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Pomp Despite Tragic Circumstance at Columbine

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They appeared for all the world like normal teenagers, with their multiple earrings, platform heels and unruly hair, fidgeting under blue-and-silver robes--not the most-watched group of graduating seniors in the United States. Not kids whose bullet-pocked school remains a working crime scene.

Three of Columbine High School’s seniors left hospitals to graduate with their class Saturday. One rolled on stage in a wheelchair. With cameras trained on them and an audience of 6,000 offering moral support, the Columbine Class of 1999--437 sturdy teenagers who remembered to laugh and celebrate--received diplomas and bid farewell to school and classmates.

The upbeat ceremony was held at an outdoor concert theater at the foot of the Rocky Mountains on a sun-splashed morning. Absent were two who would have graduated, Lauren Townsend and Isaiah Shoels. They were among the 12 students and a teacher who were gunned down April 20 by classmates Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who then took their own lives.

Since then, school officials have struggled to provide a sense of normalcy to the Columbine students, for whom normal is a distant memory. The teenagers have been questioned by investigators, interviewed by international media and counseled by therapists. The girls’ soccer team’s state championship match was covered by sportswriters from around the world. Seemingly every student’s smile and sneeze has been analyzed.

Saturday’s ceremony left no doubt that the teenagers have grown weary of attention and hoped, as best could be managed under the circumstances, to wrest back the intimacy their school had lost. The proceedings were intended for the audience of family and friends; the speeches were personal. The seniors’ only agenda was to celebrate four years at Columbine, quickly thank teachers and parents, and head out for the parties.

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Perhaps the most encouraging sign of their wellness was that Columbine’s students on Saturday acted like teenagers again. The student speakers told inside jokes about favorite teachers and class cut-ups. A beach ball was passed hand to hand through the crowd. Students in the audience snorted and snickered through long speeches. Teens received their diplomas, then whooped to the crowd and their friends. Finally, laughing was not out of place.

The morning’s festivities began traditionally. The senior class entered from the top of the outdoor amphitheater, slowly filing down cement steps to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Seated alphabetically in front of a stage, best friends waved from rows away, and casual acquaintances draped arms around each others’ shoulders.

An eleventh-hour effort to allow students to wear the Columbine remembrance ribbon on their gowns was quashed Friday by a federal judge who upheld a school district policy that bars adornments on graduation gowns. But Columbine seniors were heartened when news filtered back that graduates at high schools around the state this weekend were wearing the ribbons at their ceremonies.

Little seemed to dampen the teens’ high spirits. They were buoyed by the presence of three wounded classmates. Jeanna Park sat smiling on the stage with her right arm in a sling and her left foot in a cast. She was flanked by Lisa Kreutz, who was in a wheelchair. Valeen Schnurr was feeling chipper enough to join her classmates in the seats. Every move the three made was wildly cheered.

Townsend’s family represented her Saturday. When honor students were called to the stage, four members of her family strode forth. Her mother, Dawn Anna, held up her daughter’s gown and gold collar, signifying her membership in the National Honor Society. Townsend’s sister and two brothers accepted her diploma, and the students erupted in cheers as the Townsends saluted them and flashed “I love you” in sign language.

The Shoels family did not attend, saying their grieving had not yet finished.

References were made to the shootings. Principal Frank DeAngelis said of the dead: “Their lives were cut down in time too short. Their lives were full of courage and hope and enthusiasm. Never forget that they loved us as much as we loved them.” But the seniors had let the school administration know that they wanted the day to focus on the future.

For whatever grief and sorrow the Columbine seniors are carrying, they seem also to be moving forward, doing normal summer things and planning for college. After the ceremony, they milled around chatting and laughing--the girls hugging and the boys shoulder-punching their greetings. Parents hovered, clutching crumpled tissues. In the end, the teenagers who had witnessed so much horror proved the most resilient.

The commencement ended with two students singing, “Columbine, Friend of Mine,” which the seniors adopted as the class song. The melancholy song has been echoing here for weeks, and what began as a kind of dirge was held Saturday as an anthem of hope and renewal and youthful wisdom.

The Columbine seniors sang along, “We still hear the raging guns, ending dreams of precious ones . . . . Turn the page on your rage . . . . Columbine, friend of mine, peace will come to you in time.”


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