One of our high school's nationally-ranked football players asked me at graduation to pin on his gown a slender miniature lasso of silver and blue ribbons, memorializing slain Columbine High School students. Since April 20, our students at Mullen High School, two miles from Columbine, had cried, mourned, written letters of condolence to their friends at Columbine, and otherwise been hungry to talk and write about their feelings of fear, grief, anger, and the center that cannot hold. I listened intently at our high school graduation, which came a day after Columbine's, to our valedictory speaker, Dave Johnson, a young man bound for Princeton University. He recalled Thoreau's words: "The mass of men," and women, he later amended, "lead lives of quiet desperation." The young man paused, and I realized he was weeping. I recalled a discussion in English class last year when this young man pondered Yeats's apocalyptic rough beast whose hour is "come round at last" as it "slouches toward Bethlehem to be born." Perhaps that ineffable rough beast has called forth the cris de coers that so many young persons have voiced since the Columbine tragedy.
Youth, as well as family, friends and strangers, have set forth their thoughts and feelings in new venues, including Clement Park, next to Columbine High School. By the time I visited Clement Park, two weeks after the tragedy, spontaneous shrines had been erected to memorialize the slain--shrines built from open-air tents or around the vehicles driven that fatal day by students killed at the school. Most of the flowers at each shrine had wilted; the breeze carried the fetid smell of decaying plants. I picked my way along the hay-strewn path, grateful that the area was no longer muddy, until I came across two sets of crosses: 13 in this one, 13 in that one. Circling back to the shrine of a young woman who was a close friend of one of my students, I studied a poster including images of smiling young women, arms flung around one another, looking fresh-faced, intelligent, hopeful, unaware that one of them soon would be gone.
The day before my pilgrimage to Clement Park, my mother told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. During my planning period that day, I shut the door to my classroom and sobbed. I didn't want to cry in front of my students, but I was comforted by the thought that it would be all right if I did. They had shown me, male and female, that they needed and welcomed public expressions of grief. That night I gave my daughter, a junior, the news of her grandmother's breast cancer. "Will she be okay?" my daughter asked as she wept. "Will she be okay?"
"I don't know," I answered, as I lightly hugged her, not wanting to pretend I could hug away the hurt. "I don't know. They think they caught it early." We talked for awhile about my sweet mother, silver and blue memorial ribbons, my daughter's friend whose nephew was a victim of shaking baby syndrome, kids who smirk about "drinking responsibly," students who "just know" that films have no-thing to do with violence, our own ridiculous intolerance to-ward those who don't see the same Big Picture we do, our hunger for a scapegoat, the beauty of the French language, how it feels to pray to a maternal God, our messy kitchen, and her performance the night before of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish." Before I drifted off to sleep, I reread Bishop's poem "I caught a tremendous fish / and held him beside the boat ..He didn't fight. / He hadn't fought at all....I admired his sullen face..." I recalled my daughter's performance the previous night: sitting atop two school desks, arms wrapped loosely around her crossed legs, in a spotlight, eyes afire, barefoot, crowned by a floppy straw hat, she gave a joyous rendering of the poem's final lines: "...everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! And I let the fish go."
At high school graduation this year, the valedictorian--at times crying in pain, at times grinning in delight as the hour of his final liberation from high school approached--exhorted his fellow students to remember that when they died, they couldn't take their Abercrombie sweaters with them. "There was a child went forth," the valedictorian quoted Whitman, "...And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below the surface--and the beautiful curious liquid--all became part of him." Johnson asked when he and his classmates had lost that child's innocence: "When did emptiness enter our lives?" He implored his generation, "Sing the song of yourself." An artist, Dave Johnson might have drawn Yeats's rough beast. Instead, his words had begun to inscribe whatever is slouching toward Bethlehem or Kosovo or Princeton or Columbine. For a while, he swept us away in the torrent of emotions and ideas that is high school and life-after-April 20, 1999. And then he let that torrent go.
Copyright 1999, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Sullivan, Carol. (1999). "Tears, Not-so-idle Tears." WILLA, Volume 8, p. 19, 20, 21.