Every day we move from place to place not realizing that those around us are doing incredible things. Projects, jobs, relationships that some may think are normal, but when you take a longer look, you find are inspirational and changing the course of the future. This edition of our shoes blog is yet another example of a courageous person taking the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. This story began on a chairlift I was riding with my son and another person. Most of the time I exchange pleasantries or small talk with those I ride up the mountain with and today was no exception. She asked my son something about his snowboard, which led to talk of our kids and careers. We found quick common ground when we realized we were both educators. “Where do you teach?” I asked, and without hesitation she said, “Columbine High School”.
Now, the Path2Empathy Crew is a group of educators that know full well the challenges school districts are facing when it comes to school safety and mental health. This conversation began in April of 1999, when the Columbine High School tragedy changed the face of education in America. Columbine is an event where you remember where you were when you heard the news, like 9/11. So to any educator, Columbine represents a bit of holy ground.
As I quickly learned, Mandy Cooke not only currently taught at the famous school, but was a student there when the shooting occurred. My mind started to race with questions, and the more we talked the more I realized, the rest of the world (myself included) has frozen the events of 1999 in our minds so that is all we see, but to the people who lived through the tragedy and have courageously chosen to go back, they are focused on their students and the future. Mandy teaches history, but we believe her presence in the classroom is so much more. She is a beacon of resiliency and strength that shines in her determination by coming back to a place of pain in order to impact the future. According to Mandy, she is not the only survivor/staff member who has chosen to return and make a difference with kids at CHS. She is one of many who has not let tragedy get in the way of helping the community they grew up in. We had the pleasure of interviewing her, and on this 19th anniversary of the tragic events, we hope you find that the best stories of empathy are often because people go back to a place of fear or pain in order to help others. These are her shoes...
Please tell us a little bit about who you are (what you do, where you live).
My name is Mandy Cooke. I'm a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. I grew up in Littleton and also graduated from Columbine. My husband and I decided to buy a house in the area, so our kids will grow up here and attend Columbine as well.
What was your experience with the tragedy at Columbine High School in April 1999?
I was a sophomore at Columbine on April 20, 1999. I was in math class when the fire alarm rang. We all thought it was a fire, but then our teachers told us we needed to cross Pierce (the major road that passes in front of our school). We had teachers stop traffic for us to get across the street to Leawood Park. It was pretty chaotic and no one really knew what was going on. One of my best friends came out of the main hallway along with a large group of other students. She told me there were people shooting. By then, news helicopters were above us and there were rumors that there was shooting inside the building, on the roofs, and possibly the helicopters. We were told to leave and go find a safe place to be. We started walking to a kid's house whose dad was a police officer. I didn't know this student because he was a senior, but a large group of students went there.
We were watching the news and we heard that there were 50-100 students dead. They also said if you were a student watching you needed to go to Leawood Elementary school or Columbine Library. I told my friend we needed to go to Leawood because I knew my dad would be there...I just had a feeling. We were able to get a ride to Leawood and were ushered into the gym. They made students stand on the stage and wait for parents to arrive. My dad found me and wouldn't let go of the back of my dress as I walked around to talk with my other friend's parents.
I couldn't even tell you what time it was, but eventually, we walked to my dad's car and went home. Soon my sister entered the door crying. She was in college at UNC in Greeley, Colorado. My mom taught the feeder middle school and was able to come home after a long day of being on lockdown. The phone wouldn't stop ringing with family and friends calling to check if I was okay.
What was it like to be a student coming back to school at Columbine in the Fall of 1999, after the shooting?
It was honestly weird to come back to school in the fall of 1999. To protect all the students from the media, parents held hands and created a barrier so we could walk into the building in peace. I remember there was a big rally before we entered the building. The year was quite a blur. Unfortunately, there were a lot of bomb threats and other tragic events that happened during the 1999-2000 school year.
What is your fondest memory of your time as a student at Columbine?
My fondest memory as a student at Columbine was attending my senior prom with my friends. I didn't have a boyfriend, so going with a group of friends was the best! A group of about 20 girls had a pre-prom breakfast and then we all got ready together, took pictures, and then headed off to the dance and later after-prom.
When you graduated from Columbine in 2001, did you think you would be back?
When I graduated Columbine I knew I was going to be a teacher, but never did I think I would land back at Columbine. But I know now it is the school I was meant to be at.
Why did you become a teacher? Did someone inspire you?
I always knew I wanted to be a teacher from a young age, but lots of teachers I had at Columbine inspired me to be a high school teacher. My mom was also a teacher and definitely had some influence on the career I chose.
Once you decided to be a teacher, you found your way back to Columbine only this time to teach the next generation of Columbine students. Tell us about that journey back.
The journey back to Columbine was pretty simple. My first job was at another high school, but it wasn’t a fit, so I interviewed at Columbine. I got the job and have been here since 2007!
We can’t help but see the redemptive pieces of your story. Living through tragedy but coming back to inspire and teach. How has your circle back to Columbine impacted your story and your students?
I share my story of what I experienced at Columbine every year with a new group of students. I share it so they know a part of who I am, so students are willing to share who they are with me. I have formed so many wonderful relationships with students and it truly is a special school to attend and work at. We have a saying, "You're a Columbine Rebel for life and no one can take that away from you." Students and teachers really do take this to heart. I tell my students they need to treat each other with kindness and respect and as they leave my class, I tell them to make good choices.
Empathy by definition is: to walk in another’s shoes so to experience how they live, feel, and be. How has empathy and your experience as a student of Columbine High, equipped you to relate to your students today?
I believe I'm more understanding of the issues they are going through. I'm not sure if it's the experience that I went through or just understanding how difficult high school really can be. I'm more patient with my "squirrely" kids and also those students who are not motivated to do work.
What is different about Columbine now from when you were there as a student?
Columbine is not that much different from when I went here. We are still a regular high school. I believe students are challenged more academically and that is a good thing!
With an average of 1 school shooting per week, these tragic events are never far from us. What do you go through when you see other school shootings? Do you have any thoughts on how to better protect our schools so these tragedies stop being part of the norm?
Each shooting affects me differently. I feel sad for what those students are going to experience in the coming weeks, months and years. I do believe we need to change our gun laws to make weapons less accessible, but also believe we need better mental health care. Both need to be a priority.
What do you hope your students say about you when they leave your classroom? Columbine High School?
I hope my students leave my classroom with the feeling that they will always hold a special place in my heart. I also hope they realize they can always come back and talk, receive a hug, get advise or whatever they need at the time because they will always be part of a much larger Rebel family.
Mandy Cooke- Teacher, Survivor