When Oprah Knocks, You Answer

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Some folks have been wondering where I’m at with the STAND UP project, while others simply want to know what exactly happened with the associate producer from the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), so I figured I’d sum it up in one fell swoop.

Writing a proposal is hard. 

I did not foresee it taking more than six months to finish my proposal, but alas, here we are at month seven. (FYI – in creative nonfiction, you write the proposal first, which – when done right – argues why your book idea is marketable, thereby convincing an agent or publisher to give you a contract. In fiction, you write the manuscript first.)

The good news is, I’m almost there, and the other good news is, I’m glad I’ve taken the time to absorb, digest and figure out how to articulate what it is I’m trying to say. That said, piecing all the layers and components of the proposal together has been a rather painstaking, challenging and humbling process, albeit exciting at times, too.

The pain is three-fold. For starters, I’m working 2-3 jobs any given week between my office manager position for a private chef and staffing concierge company, freelance writing for 2 North Tahoe Newspapers , plus the occasional serving shift at Jake’s on the Lake.

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Here are a few links to some articles I’ve written over the past few months:

Secondly, of course, is the proposal itself – the introduction being the most important part – followed by sections like: target audience, competitive titles, market and promotion, about the author, two sample chapters, a chapter by chapter synopsis of the entire book, etc. It’s basically a sales pitch, and I’ve always been more of a consumer than a seller, so it’s not a style of writing that comes naturally to me.

For anyone curious about what it is I’m writing, I’ve decided to share a little snippet of the proposal – here is an attached PDF of the intro: STAND UP Proposal Introduction

To date, the aforementioned sections of the proposal have been edited and revised by me, oh let’s say, probably twenty times, give or take. In early March, I finally reached the point where I felt confident enough to share it with a few close friends and family who pointed out some holes I was unable to see. I polished and revised it again, then sent it to two people who know my writing inside and out – my grad school professor/mentor, Judith, and my editor from the newspaper, Kevin. With their feedback, I’ll finally be able to save it as “final copy” instead of “draft 3,205,302…..”.

So, like I said, I’m almost there.

The third and final factor weighing in on my productivity and motivation is my own mind, or more specifically, the self-doubt and fear that creeps in and throws me off my game from time to time. I’ve learned ways to curb negative thoughts by wholeheartedly believing in my project no matter what (and I genuinely do)…plus it doesn’t hurt when someone like an associate producer for Harpo Studios/OWN shows an interest in my work.

Oh, hello, minion of Oprah…

To recap, in mid-March, I received an email from said producer who happened upon my Kickstarter campaign while compiling research for a show he’s pitching. When the email popped up in my Inbox, I thought to myself, ‘what the hell spam list did I get on now?’ – so you can imagine my surprise/adrenaline/excitement when I Googled the guy and discovered it wasn’t in fact junk mail at all. I called him back immediately, and we spoke for 30 minutes about my book, the concept of his show, as well as potential opportunities for me to participate with current and future OWN programs. I have since sent him a slew of articles, books, and information to help with his research, and I also sent him a draft (number 3,205,302….) of my proposal. I’m unsure of what will come of the connection, but in any case, the simple fact that someone from the Big O voiced an interest in Stand Up further illustrates the relevance and timeliness of this book. And it’s given me the final push to finish the damn proposal.

In other fortuitous encounters, I was recently introduced to a couple who owns a reputable literary press agency, and who have been providing some pretty crucial advice and guidance as I approach the next phase of publishing. I’ve also had a handful of grad school professors so kindly offer to pass my proposal along to their agents, and a foot in the door always puts you ahead of the game, especially in the literary world.

I’m beyond inspired, ecstatic, overjoyed, gratified, etc….. for whatever comes next because no matter what happens, I’ll be writing the shit out of this book, and I am so ready to put this story on the page.

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Show me your STAND UP pose!

Hello blog readers,

I have a request. I would love it if you would send me a picture striking a STANDUP pose (as shown) on the top of a mountain, at the office, in front of your old high school, in your birthday suit if you so desire (OK, maybe not a close-up) – wherever you feel like throwing your arms up and saying to the world, “I will STAND UP against the school shooting epidemic!!”

 

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I’m entering the editing process of my STAND UP book proposal, but before I send this beast off to agents (who send it off to publishers), I want to create a much larger collage than the one pictured below, featuring all of your beautiful photos to use as the cover page. And who knows, maybe a publisher will like it so much, they’ll consider it for the cover of the book! How stinking rad would that be?!

All you need to do is: 

 1. Take a picture. 

 2. Upload it to Facebook and tag me in it AND/OR email it to: jgoldsmith14@gmail.com

3. Do it by MONDAY, JANUARY 19TH (that’s 2 weeks from yesterday, folks).

Fine Print: Uh, no spam, please. That would be hella lame. And please, no copyright material. By submitting images via Facebook, Instagram or email, you thereby grant your consent for my public usage of said image/s.

Thank you all for continuing to be a part of this incredible journey with me! I’m sending love and light to all of you in the New Year – the possibilities in 2015 are endless!

With Thanks and Love,

Jenny

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11,000 Miles Later

In Summary:

In 10 weeks, I drove 11,000 miles and interviewed 15 people across the country about their experience surviving a school shooting. It was the hardest, most intense, most inspiring trip of my life. Everyone keeps asking, “So, how was it?” It was so many things: successful beyond belief, lonely at times, discouraging and encouraging depending on the day. It was therapeutic as I reopened the wounds of my own experience surviving a school shooting when I was 14, and above all else, it was life-changing. I can honestly say my life will be forever changed by every person I met along the way who so willingly shared their story with me and changed my perspective on life and the pursuit of happiness.

A lot of people also ask: “What is the common thread from this trip?” That question boils down to one characteristic universal in all survivors: human resilience. We are capable of surviving and overcoming so much more than we could ever imagine.

What’s Next?

My apologies for not keeping up with my blog – between the driving, the research and planning, and all the other excuses I can feed you, the blog got lost in all the moving parts.

That said, I did put together a photo slideshow of highlights from the trip, with pretty awesome captions so you can walk through the journey with me. After photoshopping and sorting over 1,000 photos, I narrowed it down to my top 229. It was not easy. You may want to grab a bowl of popcorn and a box of tissues. 🙂

The slideshow is currently available on Facebook at:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152748543867905.1073741835.770352904&type=1&l=5a8080b30b

***YOU DO NOT NEED TO HAVE A FACEBOOK ACCOUNT TO VIEW THIS ALBUM. (Or so they promised.) 

My next mission is to write a query letter to send out to agents, and polish my 50-page book proposal. I’ll try to throw a few highlights from the slideshow up here in the near-ish future. Stay tuned! Thanks for reading!

“I Accept…”

With only a few hours between my interview with Kirk Bast (see previous blog) and my interview with Aurora Theater survivor, Lasamoa Cross, I freshened up and left Arapahoe for Aurora – a mere 20 minute drive. I wanted to get there early to poke around, get a feel for the community, drive by the infamous Century Aurora 16, and grab a bite to eat to refuel before my next sure-to-be powerful meeting.

Ten miles east of Denver, Aurora is similar to every other suburb nestled on the outskirts of the mile-high city, drenched in sprawling suburban neighborhoods, countless shopping centers, Starbucks on every corner, and beautifully manicured lawns, though not quite as lush or green as its Littleton and Arapahoe neighbors, being as Aurora is a gateway to the eastern Colorado desert, the Kansas flatlands some 500 miles beyond.

I drove straight to the theater, tucked away in the chaos of a large shopping mall. (It reopened six months after the shooting.) The sky overhead was dark and gloomy. Rumbles of thunder growled in the distance. West of the theater, on the distant horizon, the sun was beginning to make its descent towards the rockies, casting a luminous twilight glow like a spotlight on the front entrance of the theater. It was radiant, and haunting. I was covered in goosebumps.

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Century Aurora 16

Other than a lurking memory and the bizarre skyline, there was nothing special about the theater. It looked like every other multiplex in the country, so I kept driving. With two hours to spare before meeting Lasamoa, I meandered down Alameda Parkway, congested with rush hour traffic and endless stoplights, then wound back around towards the mall and theater. I spotted a Chili’s on a nearby corner, and my stomach growled. (Some of you may know this about me, but most of you may not – I’m a huge fan of Chili’s. I can’t say I like any other restaurant chain, but I worked at a Chili’s in college and I guess the place has always stuck with me in a nostalgic sense, regardless of the amount of TUMS I must consume in order to eat and drink there.)

Anyways, I strolled in and found a spot at the bar, which was crowded with World Cup fans. I don’t really consider myself the type of person who enjoys dining out solo, but I was excited to order a beer and a salad, and enjoy the alone time in a sea of strangers. While digesting, I pulled out my phone (I don’t like to look at it while I’m eating, mostly because I don’t like doing two things at once if I don’t have to) and reminded myself the details of the shooting.

On June 20, 2012, a (pardon my French, but you may as well get used to it) fucking lunatic, whose name need not be repeated, crept into the shadows of theater 9 where The Dark Knight Rises had been playing for about 30 minutes. His face was shielded by a gas mask and he was outfitted in black military-ish gear. He lingered in the front corner near the emergency exit, then tossed a few tear gas grenades and began shooting at the audience using 3 legally purchased (in spite of a documented history of mental illness – just sayin’) firearms. Most onlookers thought it was all part of the movie drama, until they quickly realized it was anything but. In under 2 minutes, he killed 12 people and injured 70 others. Lasamoa was one of the fortunate survivors to escape unharmed, but her fiance wasn’t so lucky.

I tried to absorb as much information as I could about the shooting so that I wouldn’t have to hash out details with Lasamoa. The more I read, the more frustrated I became. After being arrested outside the theater, the shooter was charged with 24 counts of first degree murder and 116 counts of attempted murder. He has plead not guilty to all of the charges by reason of insanity, and his trial date has been pushed back (a 4th time) to December 8, 2014, while a court-ordered psychiatrist continues to examine, evaluate and compile a report on his mental capacity.

The whole story made me feel sick to my core, kind of like the way it feels when my stomach churns with acid after a regretful night of binge drinking. Sure, he’s insane, there’s no argument there, but to what degree? An alarming one, although medically, the verdict is still out. But this whole I’m-not-guilty-because-I’m-crazy thing is a disturbing plea and a lame excuse, that is, if you ask me. And since you have by way of continuing to read this, let me say for the record: yes, I do believe people can go nuts, off the rocker, mad as a hatter, completely fucking lose it in the blink of an eye, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here as this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment act, and it certainly doesn’t excuse murder the way I see it. There are undoubtedly a lot of (um, I don’t know the exact number) severely mentally ill people who function in society without shooting people. Like many of the school shooters I’ve been researching, this nut-job planned his attack well in advance, and allegedly documented his frightening intentions online, to friends, to his psychiatrist, and in a journal. Why does he get to say he’s “not guilty” just because he’s clinically nuts? Why not just say, “I’m guilty because I’m batshit crazy”? I have a hard time wrapping my head around these premeditated acts of rampage violence, and with the phrase “not guilty” in general, but I guess that’s one of the million reasons I didn’t go into law…or politics for that matter. IF YOU DID IT, OWN UP TO IT. End of story.

Once I had digested dinner and a giant dose of crappy news, I drove around the block to Starbucks, then around another block to the right Starbucks. Lasamoa texted saying she was running a few minutes late. I texted back asking if she wanted me to order her a coffee of some sort. She declined, but I bought us both Chai Tea Latte’s anyways, plus 2 cookies – 1 chocolate chip and the other gluten-free, just in case (you never know these days.) Right as the barista placed the frothy beverages on the countertop, Lasamoa whisked in the side door, her keys jingling from a cloth lanyard dangling at her side. I recognized her from pictures I had seen online by her pearly white smile, her youthful, natural beauty, and her quizzical expression that told me she was looking for someone. I smiled, introduced myself and handed her the Chai, explaining my love for the beverage and my need to spread said love to others, hence buying it despite her refusal. She cocked her head back and laughed, saying “okay, that’s fair, that’s fair.” I motioned to a table outside where Ted was already tied up, and then revealed the cookie. Her reaction was the same, “that’s fair too, that’s fair. I’ll take the chocolate chip,” she said, bursting out in that contagiously loud laugh again.

I liked her right off the bat.

We sat outside on a makeshift patio, which was actually just a sidewalk cluttered with metal green Starbucks tables and chairs, shaded by dark green umbrellas. The sun was still dancing above the peaks of the Rockies, emitting a horizontal glow. Dark clouds drifted further into the eastern sky. Ted curled up under the table between our chairs, occasionally propping his head on my knee for a scratch, then shifting to hers, then back to mine, then settling down again and drifting off into a light slumber until a passerby made his ears perk.

Lasamoa, or La as she prefers to be called by her friends, got right down to business. “Ask me anything,” she said, throwing her hands up in the air as if to say the sky’s the limit. Feeling slightly rusty with my interview skills, her confidence and directness stunned me into near silence for a split second until I remembered I needed to say something. Then we dove right in.

La told me about that night just under two years ago when, at the young age of 19, she faced death inside theater 9, her fiance, AJ, 18, right beside her. La and AJ met in high school, dated for a couple of years, and got engaged roughly a year prior to the shooting, during a portion of which La was away at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Movies were their thing, and Century Aurora 16 was their place. They couldn’t wait for the highly-anticipated release of  The Dark Knight Rises. On opening night, they took their seats a few rows from the front.

She described in detail her initial confusion, the reddish-orange haired shooter, the spraying bullets, and the way AJ grabbed her hand and told her, “babe, we’ve got to get out of here.” They made a run for it down the aisle, screams and gunshots piercing through clouds of smoke around them, The Dark Knight Rises still rolling on the big scream. Within feet, she felt AJ’s hand go limp and let go of hers. She fell to the ground with him, ducking behind the backs of chairs to cradle his head. She felt his warm blood seep over her like melting honey. She heard more gunshots as herds of shoes trampled by, flickering past in the dim floor lights. She was in complete shock, yet her mind was racing. She laid her fiance’s head gently on the floor and made a run for it. When she got outside, she beelined it for AJ’s car, certain that is where he would find her whenever he made it out.

Sometime later, once the theater was cleared and the shooter in handcuffs, law enforcement summoned the survivors to the nearby Gateway High School, where La and AJ had went. She said she felt a sense of relief taking refuge in her old stomping grounds. I guess that’s how she/we should feel, but that’s not always the case, and I found it ironic – this juxtaposition of what we all personally consider safe anymore, and why.

Sitting across from La as she replayed her experience, I was overcome with so many emotions for this young girl, now 21. I thought about where I was in life when I was her age. Yes, I had witnessed death, including a murder in a seemingly random act of gun violence. (I say “seemingly” because I don’t believe this kind of gun violence is random – at least not for the perpetrator. But it sure as hell is for the victims.) And sure, at age 21, my mother was two years deep in chemotherapy, and things weren’t looking so good for her. But I had never been engaged, let alone lost a fiance, let alone survived that kind of trauma. To this day, I have no idea what that must feel like and no one will ever know exactly how that feels for La, but I will say, she helped me understand what it feels like to heal from such devastating pain.

La wholeheartedly believes in the power of counseling (on the grounds you find a therapist you can honestly and openly connect with.) She found someone she could talk to, and they’ve been talking ever since, one day at a time, one foot in front of the other, sometimes moving backwards, sometimes leaping forwards, sometimes going nowhere, but always looking ahead.

“So many people want to ask why, you know, why did this happen to me? Why that theater? Why my fiance? But I just wanted to know how. How do I put one foot in front of the other? How do I go on with my life without AJ? You know what I mean?”

Well, shit La, I do know what you mean, but I had never thought about it that way before.

When my mom lost her fight with her cancer in 2007, I was 23 years old, and I did a lot of asking the why’s of the world. Those were some of the darkest days of my life, and I wasn’t sure I would make it through them. One year later, when my stepfather kicked my brother and I out of his life and subsequently offed with my mother’s Will, some of her jewelry, and a laundry list of her possessions, I asked why a few thousand more times.

I, too, saw a counselor in Truckee, and in our time together, he helped me enormously. But I couldn’t afford to pay someone to listen to me for more than 6 months at that point in my life, so I jumped ship a little too soon.

Through ongoing counseling sessions, La also came to understand the value of acceptance. “It was about accepting something new everyday,” she said, like day 1 – accepting her hair was black and her eyes were dark brown and she had a mediocre relationship with her parents; day 2 – accepting she’s however tall, however size (I’d say she’s thin, toned, about 5’6″) and she doesn’t want to major in film anymore; and so forth. Until finally, day-however-many-later, she had to accept that AJ was gone, that she had survived the shooting at Century Aurora 16, and that her life may never be the same.

I asked her if she thought that was the same as forgiveness, but we both came to the conclusion that forgiveness is tough when the person you’re trying to forgive hasn’t asked for it. It got me thinking, maybe acceptance is a form of forgiveness, the kind where the person doing the forgiving does so by healing him/herself within, not asking for anything from the outside, but simply finding it deep inside his/her own heart, mind and soul to accept and let go so he/she may be at peace.

Then it got me thinking about my stepfather, and my own struggles with forgiveness. Some time ago, I accepted that my mother died, and that it’s important for me to keep her memory alive. But I haven’t reached a peace of mind when it comes to her other (lesser) half, aka the stepfatherkenstein. (Get it? Stepmonster = stepfatherkenstein = Frankenstein. I just came up with that one. Don’t believe me? Google it. You won’t find it anywhere. I think we can work with it.) Anyways, since this revelation, I have taken La’s advice to heart, accepting certain circumstances as they may be. I hereby accept I may never again see that floating diamond bracelet my mother bought during our girls-only trip to the Virgin Islands. I accept that I am in six figures worth of debt from grad school despite her Will stating she left funds to provide for me otherwise. I accept what my stepfather did, no matter how unfair or cruel it felt. It happened, and I can’t change it. I can only move forward, and be a better me because of it. In one meeting and one conversation with one extraordinary person, I stopped scratching this irritating itch that is buried deep inside, refusing to subside, that is until I met La. So, La, thanks for that. You don’t even know what it means to me.

(Fine Print: In terms of my own experience surviving a school shooting, I’m still trying to figure out where I stand with acceptance and forgiveness, but I promise I’m working on it diligently.)

That’s not to say La doesn’t fight her own internal battles. It’s still a process, and it may always be. That type of survival is not easy to overcome, or forget. Especially when the killer’s verdict is still out.

But La is on the right path, and from what I gathered, she’s plowing forward. She’s seen a number of movies, and she’s even returned to the remodeled Century Aurora 16, though not to theater 9 just yet. Maybe someday. She also sat through the rest of The Dark Knight Rises on DVD with her newfound besty, a local police officer who she was familiar with from his guard duty days at Gateway High, and who was there the night of the shooting. (She puked at the 30 minute mark of the movie with him, but she rinsed her mouth out and watched it all the way to the end, his strength helping get her to the final credits.)

“I always thank him [new cop besty] for taking me there, to my high school, because it was the safest place I could have gone and he brought me there,” she said.

Not only did she thank him, she also sent personal thank you’s to each and every police officer who responded that night and ran into the chaos as others were running out. She doesn’t like that people call them “pigs” or talk down to them. Overall, I think she’s got a damn good point. I mean, there can be asshole cops, but then again, there are bad eggs everywhere. And I think it was incredibly humble and selfless that she took the time to thank them in the way she did.

There is so much we can learn from someone like La. She’s still in the throes of young-adulthood, but she’s wiser than most adults I know that are twice her age. Her spirit is contagious, uplifting and powerful. She has survived something more horrific than any of us will ever know, and she’s coming out on top, standing tall and proud, ready to take on whatever comes next, with her love and memory of AJ shining through in the most honorable of ways. She opened my eyes and my heart to the possibility – and reality- of acceptance and what it means to really move forward.

La, I’ll always move with you, standing right beside you, shifting in whatever direction you need to go, whenever you need me.  Knowing you has made me a better person, and I’m excited for this new, lifelong friendship. Thank you for sharing your story with me, and for trusting me to write it. I will care for it as though it were my own.

(Regrettably, I was so immersed in my conversation with La that I forgot to take a STAND UP photo of her. But do not fear, she’s in the process of sending one, which she promises will be “cool”.)

 

 

There’s Hope in Arapahoe

After my interview with Crystal (see previous blog post), she connected me with two other gun violence survivors based in the outlying suburbs of Denver. The first was Kirk Bast, head counselor at Arapahoe High School for nearly 20 years. Kirk was just around the corner at the school when, on December 13, 2013, senior Karl Pierson shot 17-year-old Claire Peterson (who was hospitalized, but succumbed to her injuries 8 days later), and then shot himself.

I left Littleton and drove the short distance (roughly 12 miles) to Arapahoe, still on a high from my magnetic conversation with Crystal. A friend of mine from Tahoe had suggested I stay with his folks while in town, and being the gracious family that they are, they let Ted and I in with open arms. Over a dinner of pulled pork sandwiches and coleslaw, I told them I was interviewing Kirk during my visit to Arapahoe, and it just so happened they knew him on a personal level – he was their son/my friend’s high school soccer coach. It is a small world after all. My interview with Kirk remained unconfirmed until I casually dropped their name and offered their backyard as the interview location. He agreed to meet me the next day.

Fresh off a vacation in the Rockies with his family, Kirk arrived looking sun-kissed and relaxed. We sat across from each other on the back patio as a lawn mower purred nearby and a fountain trickled methodically in the garden a few feet away. The sounds of my friend’s childhood backyard hummed in peaceful drones all around us, calming us as we began to dissect the most unpeaceful of topics.

While chatting over apple slices and cheese with crackers, I quickly came to value Kirk’s wisdom as a long-time school counselor, a Doctoral candidate in counseling psychology and a native of St. Louis – commonly ranked as one of the most violent cities in the US. His thoughts and ideas provided a unique perspective on school violence, bullying, mental health, and healing in the aftermath of a rampage shooting. Our views were often aligned, but when they weren’t, we challenged each other to consider other angles, which I believe benefitted us both. He got me thinking about the importance of a loving home environment and positive upbringing in ways I hadn’t considered, and he had a profound take on the need to build more therapeutic-based counseling services in our schools, which will be imperative in formulating the overall book.

Towards the end of our nearly 3 hour discussion, Kirk thanked me for giving him the opportunity to digest the shooting at Arapahoe, and vent, if you will, about his experience in a way that helped him take a few more steps forward. In the aftermath of such a horrific tragedy, we, as human beings, often compartmentalize the event and its detriments. For me personally, after the shooting I witnessed, I put that memory in a box and stashed it in the back of my brain’s filing cabinet, never to be reopened again. It wasn’t until I began writing about it in graduate school that I started to reflect and reexamine my feelings. Kirk doesn’t have the luxury of filing it away because 1. it hasn’t even been a year and 2. his position as head counselor at Arapahoe forces him to face the aftereffects of the shooting not just head on, but solid as a rock so his students (and staff) can lean on him – all 2,229 of them. During our talk, he named a few people he considered heroes in the school that day, but he was far too humble to take ownership of his own heroism, although I get the sense that’s just the kind of guy that he is. Therefore, I’ll own it for him. Kirk is a hero. Given the chance, there is no doubt he would have taken a bullet for each and every one of his student’s that day. He wanted nothing more than to protect them, to run into the line of fire, and to save Claire’s life.

I will never forget Kirk’s bravery, his selflessness, his knowledge and his sincerity. I hope to be able to put into words Kirk’s story in a way that will shape our understanding of the school shooting epidemic.

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Kirk Bast, head counselor at Arapahoe High School, strikes a stand up pose in a friend’s backyard.

“We Are Columbine – Part 2”

I have a lot to catch up on since my time in Denver! I’m 32 days into my trip and I’ve covered nearly 5,000 miles since it all began. There have been a lot of ups and downs so far, but I figured that would be the case, and with every wrong turn, something else goes incredibly right too. Besides, life would be boring without any surprises or unexpected twists!

While in Denver, I met with 3 remarkable gun violence survivors who shared their courageous and inspiring stories with me, and for that, I feel truly blessed. The first interview with Columbine survivor, Crystal Woodman Miller, set the bar high to say the least. Crystal was in the library during the attack, where most of the killings took place. She was studying for a test with friends when Eric and Dylan entered the room, shooting and killing 10 people, and injuring 12 others. Crystal was hiding beneath one of the only tables in the library that was not targeted during the attack. The shooters did approach the table, but were out of ammunition and left to reload. As soon as they exited the library, Crystal ran for her life to safety.

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Crystal Woodman Miller striking the Stand Up pose in Littleton, Colorado.

Shortly after Columbine, in December 1999, Samaritan’s Purse – a nondenominational evangelist organization offering aid to those in need worldwide – sent Crystal to Kosovo to hand out Christmas gifts to children who survived the devastating Kosovo War. Fresh off surviving her own tragedy, the experience jump-started Crystal’s courageous road to recovery, and enriched her global perspective of suffering and what it means to be a survivor. Since then, she has traveled the world as a motivational speaker, helping schools and communities heal in the wake of rampage gun violence. She also has a documentary in the works, titled Columbine Everywhere, and she continues to be a driving force behind school safety and violence prevention.

Not only is Crystal a remarkable human being, but she’s also a beautiful wife and mother of 1 with another on the way. Her positive energy was palpable, and as we sat under the shade of an umbrella outside a Starbucks in Littleton, I quickly came to regard her as a wonderful friend whose integrity, honesty and passion will continue to guide and nurture me throughout this journey. She reminded me what it means to be a survivor, as well as the potential impact we can make by turning our tragic past into something positive and enlightening.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on the Denver interviews that followed Crystal, as well as other highlights from the trip so far, including my conversation with a Virginia Tech survivor based in Washington DC!

 

 

 

“We Are Columbine”

First off, let me start by saying THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!! When I launched my Kickstarter in April (video below), I did not know what to expect. With each share, tweet and forward, I watched in awe as the project spread well beyond my expectations and I was taken aback by the rush of support and encouragement. The Kickstarter campaign was an incredible experience, and I am so grateful to my backers for helping get this project off the ground, as well as to all my friends and family who expressed faith and hope for my vision. Thank you for believing in me!

ImageAfter graduating with my masters in writing from California College of the Arts in May, and subsequently moving out of my apartment, I was finally able to take a timeout in Tahoe for two weeks prior to hitting the road. (You can check out a video of my commencement speech below by clicking “see more posts from jennyjotsitdown”.) It was a whirlwind trip catching up with my Tahoe family, and I wasn’t as productive as I would like to have been, but it was important for me to breathe and reboot!

I’m now 6 days into the journey, and aside from a minor setback, the trip is off to a good start. (I already had to call AAA TWICE!) After one night in Salt Lake City, I bee-lined it to Colorado to investigate the multitude of shootings that have taken place here over the past 20 years.

Some time ago, I decided I’d dive right in the fire and check out Columbine first. I just finished reading Dave Cullen’s masterpiece titled none other than “Columbine”, and it was altogether a page turner, an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism, and a thrilling mystery wrapped up in one 370-page package. Be it the overdose of media coverage on this particular shooting, the public’s fascination with the shooters themselves, or the many twists and turns the details of the ensuing investigation took, the story of Columbine has manifested into something of a poster child for rampage gun violence in America’s schools.

When I emailed Columbine’s longstanding principal, Mr. DeAngelis or Mr. D – who announced his retirement in May 2014 after 35 years with the district – I explained to him that I do not intend to hash out the details of the actual shooting. The way I see it, that information is out there, so if you need a refresher, do a quick Google search or better yet, pick up Cullen’s book and get the full story. Instead of harping on the tragedy, my hope is to change how we think about Columbine by highlighting the way this community coped in the aftermath, and by focusing on the positive programs and safety procedures that grew from this experience. Not only was Mr. D named the 2013 Colorado High School Principal of the Year, he was also listed as a finalist for the 2013 National Principal of the Year. He’s known by his students and staff for his sense of humor and huge heart, plus he heads the Columbine High School Academic Foundation (CHSAF), which is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization. The Foundation’s goal is to inspire parents, alumni, and community members to support the future of Columbine High by donating money, volunteering, and generating support for the school (check out the organization here: http://chsaf.org/wp/). I’m waiting with bated breath for his response to my email…but come on, how could he not want to talk to me?

Out of a desire for mental preparation and a touch of blatant curiosity, I decided to plug Columbine High School into my GPS and drive the ten miles south of Denver to have a look around. When I pulled into the vacant student parking lot around 3 pm on Friday, I immediately felt like I had been there a thousand times before. Having read so much about the layout of the school and the route of the shooters – Eric and Dylan – I had a pretty good idea of where I was going, but I was startled by the familiarity.

As far as I could see, the school was completely vacant, with summer break in full bloom.10472693_10152523027702905_4058976052507886708_n
I parked near the back end of the student lot, adjacent to the Columbine Hope Memorial Library, its bright blue letters standing out in contrast to the otherwise greyish-beige exterior.  The cafeteria is next to the library – both of which were drastically remodeled the summer after the shooting, including a $1.2 million renovation to the library, which is where most of the murders took place. I peered in through the windows of the cafeteria, which had also been significantly damaged from the sprinkler system after it was set off from a small fire that was ignited by a faulty homemade bomb in Dylan’s duffle bag. The lunch room was empty, but in my mind, I could see the images of terrified faces crouched beneath round table tops as the boys blasted their guns overhead.

IMG_0429With Ted in tow, I hiked up the backside of IMG_0435Rebel Hill, which is named after Columbine’s mascot and is home to a large population of prairie dogs. The 40-or-so-foot mound of dirt towers above the campus and overlooks the school’s athletic fields. One of the fields was alive with excitement and
energy as the junior Rebels baseball team took the lead over a rival school. At the top of the lookout, I could hear the crowd chanting “We are Columbine” from the bleachers. I had heard through the grapevine that Columbine had closed its doors some years ago and was slated to be bulldozed to the ground, but I was never able to confirm that rumor, and it became clear to me now that this school is in fact alive and well.

I sat on top Rebel Hill for about an hour, basking under blue skies in the IMG_0432afternoon heat. The backside of the hill overlooks the town of Littleton, which is densely populated with oak, hackberry and skyline honeylocust trees. Red and brown rooftops peek out between clusters of forest, some houses taking up more room than others, but all of them seemingly middle-to-upper class. In the backdrop of Littleton, the Rocky Mountains jut from the earth creating a dramatic skyline of majestic peaks that seem to both protect and overpower the cozy suburb. Just below Rebel Hill, on the opposite side of the school, is Clement Park – a rolling plot of bright of green grass, paved sidewalks, more than a dozen picnic pavilions, several tennis courts, playgrounds and softball fields, plus a small reservoir that is dotted with recreational fishermen.

IMG_0433Where the edge of the park meets Rebel Hill and Columbine, there lies the memorial honoring the Thirteen, and commemorating the tragedy on April 20, 1999. After baking in the mid-day sun, Ted and I ventured down Rebel Hill to pay our respects, opposite the way we first hiked up. There was still no one around, at least not within shouting distance.

A row of synchronized fountains10423843_10152523027282905_4509748416001620352_n spill a steady stream of water to the left of the entrance. The memorial wall is built into the gentle slope of Rebel Hill and is nestled in a circular formation against the rising bank of grass and red dirt. The outer stone “Wall of Healing” is speckled with plaques that provide a reflective narrative told from a variety of sources including former President Bill Clinton, students of Columbine and family members of the deceased victims.IMG_0441
At the center of the memorial grounds lies the inner “Ring of Remembrance” wall,
which tells each individual story of the departed as written by family members and friends. There were a dozen or so roses sporadically placed on top the succession of plaques, their petals crisp and crumbly in the Colorado heat.

 

I spent some time reading each plaque while intermittently filling Ted’s water bowl from the fountain as he napped in the IMG_0442shade of the wall’s east-facing side. The enclosure is peppered with a few small native shrubs that are surrounded by flower beds where butterflies dance from petal to petal. If the memorial is meant to invoke peace, strength, honor, reflection, comfort, protection and hope, it certainly accomplishes all of that, at least in my experience. It didn’t hurt having the place all to myself (well, aside from Ted) to wander as slowly and aimlessly as I pleased.

When I felt my time there had come to an end, I walked the rest of the perimeter10409486_10152523027372905_4031809806181477585_n of the school, wrapping full circle around the campus back to where I began. I was grateful for the alone time at the memorial, but once I emerged from the stone structure, I tuned back into the energy of the campus, which was now alive with smiling faces and proud Rebels. I passed a group of young girls in matching blue and white jerseys, giggling and dragging their softball gear and oversized bat bags across the paved parking lot. I passed two power-walking old-ish ladies who commented on what a well-behaved dog Ted is. (It’s true.) I passed a dozen children scampering around in a nearby playground, their mothers chatting with one another on outlying benches while keeping one eye on their kids.

As I moseyed around, I couldn’t help but picture the barricades of media who lined the edge of the school for months after the shooting.

I pictured Dylan and Eric charging the school in military formation on an otherwise quiet spring day, armed with a 9mm semiautomatic handgun, two shotguns, a 9mm carbine rifle, and a hunger for murder unfathomable for two seemingly normal teenage boys (one of which attended prom three days before.)

I pictured the infamous junior, Patrick Ireland, who jumped from the second story library window after nearly bleeding to death from a gunshot wound to his head. (He survived, but faced paralysis and years of physical therapy from the nerve damage in his brain. If he hadn’t of jumped, he wouldn’t have stood at chance at survival.)

It was hard to picture such horrific things happening at such a beautiful, serene location.

I also thought about where I was when the shooting at Columbine was broadcast all over national television that day. I was sitting in 9th grade chemistry class where my teacher decided to turn the television on, forcing us to watch the tragedy play out live. Seeing as my classmates and I had just survived a school shooting one year prior – almost to the day – I didn’t see the logic in torturing us with this painful footage when we were supposed to be learning about the periodic table of elements. Normally I’d be thrilled at the opportunity to zone out to T.V. in class, but this was different. Kind of like when I watched 9-11 play out in English class my junior year, but with way less casualties, though a tougher pill to swallow. I guess it struck a chord too close to home.

Let’s say you’ve been living under a rock since 1999 – my guess is that if you went to Columbine High School today, you wouldn’t in a million years think this school had ever experienced something so tragic. Students wear their Rebel jerseys proud, renovations have long-since covered up any leftover physical damage, and the school’s chant – “We are Columbine” – can be seen and heard all over the campus.

IMG_0467This week, I intend to return to Littleton to shed some light on how this community rebuilt itself from the dark wake of such a horrific act of violence. It’s time for us to get behind Columbine as a poster-child for safety and positivity, rather than remember it as the quintessential tale of a deadly school shooting.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on my return to Littleton, as well as a sneak peek into my research on the Aurora shooting in 2012, plus Arapahoe HS and Platte Canyon HS – both of which fell victim to gun violence in 2013 and 2006 respectively. Thanks for reading!

 

Jenny’s Graduation Speech on YouTube

It was one of the greatest honors of my life to be chosen as California College of the Art’s graduate student commencement speaker in May 2014! Thank you to Jerry Behm for his video expertise!

About the STAND UP Project

It’s interesting to speculate whether or not there is one person in the United States (hell, the World even) who hasn’t heard about school shootings. That’s largely by virtue of the media, of course, but there’s no denying the disturbing and widespread impact this epidemic is having.

For me, that knowledge comes firsthand.

On April 24, 1998, a fourteen year old classmate brought a gun to my eighth grade dance, where he shot and killed my teacher, Mr. Gillette, and wounded three others. The shooter, Andrew Jerome Wurst, was tried as an adult, pleaded guilty for third-degree murder, and was sentenced to 30-60 years in the State Correctional Institution at Pine Grove – a maximum-security prison 157 miles from our hometown. He will be eligible for parole on April 25, 2028, or roughly three months after his forty-fourth birthday.

My recollection of that tragic night was like a word you stare at for so long it detaches from any kind of meaning, each letter blurring into the next, until finally, sixteen years later, I blinked and the meaning started to coalesce.

The first week of April 2014 – one month before graduating with an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts in San Francisco – I decided to launch a Kickstarter to fund the research process for this book. In thirty days, I raised nine thousand dollars towards a ten week road trip around the United States, in search of every school shooting survivor I could find. Had I not been a survivor as well, I quickly came to realize, no one would have agreed to be interviewed for this book.

In total, I drove eleven thousand miles in sixty-three days, meeting fifteen survivors across the country from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Paducah, Kentucky to my hometown, Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Their stories are life-changing testimonies of human resilience, each person passionate about their own niche, whether it be advocating for mental health services, promoting safety resource officers, improving police response methods, developing campus alert systems, fostering violence prevention, campaigning for gun regulation, and/or by speaking publically about their experience, as well as the school shooting issue at large. By chronicling my journey of survival along with the aforementioned stories, I will deliver a creative nonfiction book capable of transforming the way we perceive, talk about, and respond to school shootings.

Although much of the groundwork is complete, I have some unfinished business to research – either for this book, or the next. Part of my original itinerary was to seek out the few rampage school shooters who are serving out sentences at various penitentiaries across the United States. Though the intention was there, the further I drove, the less I could fathom facing a shooter. I want a second chance to dig into this component of the story by visiting and interviewing incarcerated shooters, like Andrew Wurst, Kip Kinkel, Michael Carneal, and two of the youngest people charged with murder in American history – Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden – who were released in 2005 and 2007 respectively, though they’ve both dipped in and out of the system since.

Part first-person account, part journalism – grounded in interviews and current research from behavioral science, psychology, public health and law enforcement agencies – and part travel memoir, Stand Up will provide an in-depth, deeply intimate and captivating narrative about the school shooting epidemic.

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The STAND UP Project is a story about surviving a school shooting weaved into a history of gun violence in our schools & ways to find resolution in the aftermath.

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