Life After Death

By David Hill — November 01, 1999 22 min read
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Columbine teacher Kevin Tucker.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

Kevin Tucker is an early riser, but on Monday, August 16, the first day of classes for the new school year at Columbine High School, he got out of bed at 4 a.m., an hour earlier than usual. “I actually slept pretty well that night,” says the 43-year-old teacher, who began working at the now-infamous school two years ago. Still, as he got dressed, Tucker began to feel anxious, a mixture, he says, of “anticipation and fear.” On his way to school, he drove past the encampment of TV-satellite trucks parked in a corner of Clement Park, just down the street from the school. A “Take Back the School” rally for students, parents, and faculty was scheduled for 7:30. But for now, Tucker just wanted to spend some time inside his classroom getting ready for his students. “I wanted the room to look really nice,” he says.

At the rally, held under a brilliant blue sky in the very parking lot from which students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began their deadly assault on April 20, principal Frank DeAngelis shouted, “I have waited for months to say this, and I say this with great pride: Columbine, we are back!”

Tucker, dressed like nearly everyone else in a “We Are Columbine” T-shirt, stood near the back of the crowd with some of his colleagues, listening intently. The tone of the rally was festive, upbeat, with screaming cheerleaders and loud, prerecorded rock music. DeAngelis briefly alluded to the shooting spree, which claimed the lives of 14 students and one teacher, saying, “It is essential that you have respect for your fellow students who may have different opinions or ideas. At Columbine High School, we will have zero tolerance for cruelty, harassment, excessive teasing, discrimination, violence, and intimidation.” But there was no mention of the victims, not even a moment of silence to honor their memory.

Shortly after the rally, 16 parents and siblings of students who died held a press conference to express their outrage over the perceived slight. “To me, it was just rah-rah, let’s forget about the kids who died,” said Rich Petrone, whose stepson Dan Rohrbough was killed in the assault.

But to Tucker, the point of the rally was to move on, not to mourn. After all, there had been plenty of that in the days following the shooting. “It was about starting something new,” he says. “The kids were really pumped. They seemed positive and upbeat, and the teachers were, too. There was a big desire to normalize the school. We wanted to be in our classrooms in front of our students, doing what we do best.”

Not that August 16 was normal. Because of the rally, classes were cut short, so there wasn’t much time for teaching. Mostly, it was a day for students and faculty members to get reacquainted with each other and with their school, parts of which had been rebuilt and remodeled, at a cost of $1.2 million, following the massacre. The library, for instance, where much of the killing took place, had been sealed off, its doors covered by a temporary wall and a bank of blue lockers. District officials were grappling with the difficult question of what to do with the now-empty space.

At the end of the day, after the students had all left, Tucker breathed a sigh of relief. We got through it. He drove to his home in Westminster, a Denver suburb, where he lives with his wife and two children, a 3-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy, and collapsed on the couch. By 9 o’clock that night, he was sound asleep. After a summer of rattled nerves, sleepless nights, even doubts about returning to teach at Columbine, Tucker was starting to put the horrific shooting behind him.

Kevin Tucker is one of about 100 teachers at Columbine High School, set in a sprawling suburban area near Littleton, Colorado. A slightly overweight man with longish brown hair, a neatly trimmed mustache, and wire-frame glasses that tend to slip down his nose, he has a warm, friendly demeanor that makes him popular among his students, some of whom call him by his nickname, “Tuck.” He teaches in the school’s ACE--or Alternative Cooperative Education--program, a vocational-skills curriculum for at-risk juniors and seniors.

On Tuesday, April 20, Tucker was among the lucky ones. He wasn’t shot, and he wasn’t trapped in some classroom for hours, waiting to be rescued. He and his students--most of them, anyway--got out of the building quickly. He never saw Harris and Klebold. In fact, he’d never even heard of them before, although he recognized their faces when their photo graphs aired on television news reports. But along with everyone else connected to the school--teachers, administrators, students, parents, cafeteria workers, janitors, paraprofessionals, and others--Tucker is, in some ways, a victim. In the days following the massacre, he suffered from classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including depression, anxiety, an inability to concentrate, avoidance of crowds, and insomnia. In August, he went on a 10-day Outward Bound course for teachers, partly because he thought it would help to clear his mind, to “get centered,” as he puts it.

Recalling that April morning, Tucker says, “It was a really nice spring day. Warm and sunny.” As usual, he arrived early, about 7 a.m. “That gives me a half hour when nobody bugs me,” he laughs. His first class that day, for seniors, lasted about two hours, after which he had his planning period until 11. Then his juniors arrived for their two-hour class. The students had been working on a computer project, but the machines in the ACE room are old and slow, so Tucker offered to take half the class to the school’s Tech Lab, which has newer models with Internet access. He and about 15 students walked from their classroom, which is in the north end of the building, down a long corridor to the lab, which is near the center of the school, not far from the library. Meanwhile, the rest of the class stayed behind with Tucker’s teaching partner, Paula Reed.

The kids were just settling in when there was a loud knocking sound, like somebody was hammering on the wall. Then the fire alarm went off. Some of the students groaned at the sound of the alarm--a fire drill would waste precious time on the computers.

But when Tucker looked out the classroom door, he saw kids running and screaming. “I knew it wasn’t just a fire drill,” he recalls. As he stepped into the hall, frantic students raced by yelling, “They’re shooting at us! Somebody’s got a gun!” It was then that the teacher realized that it was gunshots he had heard, not hammering.

Several years earlier, Tucker had taught at a tough high school in Commerce City, just north of Denver. “We had ‘armed intruder’ drills there,” he says. “We were supposed to lock the door, turn out the lights, and lie down on the floor. So that was my first inclination. But the Tech Lab has three or four entrances to it, and there was no way I could secure them.”

As Tucker weighed his options, he saw one of the school’s counselors in the hallway, who said, “Let’s get ‘em out.” So the teacher herded his kids and another 15 or so students out of the classroom. The students ran down the hallway to the main entrance, while Tucker headed back to his classroom. It was empty, but inside the office he shares with several other teachers, he found a colleague, Rebecca Gomez. “She said, ‘It’s just a fire alarm. It’s no big deal.’ And I said, ‘Rebecca, there’s someone in the school shooting. We have to go now.’” The office has a door leading to the outside, so they were able to escape the building quickly.

As Tucker ran toward Clement Park, which borders the school property, he could still hear gunfire, but he had no idea of the seriousness of the situation. “I thought it was a prank,” he says. Almost immediately, however, police officers and paramedics arrived on the scene. Within 15 or 20 minutes, frantic parents began to show up, looking for their children. Students who had fled to the park were huddling up to each other. Some of them had seen friends gunned down.

“We were just trying to calm each other down,” Tucker recalls. “We were stunned. It was like a war zone--you didn’t know what was going on. Some of us found ourselves gravitating toward the school building to see what was going on or to see what we could do to help. Many of us thought, Why am I not in there helping? It was frustrating.”

Tucker eventually made his way across the park to Columbine Public Library, where he borrowed someone’s cell phone and called his wife, Naomi, to let her know he was safe. For the next several hours, Tucker found himself wandering back and forth between the library--where students, teachers, and parents were making phone calls and watching live news coverage on television--and the park, which by now was swarming with reporters. “Some people were upset about that,” he says, “but I talked to a few of them.”

For a few terrifying hours, nobody seemed to know who was trapped in the school, who was hurt, or who had been killed. Initial reports incorrectly put the number of fatalities at 25. Late in the day, the names of some of the injured students were made public. Recalls Tucker: “One of them was a student of mine, Stephanie Munson. And that was horrifying. Was she dying? Or did she just have minor injuries?” (As it turned out, she was shot once in the leg, but no bones were broken, and today she’s doing fine.)

Tucker was unable to get to his car--the school was completely cordoned off and would remain so for days--so at about 7 p.m., his wife picked him up at a nearby restaurant, and together they drove back home to Westminster. A couple of neighbors came over, and the phone rang throughout the evening with calls from reporters, relatives, and friends. “I watched the news all night long. It was tough to do, because it repeated itself over and over again. But I didn’t want to miss anything.” At some point, he fell asleep, but he doesn’t remember when.

The next day, Tucker learned that one of his colleagues, Dave Sanders, had been killed. He didn’t know Sanders well, but it was still a blow. Tucker also heard that one of his students, Isaiah Shoels, was among the 12 kids gunned down by Harris and Klebold. “I knew him pretty well,” the teacher says. “I’d met with his parents quite a bit. He was a wonderful kid. Very polite, very funny. Everybody knew him and liked him a lot. That was a tough one to take.”

It snowed that day, a big, heavy snow that seemed particularly odd after Tuesday’s springtime warmth. Tucker spent some time that evening at Clement Park, now filled with journalists from all over the world, and he was interviewed by a television reporter from St. Louis, his hometown. Hundreds of stunned Columbine students and their families came to the park that day to pay their respects to the victims at a makeshift memorial, set on a grassy knoll next to a parking lot.

When Tucker got back home, the scope of the tragedy began to sink in. He felt numb, exhausted. His family, too, was feeling the effects. His son, Kyle, “didn’t react very well at all to the whole incident, the disruption in our lives. So we had to take him out of school for a week. I look at him as an unintended victim.”

Tucker, meanwhile, found that he couldn’t focus on work or household tasks. “Sometimes I needed to be around a lot of people, and the next minute I’d want to be alone. One minute, I’d have no appetite, and the next I’d want to eat everything at McDonald’s. Lots of mood swings. My emotions ranged from anger and frustration to dejection and depression. Very difficult to stay on an even keel. Psychologically, I was everywhere. I found myself looking over my shoulder a lot. Large groups of people frightened me.” So did loud noises. “For a few days, anything that sounded like gunfire-- like a car backfiring--was pretty frightening.”

Nighttime offered little relief. “I didn’t have the nightmares that a lot of other people had, but I’d wake up in the middle of the night. So I’d go for walks, or I’d just sit in the backyard.”

Tucker’s wife, Naomi, says, “He became very withdrawn, very quiet, and he’s normally very talkative.” She tried to get him to talk about how he was feeling, but he wouldn’t open up.

An avid outdoorsman, Tucker signed up for an Outward Bound course in the Colorado Rocky Mountains as a kind of balm for his shattered psyche.
--Michael Lewis

“I didn’t want to,” Tucker explains. “I mean, you can only say, ‘I’m OK’ so many times.” But he wasn’t OK, not really. It would take some time before his life got back to normal, or at least something close to it. “There were so many unanswered questions. When can I get back in my classroom? When can I get my car back? Are the kids OK? The routine was shattered.”

Over the next week or so, as a stunned nation struggled to explain the tragedy, Tucker grieved for those who lost their lives. He attended funerals for Dave Sanders, Isaiah Shoels, and a couple other students, but he skipped the memorial held the Sunday following the shooting, attended by Vice President Al Gore and 70,000 others. “The crowd aspect was too much,” he says. “It seemed more like a spectacle than anything else. For the most part, I tended to stay away from some of the public gatherings. It sounds funny, but you can get overmemorialized.”

On Monday, May 3, students and teachers returned to classes, not at Columbine, which remained a crime scene, but at nearby Chatfield High School. Chatfield students attended classes in the morning, Columbine students in the afternoon. To Tucker, it was too soon after the massacre to think again about academics. “That was tough,” he says. “There was no break.” At Chatfield, students and teachers were encouraged to seek help from one of the many mental health workers provided by the nonprofit Jefferson Center for Mental Health. “But I didn’t want to talk to a counselor right away,” Tucker says. “I wanted to feel everything-I didn’t want someone to try to make it go away. I needed time to process it and think things through. But there wasn’t time for that.”

Television-satellite trucks and a horde of reporters were on hand when students and staff returned to Columbine in August for the start of school.
--Michael Lewis

Tucker wasn’t the only Columbine teacher traumatized by the shooting. Paula Reed, who lost two members of her speech team, had nightmares, and she considered not coming back. Several faculty members, including English teacher Cindy Hoffman, decided to take time off rather than go to Chatfield. “On the day my five classes meet again, two faces will be absent,” Hoffman wrote last May in the newsletter of the Jefferson County Education Association. “And all the grief-management literature in the world does not prepare me to say to my students, ‘I am so passionately, intimately sorry. I will believe forever, in the part of me I can only know as maternal, that as a teacher I let you down. I could not even keep you safe.’” (Hoffman is now back at Columbine.)

After the tragedy, the school district gave employees with at least 20 years of service the chance to take early retirement. No one did, but three Columbine staff members--two teachers and an assistant--are on leave as a result of the shooting. One of them is Patti Nielson, an art teacher who was shot in the shoulder by Eric Harris. Nielson returned to school in August but recently decided to take time off. “Basically, just the stress of going back there is more than she can handle right now,” her husband, Shane, told the Denver Rocky Mountain News.

“Teachers are there to help kids, to protect them, so when something like this happens, it’s a huge trauma for them,” says Jo Anne Doherty, vice president for clinical services for the Jefferson Center for Mental Health. “It can rock their foundation.”

After the tragedy, more than 300 teachers in the Jefferson County school system took advantage of counseling services coordinated by the mental-health center. Tucker’s reactions to the shooting, Doherty added, are typical for someone who has experienced extreme stress or trauma. And though he declined to talk to counselors, many Columbine teachers did. “Reaction to trauma shows up in many different ways,” notes Harriet Hall, the center’s president. “Experiencing mass violence can, but does not always, lead to depression, anxiety, concentration difficulties, behavioral difficulties, substance abuse, and risk-taking. These and other symptoms, when severe, can be lifelong if not treated.”

By the time school ended, just before Memorial Day weekend, Tucker just wanted to get away from it all. But first, he and his teaching colleagues were allowed to return to Columbine to see the wreckage and to pick up things left behind on April 20.

“I’d always thought, since the day I started working here, that this was such a pretty school,” he says. “But when I came here that day, I thought, This is an ugly, ugly place. If I had had a bulldozer, I might have torn it down.” Inside, the air was rank with the smell of rotten food. Broken glass and debris still littered the hallways. “I saw the bullet holes,” he recalls. “The bloodstains had been cut out of the carpets. We weren’t allowed to see the library--there was cardboard and paper over the windows. It was creepy.” Tucker went to his office, grabbed a few personal items, and got the hell out of there.

A few weeks later, Tucker and his family drove to St. Louis to visit his family. After returning home, he spent most of the summer puttering around the house. Someone offered him tickets to a Colorado Rockies baseball game, but he passed. “I just didn’t want to be around a lot of people.”

He did, however, go on an Outward Bound course. An avid outdoorsman, Tucker had looked into the group’s 10-day program for teachers before the shooting. Afterward, he signed up, seeing it as a balm for his shattered psyche. “I’m really looking forward to it,” he said in late July. “I think it will be a sort of closure for me after what happened in April. I think it’s going to help me get back into the school mode.”

Because money was tight for the teacher, Outward Bound generously waived the course’s $1,400 fee. On the morning of July 30, Tucker drove his Jeep Wrangler from Denver to Leadville, high in the Colorado Rockies, where Outward Bound has a training facility. In an open meadow, with 14,421-foot Mount Massive looming in the background, Tucker and about 30 other teachers from all over the country began doing various meet-and-greet activities, the kind of touchy-feely exercises that Outward Bound is famous for. Tucker would spend the next week with these people, becoming close friends with some of them and learning, among other things, the importance of working together as a team in adverse situations. If asked, he would share his thoughts about the massacre, but he had no desire to bring up the subject himself. Mostly, he was happy to be away from the telephone and the newspapers and the television set.

On Thursday, August 5, as workers were putting the finishing touches on the renovations at Columbine High, Tucker was camped at 12,000 feet, just below the tree line, doing his 24-hour solo, an Outward Bound staple. He was equipped with a sleeping bag, a tarp, a ground cloth, a foam pad, an extra shirt, a water bottle, a journal, a camera, and a small amount of food: nine crackers, six ounces of raisins, and six ounces of peanuts. “I was in this beautiful spot,” Tucker says. “I was on top of this rock, next to a stream, with a great view of the valley and the mountains. I just sat there and thought, not so much about the shooting, but more about the future, about how maybe I could contribute in some way so that it would never happen again.”

Several days later, Tucker is back at Columbine for the first time in weeks. He and the other teachers here today are preparing for the school year, which begins in just five days. Outside, the yellow police tape that surrounded the school for most of the summer has been taken down. Gone, too, is a makeshift memorial to the shooting victims that once occupied a patch of dirt under a cottonwood tree. Inside, laughter spills out of the front office. Students-some with their parents, some without-stop by to register for classes. If it weren’t for the security guard in the lobby, who checks identification cards and asks visitors to sign in, please, you might never guess that this was the site of the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

Sitting in his windowless office, Tucker is wearing sandals, khaki shorts, and a gray “Columbine Rebels” T-shirt. His legs are covered with mosquito bites acquired on his Outward Bound trip. On top of his desk is a copy of today’s Denver Rocky Mountain News, with the headline, “Harris Kept Hate List.” Next to the newspaper is Tucker’s 1998-99 Columbine yearbook. “We just got them,” he says. “Here, read this. It’s chilling.”

He points to a note written by Nathan Dykeman, who was one of Harris and Klebold’s best friends. It says, “High school has been the best of times and the worst of times, but through it all, two guys have been with me. Thanks for the memories and everlasting friendship, Dylan and Eric.” He turns to the pages with Eric and Dylan’s class photographs and shakes his head.

This morning, he says, the local PTA served breakfast to the school’s staff members. Principal DeAngelis welcomed the teachers back to school. “He kept it pretty light,” Tucker says. “I think it was a good way to start things off.”

One week into the new school year, Tucker showed slides of his Outward Bound trip to his juniors. One of them, Lance Kirklin, was shot five times on April 20. A shotgun blast tore away much of the left side of his face, and he has undergone extensive reconstructive surgery.

The teacher hopes that some of them will apply for one of the 20 scholarships that Outward Bound is offering to Columbine students. Even Harris and Klebold, he thinks, might have had their lives changed by Outward Bound. “When people are blaming others for their problems, as they were,” he says, “I think that’s really a sign of insecurity. And in Outward Bound, you learn that you really need to rely on yourself.”

Why did they do it? Tucker wishes he knew. “After the shooting,” he says, “people here asked, ‘What did we do wrong? What could we have done differently?’ But I absolutely refused to play the blame game. When reporters would ask, ‘Who’s fault is this?’ I would say, ‘The kids who did the shooting.’ But really, it’s everybody. This didn’t happen in a vacuum. There were signs out there for a lot of people to see and a lot of people to pick up on. But I refuse to say that it’s because the jocks were picking on them, or because they could get guns easily, or the way their parents brought them up. It’s way more complicated than that. You can’t pass a law and have it stop. There’s not one single answer, and that frustrates a lot of people. We’ll never know exactly why they did it.”

He adds, “I hope we’ve learned some lessons from this. If not, then truly Eric and Dylan won. I will be thoroughly disappointed if things are the same around here. I think we’ve sent a pretty clear message to students that we’re not going to tolerate any bad behavior.” He vows to try to make Columbine a better place. He intends to get his students outdoors, away from school, as much as possible. He’ll try to impart some of the values he learned on his Outward Bound course: courage, compassion, goal-setting, and teamwork.

“I’d really like for my students to try to look beyond the superficial things in their world,” he says. “They define themselves so much by who they hang out with and the clothes they wear and the cars they drive and the music they listen to. But really, it’s who they are inside and how they relate to other people that’s important.”

Tucker was disturbed when, on the first day of classes, several swastikas were found etched into school walls. “That kind of shatters your confidence,” he says. “Is stuff like this going to happen all year? Am I going to have to open up the paper every day and read something about Columbine?”

Asked if violence could again visit Columbine, Tucker doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, I think it could happen anytime,” he says. “I don’t know what there is to stop it. There are certainly other kids out there capable of doing something like this. To say it wouldn’t happen again would be foolhardy. We’ve taken a lot of security measures around here, but they’re still not going to stop somebody from coming in.” And neither, he believes, would metal detectors. “It might make people feel better, but it would be a false sense of security.”

District officials report that almost all the students at Columbine last year--except, of course, the seniors--have opted to return to the school. On August 16, the first day of classes, some students and administrators went to great lengths to portray the day as routine. At a press conference, senior Mike Sheehan, president of the student government, said, “We were just trying to get back to normality, really. The 20th didn’t really pop into my mind too much.”

But despite the veneer of normalcy, Columbine is a school on edge, and it likely will remain that way for some time. “Something’s not quite right,” is how Tucker puts it.

He offers this example: In the past, teachers would gather in the library every Friday before school for coffee and doughnuts. But recently, a paraprofessional who was trapped in the library on April 20 refused to participate, even though it’s now held in the school’s temporary library, a portable classroom. “She said, ‘I won’t go in there,’” Tucker says.

The week before school started, Tucker had a nightmare, one of the few he’s had since the shooting. In the dream, he was perched atop a rock pillar, high above a canyon, wearing a helmet and large, heavy gloves. “And I could not get off this rock. Every time I moved, I thought I was going to fall. I told Paula, my teaching partner, about it, and she said, ‘Gee, that’s kind of how we’re all feeling around here. Like we don’t know what’s going to happen.’”

Tucker fears what might happen if something else were to go “horribly wrong” at Columbine. “I mean, what would happen if there were another incident at this school? Even if it were minor? A kid pulls a fire alarm and there’s a panic and people get hurt. That could unravel this thing pretty fast. I don’t know how much this school could take of that kind of stuff.”

As for himself, Tucker figures he’ll make it through the year by drawing inner strength from his Outward Bound accomplishments: the challenging ropes course, the day spent rock climbing, the orienteering exercises, the solo. “I try to think of those things when I get down or depressed,” he says. “And that gives me a lot of hope.”

Meanwhile, Naomi Tucker wonders how long it will take for her husband--and her family--to recover fully from the trauma of April 20. Tucker, she says, continues to have mood swings, and her children are needier than ever. “I can’t keep the kids out of our bed at night,” she says. “My son wakes up two or three times a night crying.” Some days, she wonders if Tucker will even make it to school. “It’s going to be a very long and slow process for him to get back to normal. He’s not the same man. A great big piece of him was ripped out that day.”


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