Thursday, March 5, 2009

Liz Carlston - Class of 2000 - Author

Describe your experience during the tragedy

In high school I played power forward on Columbine High School’s girls varsity basketball team. The weekend before prom I met with our head coach to set expectations for the upcoming season, which would be my senior year. Coach Sanders and our team had just completed our first winning season in twelve years. He showed our team how to work together and be united. I admired his leadership and kindness. I didn’t know that would be the last time I’d see him alive.

The following Tuesday, two male Columbine seniors carried out what was to date, the worst school shooting in U.S. history. I was in my trigonometry class (opposite side of the school from shooters) when the massacre began. Suddenly, fire alarms went off and in a confused panic, teachers escorted us outside to wait. We watched with morbid fascination as ambulances, police cars, and the SWAT team surrounded our school. When the rampage ended, 13 people had been murdered and 25 others were injured, some very seriously. Coach Sanders died of gunshot wounds after saving students by clearing out the crowded lunchtime cafeteria.

I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t see the actual violence or have to live with the gruesome images that replay in a person’s mind afterward. I did have to deal with the death of friends and I had to learn how to be sensitive about letting others grieve at their own pace.

How has the healing process been for you over the past ten years?

Looking back, my senior year was probably the most difficult because I really buried my emotions -- it didn’t seem to be appropriate to show visible pain and anger (looking back, probably not the healthiest way to deal with the tragedy). I lost my innocent view of the world and the ability to readily trust people. It was unfair that my basketball coach and my friends were taken from me and from all of us.
I often didn’t know how to respond to others who were hurting and felt guilty and angry in my inadequacy. Because my self-pity and anger smoldered for so long, it was hard to recognize them as problems, let alone get rid of them. People thought I was difficult and found it hard to get along with me. I had to dig deeply to understand the turmoil that was going on in my mind so I could find a healthy way to address it.

It took several years for me to recognize and acknowledge these issues. I didn’t work through these issues alone. I relied on prayer, friends, family, and trusted in the Savior’s healing atonement to mend my wounded heart. The key was not being afraid of facing these weaknesses head on and then make them right by following the example of those who model good behavior.

Professionally, what have you been doing over the past ten years?

After graduating from Columbine in May 2000, I attended Brigham Young University to earn a Bachelors of Arts degree in Public Relations. I served an 18-month Spanish-speaking LDS mission at the Oakland Temple Visitors Center in California before finishing my degree in 2005. My first post-college job was at a technology public relations agency in Palo Alto, California. I got into a handful of business schools (Pepperdine, UC Davis, BYU), but gave up my California dream to work and attend school in Utah as I was recruited by a publishing company in Salt Lake to be a publicist and marketing specialist. Halfway through business school I switched jobs to broaden my business school experience. I became a product manager where I led cross-functional teams in launching multi-million dollar product lines through the mass-market retail channel (Walmart, Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond). I completed my MBA in July 2008 at the University of Utah. Marketing and product development have been fun fields to work in as well as being sources of income. But for me, I’m most passionate about writing, which I’ve done professionally since 2003 (newspaper, magazine, books).

Describe your professional goals.

I want to become a marketing executive and write a bestselling novel.

About your book:

Title: "Surviving Columbine: How Faith Helps Us Heal When Tragedy Strikes"

Co-authors: Michael Johnson, Amber Huntington, Kathy Johnson (Mike’s mom)

Published: Spring 2004

How long did it take you to write?

Writing took about 3 months, getting a publisher took 18 months

How many sold?

I think it sold about 10K copies and was a bestseller at the time (bestseller status is measured by quantity sold over a period of weeks rather than total units sold). It was sold through Amazon, Deseret Book retail (41 stores), Barnes & Noble (regional, Western states), Borders (regional)

Do the profits go to any charities?

All of my royalties/profits went to the LDS Perpetual Education Fund – it provides students in vulnerable countries with the necessary resources to receive training at a University or trade school. Once they begin their career, they then pay back their student loan so that other individuals can take advantage of the program. It wouldn’t have been right for me to make money off of the book (shooting).

Describe the plot and main messages of the book.

The book is a chronological narrative told by three students with vastly different experiences, but united in their Christian faith and knowledge that God was at Columbine that day. Mike was shot multiple times outside of the cafeteria – his mom offers dialogue for when he was in surgery at the hospital. Amber was in the library when the shooting began and hid with others under one of the back tables while the gunmen reloaded their weapons on top of their table. I was in my math class and gathered with others in the park across the street before reuniting with my mom at Leawood. My dad waited at the public library for my freshman sister Kathy. Kathy was trapped in the science classroom with 60 other students and Coach Sanders. It was a terrible day that produced many months and years of grieving and trauma.

Many asked the question, why did God let such a horrible thing happen to those kids? Our faith (LDS) teaches that God – Heavenly Father -- has a plan for us and He has given man agency to act according to his conscience, to choose whether we will do what Heavenly Father asks us to do (keep the commandments and do good) or to choose wickedness. Columbine was a painful and difficult example of agency. While many people dwell on the bad, there were also many moments when faith was strengthened. For me, it helped me gain a clear understanding of Christ’s role in our Heavenly Father’s plan and that He can heal our hurts and give us strength to push forward with joy.

Why did you decide to write it?

I felt we had important messages to share.
1. I didn’t want the experience to be in vain or forgotten.
2. I wanted to help others discover for themselves how you can have peace and move on with your life despite tragedy.
3. I wanted to help others understand how Heavenly Father will be there to extend comfort, peace, and understanding in times of great difficulty.

What sorts of reactions have you received from readers?

We’ve had very positive feedback and expressions of gratitude from readers. I think for many people, it was an event so horrific, that human nature has a fascination with the macabre aspects of the day. We have found that there was a bigger audience looking for faith and inspiration from our experiences.

What reactions do you want readers to take from it?

We want people to remember to be kind to one another. Having faith in Christ and in our Heavenly Father’s plan will provide you with the peace and reassurance that you need to persevere in this life with happiness and joy. We are living, breathing examples of people that faced tremendous opposition where we could have been depressed and broken, but like so many other Columbine students, emerged with greater faith and confidence to face the challenges of this world and to lift others along the way.

Have you seen any changes as a result of your book or does a personal response from a reader stand out at all?

I’ve received dozens of cards and letters from readers all over the country. Often they share their personal tragedy as well as a few lines of gratitude for us sharing our experiences. I think there is tremendous strength and hope in knowing how much we really have in common with each other despite the uniqueness of individual hardship. It is hope, faith, and a determination to be happy that unite us.

Has Columbine influenced your career goals at all?

With all of the media attention that came, it definitely amplified my interest in pursuing a degree in public relations (dealing effectively with the media). That then became a great springboard for me into the marketing side of business.

Did you have any reservations about writing about Columbine?

My initial reservations came when I asked myself, “What are your former friends and classmates going to think? Will they be mad that you’re publishing this story?” That was a big doubt that often surfaced in the beginning while working on the book. I couldn’t stop remembering a basketball game we played against our rival Chatfield at DU in 2000. Coach Sanders was up for an ESPY award and we were playing that evening in a huge arena. Several reporters from the local news stations were there and wanted us for a short interview before the game. We all felt we had been burned by the media so many times already that no one spoke to the reporters. Deep down, I thought it would have been appropriate for one of Coach Sanders players to share their gratitude for his example and life, but we were too pissed off at the media to do the right thing. When writing about Columbine, I often fear that other survivors my have a bitter or resentful reaction – probably because they’re not in a good spot or healed. But I no longer let that fear bother me because I feel that writing about the experience to share the lessons we learned from that day is the right thing to do.

How did Columbine affect your spirituality?

I was spiritual before Columbine and very active in my church’s activities and friendships. For me, Columbine represented a conceptual lessons that became tangible and very real. As friends were unexpectedly killed, it made me question and solidify my beliefs. Do I really believe that God loves us and is aware of our challenges? – yes. Do I really believe that there is life after death and I will see my friends again?– yes. Do I really believe that I can feel happiness and joy again? – yes. How can I truthfully answer yes to these questions? I have felt the Lord’s love when I have needed to and I have felt His spirit confirm these truths.

Had Columbine not happened, how would you be different, personally and professionally?

That’s a question I can’t answer because I don’t know anything different. Columbine happened. It was a hard experience to deal with, but I’m grateful to have gone through it as it has made me more empathetic, more understanding, more grateful, more faithful, more engaged, and more loving.

Looking around at the world today, what changes (positive OR negative) do you see as a result of Columbine?

There is a lot of diversity in the world in terms of culture, upbringing, and personal experiences. While I would have loved for Columbine to have been the last school shooting of its kind, it wasn’t. Our hurt and experiences didn’t matter to the Virginia Tech shooter. It couldn’t. We are each faced with our own unique set of circumstances and obstacles. Columbine changed me. It gave me a glimpse into the tremendous darkness and evil that a person can claim. At the same time, it offered a different glimpse of the goodness of people measured in the response of medical personnel and community members, the cards, flowers, and gifts sent to us from all over the world, the kind smiles of strangers that lifted my spirit. Because of the great support we received, I was prepared to offer support when the opportunity came. When the Virginia Tech incident took place, I organized an effort at the University of Utah that sent 250 comfort blankets to students at VT. After the Columbine shooting, the comfort blankets were a token given to us by community members to help us feel safe and protected again. It was an awesome thing to be a part of sharing that gift with another victim of extraordinary violence.

I think the changes that result from Columbine are up to each individual that lived through it or who takes a close look to explore the tragedy. For better or worse, we own our individual destiny and I know that our journey is a lot more enjoyable and rewarding with a positive and faith-filled outlook. We have the responsibility to help and lift each other along the way.

If you would like to purchase Liz's book, click here.

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