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Final Bell

Frank DeAngelis has been in charge of Columbine High School since the mass shooting there nearly 15 years ago. That’s about to change.

By |

The principal will leave at night. It will be late June, after graduation but well before the next high school year begins. Before he leaves that last time, the principal will enter through the glass doors; he will pass the security cameras and walk across the carpeted floor. The trophy case will hang from the ceiling in the foyer. The principal will make a right turn, then another right, a left, and then a right. He will open the door to his office and he will stand and he will stare. The room will look like a museum because, for the past 15 years, it has always looked like a museum. Photographs—dozens of them, framed and slightly askew—adorn the walls. There’s the principal with President Bill Clinton, with Celine Dion, with Jack Nicklaus. There are letters pressed behind glass, too, thank-yous from people all over the country who never imagined they’d need the principal’s help. On one wall next to the office door is a chalk drawing of the principal’s friend.

He will look at those walls and wonder how the four slabs of drywall went from blank to full. Each photograph and letter and memento has its own story, and all of those stories circle back to him, back to this school.

When he leaves, he will be 59 years old. In the past decade and a half, a lot has changed. He has been cheered and sued. He has been celebrated and villainized. There were times when he cried so hard he thought he might never get up. Fifteen years ago, no one knew his name. Now he can’t escape it. Wherever he goes, his name is a symbol. He is a symbol. He is tragedy and hope, fear and redemption. The principal and the school, in so many ways, have become one and the same.

On that night next summer, he will finally pack up his office. He will take down the photographs and the letters. He will open drawers filled with hundreds of condolence cards, and he will put them in a box. He will enjoy the quiet; there will be no one at his door to interrupt him, no colleagues talking about the past. When he’s done, he will go. He will make a left, then a right, then a left, and another left. He will see the trophy case, and he will walk across the carpet. He will exit the glass doors. And then it will be over.

Fall 2013  

The principal was a principal long before his high school became both a noun and a verb. Before security cameras went up all around his school, before tour buses stopped out front and strangers sang church hymns at the back doors, before people from far-off places —from all around the world—began talking to him, hoping the principal could help solve their problems.

He’d rebuilt his school, this man, not with bricks and mortar, but with something far deeper and far more lasting. It took years of arguments and frustration and doing, and if he’s being honest, he will say the job is still far from complete. He is the fifth man to have this job here. The baseball field is named for him. So is an academic foundation.

In quiet moments, he walks to the memorial behind his school and thinks. Even now, the principal is still trying to sort things out in his mind. He loves God and Jesus, and sometimes he grabs the Sacred Heart hanging from the chain on his neck when his thoughts become too much, when he feels sucked back in time. It’s not 1999, he reminds himself.

That’s why he went to the doctor this past summer. He’d been having chest pains and stomach problems. He’d felt them before—he’d been to the emergency room six or seven times in the past 14 years. When the tests came back clear, he knew what he needed to do. He drove to his counselor, who made him sit in a chair and talk. The principal told the counselor that this was his last year in his job; come late spring 2014, he would be the principal no more.

The counselor listened and said he knew what was going on. Your mind understands it’s over, the man told the principal. Your gut does not; you still have to convince it. Soon after that meeting, the pains went away. And then, one day in early August, the principal went to his last first day of school ever. He told everyone his plans. He tried not to cry. That same week, his face was on the CBS Evening News.

So here he is, just after class, in his office on a late afternoon this past fall. The leaves are about to turn but haven’t yet. He is sitting in a chair from which he can see the drawing of his friend. The principal is not resting, because as his buddies and colleagues and students will tell you, the man never rests. He is always thinking, planning, worrying. Even after 14 years, worrying is an easy thing to do here.

Winter 2012  

It keeps happening, and each time he gets a call. Most recently, it happened in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children died during a rampage. He was at his desk at school when the call came. There was Aurora, so close to home. It was the morning, and the principal was at home getting ready to go to work. There was Virginia Tech and Pearl, Mississippi, and Chardon, Ohio. The principal is always among the first people whom family, friends, and journalists call. Have you seen the news? Are you OK? What do you make of this? He’s always gracious. He thanks the people on the other end for taking the time to call, for thinking of him and his school. He’ll answer the questions; he’ll say he can’t believe it’s happened again.

Each new call he receives means another one he must make. Another school. Another tragedy. Another community to help. He’ll find the number and leave a message. Rarely are his calls returned quickly. Even the principal must wait sometimes. He knows people will come to him when they’re ready, when they feel comfortable to share their deepest fears with a man they’ve never met but with whom they have been thrown into an awful fraternity. So the principal waits, and eventually, almost always, there’s a call back. Whatever you need, the principal says, I’ll be there.

He’s traveled tens of thousands of miles, but he never simply shows up, because he understands what it’s like to have people tell you what to think and how to act. When he’s invited to Blacksburg, Virginia, he talks about the need for counseling, about anniversaries, about the small moments that will get them through this. In place after place, he has seen the desperation in people’s eyes. He has felt their embraces. He has tried to swallow their burdens, tried to offer something besides hugs and tears.

But, inevitably, he’s asked what to do. How do we fix this? When he goes to Newtown, he’s asked about the school building. Should we reopen it? Should we raze it? He doesn’t know, he tells them. Certain things worked for his school, his community, but they have to figure that out on their own. And maybe that’s the hardest part of being the principal. After all he’s been through, after everything he’s seen, he still doesn’t have the answers.

The principal stares at the chalk drawing of Dave on his office wall and wonders why he’s still here and Dave is not. Survivor’s guilt. That’s what his counselor calls it. Over the years, the principal has come to accept the term. In many ways, he has gained comfort through acceptance.

The principal felt shame that he lived and his friend died. The principal knows the kid with the shotgun saw him first. He can see the white T-shirt with cut-off sleeves and dark pants and boots coming toward him. He’d been one of the first adults in the main hallway at 11:25 a.m., saw muzzle flashes, heard bangs, watched glass explode. He was scared for his life, scared for the lives of all those kids coming toward him.

And so he ran up the hallway to save those kids. He saw the barrel of that weapon. It looked like a cannon. He wondered what it would feel like when he was shot. Would it hurt? Would he die quickly? Please, he thought, let me die quickly.

But then, Dave. The principal’s friend, his confidant. Dave Sanders had coached basketball, taught business and computer technology. Just like the principal, he’d given everything he had to this school. Twenty-five years. The two had talked about their lives at the school the day before, in the stands at a baseball game. Dave and the principal, wondering aloud about the cost to their own families. How much had they sacrificed of themselves that could never be repaid to their wives, to their own children?

“Would you do it all again?” Dave asked the principal.

“Yeah. I would.” Dave said he would, too.

When the shooting started, Dave was in a hallway adjacent to the gunfire. He was getting students to safety. It was Dave who caught the attention of the figure wearing the T-shirt and boots. It was Dave who was shot in the neck and through the teeth. It was Dave who later bled to death in a science room while students awaited police help. It was Dave’s wife whom the principal had to console.

Shortly after the funeral, one of his students gave the principal the drawing of Dave. He hung it next to the door in his office. Every time he walked out, he would carry the memory of his friend into those hallways.

deangelis

Summer 2007 

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” President Clinton spoke those words on a rainy afternoon in Jefferson County, quoting Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Somehow we all become stronger because of our weakest moments.

They break ground on the memorial one June day in 2006. Fifteen months later it opens. People come from around the world to that refuge, tucked behind the hill from the school. They walk the concrete trail that leads to the stone circle, to the names of the 13 victims, to the words of those they left behind.

The principal kept his distance until the victims’ families had visited the memorial. This is their place, he thinks. So the principal stays away at first. Finally, when he knows it’s OK for him to see it, he walks alone into the stone circle, and he thinks about the years that have passed. Eight graduations, seven proms. Only 36 of the 145 faculty and staff members from April 1999 are still around.

The principal returns often to think again about how far his school has come. But there’s another question he has to ask: How many more years can he do this? One? Five? He can’t say. He prays about it at church; he keeps going back to the memorial. Day after day, month after month, year after year. It’s not time yet, but he knows it will become clear. He’ll know when it’s time to go.

Forgiveness is a complicated thing. When the lawsuits that claimed the principal had created an atmosphere for bullying were dismissed, he did not celebrate. Instead, the principal did as he had done since he arrived at his school as a 24-year-old American history teacher in 1979. He went to the adoration chapel at St. Francis Cabrini down the street and he prayed. The principal prayed for his family and for his school. He prayed for strength. He prayed that God and his own good works might see him through his darkest times. He prayed for his own forgiveness.

He keeps a condolence card on his desk at school. The principal has opened it so many times, held it so often, that it is bent and creased; the oil from his fingertips is pressed into the paper. Written on the inside, in blue ink, is a quote from Pope John XXIII: “One may hate the sin, but not the sinner.”

He holds the card, reads those words about sinners, and he wonders: How deep is his capacity to forgive? If two boys—two of his students—murder, does that still deserve forgiveness?

For now, at least, he cannot forgive. Maybe he never will. And if that’s a sin in itself, it will be a burden for which he says he will be judged. All these years later, and he won’t bring himself to mention those two names in public. Rarely does he call what happened at his school a “shooting.” The word is shallow. Obscene. It strips that day of its significance—cheapens it to a singular instance and ignores everything that followed.

Winter 2002  

The principal is in the basement, clearing out his past, when he happens upon the 4,000 letters he’d received just after the shooting. He’d tried to read them in those first months—20, maybe 25, a day—but it was a devastating process. Mixed in with words of encouragement were accusations, criticisms, threats. So he’d put them away. Maybe he’d look at them again, maybe not.

Now, the principal and his wife are ending their marriage. They’ve just sold their house, and he finds himself sitting on the basement floor with all those words. He opens envelope after envelope. The name on one strikes him. Diane Meyer. His high school girlfriend, his first love. He tears open the envelope and reads the note inside. I’m not sure if you remember me, she wrote. I’m so sorry for what happened at your school. You’re in my prayers.

The principal looks up her mother, gets Diane’s phone number, and calls. He thanks her for the letter, apologizes that it had taken so long to get back to her. When he hangs up, he wants to call back. And so he does a couple of weeks later, and then again a few weeks after that. Thirty years after they’d last seen each other, there’s still…something. The principal loves hearing her voice. He loves that he can call her and she’ll listen. He loves that she never says she knows how he feels, or how he felt. She doesn’t pretend to understand what it was like to have survived these past few years.

He keeps calling, and she calls him, too. She talks the principal through the most difficult moments of his divorce. She congratulates him on finishing another school year. That fall, the principal finally asks her out. Dozens more dates follow; hundreds more phone conversations. On December 24, 2003, he gives her roses. There’s a ring attached. She says yes.

 Fall 1999  

His life is no longer his. Ten-, 14-, 16-hour days; he goes from meetings to classrooms to speeches to fund-raisers to interviews to his office. The principal’s staff worries he needs to take time off. He’s been to the emergency room for pain in his chest, his back, his arms. He wonders, Am I dying? He’s so distracted that he crashes the family’s Honda Accord. His teenage daughter corners him one day at home. She wants her daddy back.

But there’s work to do. There’s always more work. The school library—it will be named the HOPE Columbine Memorial Library—and the memorial won’t build themselves. There’s been a bomb threat, an expulsion. Seven more suspensions. There are kids at school on suicide watch. He’s being criticized for running a school that empowered bullies, an accusation that shattered him. He’s been named in eight lawsuits. He’d do anything for any of his students, loved each of them. Don’t they know that? Don’t their parents know? 

He hasn’t had a real conversation with his wife in months. He’s forgotten to eat, dropped from 210 pounds to 134 in a matter of months. He tried a bowling league, tried to connect with old friends, but everyone wants to know how the school is doing. How’s fund-raising? How are the students? How are you? They won’t let him forget, not even for a minute. Leave me alone, the principal thinks.

One Sunday night, the principal is near tears in his office—papers, folders, binders piling up on his desk. The demands are destroying him. He’s thinking of his own children. Am I letting them down? He grabs a trash can, wipes the papers off his desk into the garbage, and goes home.

He can never get away for long. It’s his charge, this school. At night, when he’s lying awake in bed, sometimes he thinks it’s his destiny. A priest told him that once: He lived that day so he might somehow help lead his community. He was the chosen one. And because of that, he gets up early the next morning and he goes back to work. Back to the meetings and conferences and interviews. Back to the teachers who cry with him in his office, to the phone calls from worried parents. Back to helping design a new library with lots of windows, just in case kids need to break out.

Here, though, no one can break free. There’s leaked video footage of the two killers roaming the cafeteria—trying to blow up bombs—on the national news. Six months after the massacre, there’s a rumor of another plot on the school, and a 17-year-old student is arrested. Days later, the mother of a student who’d been paralyzed in the shooting walks into a pawn shop, asks to look at a gun, and shoots herself in the head. Months after that, two students are murdered in a Subway sandwich shop down the street. An 11-year-old child’s body is found in a trash bin a half-mile from the school.

The principal’s staff talks openly of finding jobs elsewhere. They talk about retiring. During a meeting with teachers, someone complains the principal is talking to the media too much. “Please, let us get back to normal,” the teacher says.

“We’re never going to be a normal high school again,” the principal tells his teachers. “We have to redefine normal.”

The principal reads everything he can find about post-traumatic stress. He learns that memories can come back at any moment, and in the most debilitating ways. The principal talks to his own counselor about it. “I understand,” he tells his teachers, the secretaries—whoever will listen. He is going through hell, too. It takes him months to disassociate leaving his office with running into gunfire. Whenever a balloon pops, when he hears a starter’s pistol at a track meet, he shakes, sweats. Sometimes he starts to cry. He curls into the fetal position at a fireworks show at Coors Field.

It’s a lonely thing, being the principal. On late nights, when he’s finally alone, he sometimes feels scared in his own school. When he steps into the hallway just off the main office, he feels as if he might have to fight that battle all over again.

Summer 1999  

The first day of school. There are banners hanging near the doors, cheers from some of the students. It’s still the same school, but things are different. The carpet in the hallways is gone. The fire alarm tone has been changed. The lunchroom has been repainted. Security cameras monitor the doorways. The life-size minuteman mascot that stands guard along one set of doors has had his musket removed. The entrance to the library, where 10 teenagers were killed and 12 more were wounded, is covered by a string of lockers.

Outside, there’s a wall of parents, a human chain to block the reporters and television news crews across the street. The people are begging to be left alone, to let this moment belong to them.

The principal calls it “Take Back the School,” and there are thousands of students and parents here. The principal makes a speech. He has agonized these past few weeks about whether he should mention the shooting, whether he should name the 13 who were murdered. In the end, he does not mention those who died, only opaquely references what happened in there that past April. There is a time and a place, but the principal does not think this is it. This is a celebration, a rebirth.

Almost immediately, he regrets his decision. The next day, newspaper stories say some victims’ families feel slighted; they worry their children have already been forgotten. The principal is crushed. He calls each family that day and apologizes. “Those kids will never be forgotten,” he tells the parents. “I won’t let it happen.”

April 21, 1999  

They are applauding him. From the back walls to the pews in front. Parents, staff, students. People on their feet. Cheering.

The principal hears them from the stage at Light of the World Catholic Church, but he cannot process it. He was expecting hatred. Children had been killed at his school 24 hours earlier; a teacher is dead. In his mind, he’s failed. He failed his staff and those kids and those parents. Who watches their kid go off to school one morning and never sees them again? Who studies in the library one minute and begs for their life the next? He can’t make eye contact. He’s ashamed of what happened. It’s his fault.

You can’t cry. How can you lead when you’re crying? But the applause—he hears it. It’s almost deafening now. The principal is overwhelmed, overcome. He doubles over, and tears begin to run down his face. There must have been 1,000 of his students, his parents, his teachers watching him suffer on the stage. He can’t get up. He can’t face these people.

But the students, the families, they continue to applaud. I don’t deserve this, he thinks to himself. And so a minute passes, and when he finally is able to stand, he apologizes for what has happened. “I’m so sorry,” he tells them. “I’d like to take a wand and wipe away what you are feeling, but I can’t do that. I’d like to tell you those scars will heal, but they will not.”

Columbine

April 20, 1999  

He’d worried the entire weekend. Prom had been on Saturday, and the principal had told the students to be safe, to take care of one another, to make good decisions. And now, on Tuesday morning, they were here. Safe. One month until graduation. Say goodbye to the seniors, then summer break, then say hello to the freshmen.

The morning flew by in a flurry of activity. The principal was just back from a student recognition breakfast at a nearby golf course, and he’d gotten a late start. He stopped a teacher in the hallway. He needed a couple of minutes of the man’s time.

The teacher, who had a short-term contract, came by the principal’s office just after 11 o’clock. He knocked on the door and stepped inside. The walls were gray. There were family photos on a desk and two framed drawings celebrating the school’s baseball championships more than a decade earlier. In front of the desk there was a couch, two chairs, and a coffee table. The principal stood up from the seat behind his desk. The teacher shut the door.

The two sat together. The principal was about to offer the man a permanent position at Columbine when the school secretary slammed into the office door. She threw it wide open. “Frank!” she yelled. “They’re shooting!”

The principal jumped out of his chair and pushed through the doorway, the teacher and the secretary close behind. When he reached the foyer just inside the main school doors, the principal could hear pops and bangs. He could see muzzle flashes. Screaming teenagers ran down the hallway in the crossfire. “Call 911!” the principal shouted. The doors behind him exploded and glass spilled onto the carpet. There were more flashes. Kids were screaming.

Pop-pop-pop. Thirty seconds ago, the principal was about to reward a teacher with a new contract. Now he was imagining what it would feel like when he got shot.

More flashes. Another bang. Frank DeAngelis runs toward the gunfire.

1/13/14 Correction: This article originally stated the shooting at Columbine High School occurred on a Monday. In fact, April 20, 1999, was a Tuesday. We regret the error.

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