both gone from this world, I will always have the shining memory of them singing, spinning, dancing as the music swirls all around them. That piece of gold has stayed also.
I remember the night in London when we all sat in our room with Lauren eating pizza and fixing each others' hair for a night out on the town. We had a terrible case of the giggles and we laughed until our stomachs hurt. I'll cherish that memory forever. I remember meeting Isaiah for the first time when Mr. Tonelli introduced him to our economics class. Isaiah had been walking down the hall and Tonelli pulled him into our class and said, "this is Isaiah and he is an awesome person.' I will value that experience as well. If we remember them all then they can never leave us. Never let them go. They are waiting for us in that realm of pure blue, that mysterious place where the earth meets the sky. Those pieces of gold will stay forever.
So, I prefer to take the lines of Wordsworth into my heart because he emphasizes that we experience to remember, and our memories bring us comfort. His bright memory was a field of daffodils, and in his poem he stores up bouquets of his soul to recall and brighten his heart:
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Thus the most comfort comes from those few pieces of gold which are truly valuable, and our minds find solace with the sweet remembrance of our experiences. Into this world I will depart, dancing with my Grandmother, laughing with Lauren and Isaiah, and always searching for the edge of the sky. Yes, everything gold can stay.
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