My friend Michelle and I recently went to a slam poetry workshop which included Columbine Survivors, Aurora Theatre survivors, and Arapahoe High School survivors. We weren’t sure how many people would show up, if anyone would be willing to write, nor how we were going to react.
We sat in a coffee shop at a long table. On one end were the Arapahoe students and a few teachers, and on the other were Columbine graduates and Aurora community members. The Rebels Project has been meeting once a month in Aurora for over a year now, so we are like family. I’m not sure how it was for our Aurora friends, but as I sat at that long wooden table as the coffee machines crushed and ground various beans in the other room, I felt…dazed and shaken. I couldn’t figure it out. I’ve been meeting and talking with other survivors for almost two years now, why is this meeting affecting me this way?
Michelle filled me in on her thoughts:
We were staring across the table into a time warp. This was us 14 years ago. Sometimes I can’t believe how long it has been…
And so the conversation began. We all introduced ourselves and explained why we were there. Almost everyone was there to write, and even though I’m an English teacher I was hesitant to write. What would I say? How on Earth could I focus on just one thing? Half of these people were strangers to me and, basically, I was scared. And all while my emotions were in some kind of turmoil that I couldn’t get a handle on…
It turned out it was easier than I thought. We had about an hour long conversation where we shared thoughts, stories, and feelings. I won’t detail our conversation, but I will say that one of the most moving things I experienced was after I shared a personal story about hearing a fire alarm for the first time after the shootings. I’ve told that story before, hoping to prepare others for times when a memory triggers an uncontrollable reaction, but what moved me was one of the Arapahoe students simply saying:
“thank you for sharing that” and I saw that she truly meant it. I saw understanding in her eyes, and the nods from around the table.
I immediately felt comforted. I was among friends and family. I was in a safe space where others would understand my confusion, my emotions, my turmoil. There are others out there, and even though the “You are Not Alone” motto has been the driving force behind all the community outreach we do, sometimes a simple reminder can make all the difference in the world. We are a family of survivors and here is what I wrote during our 30 minute writing time:
How Can You Sit on That Bench?
(Title credits go to Jovan Mays and the Arapahoe student who asked that question)
How can you sit on that bench? Do you know what happened there? Yes, yes, I’m sure you’ve heard about what happened there, but do you know what happened there?
I do. I know it all the time. I know what it feels like to know death is coming; booming down the halls. I know what it feels like to look for exits everywhere I go, and what it feels like to have some long-forgotten memory trigger emotions that I don’t feel like explaining…even though I have to because I love you and I want you to understand when I tell you “I can’t do this right now. I’m sorry”
How can you go grocery shopping, go out to dinner, hang out with friends?
How can you smile or breathe?
But the normalcy is so soothing. It’s not a big deal and I’m good and I don’t want to talk about it and I just want to go on with life. Just leave me alone with my Bruce Springsteen albums and I’ll be fine. If I want to talk about it, I will.
Oh how I wish now I had talked about it more…or even better, written about it. I’d like to go back and see what I was like.
The memories are so fragmented. And every once in a while, one pops up at the most inopportune time. And I find myself (again) saying “I’m sorry.”
I’m not broken and I don’t need to be fixed. I am me and this is me, but please take all of me into consideration when I ask, “how can you sit on that bench?”