Editor's note: Shannon McQueen graduated from Columbine High School in 2002. She is an educator, advocate, and nonprofit manager. She has a master's degree in education and has been a teacher in public, private and international schools where she seeks to create a safe environment in her classroom. The views expressed here are hers.
(CNN) -- The drop-off of my child at nursery school, the hug, the fear. The thought: This could be the last time. Immediately, I put that thought away. He is safe. The sounds of rumbling as I sit in my college lecture. The thought: People are running, how do I get out of here, and fast? I realize it's the pencil sharpener. I am safe.
The unexpected cold sweats, beating heart and panic can come suddenly on a normal day: waiting in line at the grocery store, seriously taking notes of the exits in a movie theater. The thought: This is a shooting. How can I be safe? Twenty years later I am still asking this question.
On April 19, 1999, I was a 14-year-old high school freshman reading a Seventeen magazine in the basement. It was about a girl who survived a school shooting. My heart was beating as she described what it was like. I couldn't know that what she described was the start of what would be my own 20-year story and that it would begin the next day at lunch.
My mom, who also worked at Columbine High School, dropped us off at school on a crisp spring morning on April 20. The day progressed as normal. I had a French test. After that I planned on heading to the library after grabbing a cherry Pepsi and Chili Cheese Fritos for lunch. My friends and I sat by the stairs at tables deliberately designed to seat six. We crammed two to a seat and pushed the tables together to sit like a pack of sardines.
About 10 minutes into lunch we heard a "pop pop" like the sound of car backfiring or fireworks. Dave Sanders, a teacher, ran across the cafeteria shouting, "Everyone get down! Get down!" I knew it was a shooting.
My track buddy, Justin, hovered at the stairs unsure what to do. Then he ran. Then everyone ran.
Up the stairs it felt like flight. It was impossible to feel the ground because the vibrations from stomping feet were so strong. It smelled like a fire. My sister had been sitting close to me but I could no longer see her. Where was she?
At the top of the stairs was the choir room. I ran inside. Was I safe here? I looked at the teacher in the room and the confused faces of my classmates. I thought: Who can protect me? What do I do now? My sister Shelby runs inside and grabs my arms, saying, "We have to go."
We run out. We get stopped by a teacher. She says, "Walk don't run," putting out her arms to signal us to stop. She is trampled as the crowd runs straight. Justin, Shelby and I run down another hallway alone. So fast, we are flying. Later, we would joke, as track kids, what our time was.
I realize I am missing one shoe. It had been stuck under the cafeteria table. We run down the hallway and turn right out of the building. Our friend Lindsey's mom is dropping her daughter off at school after an appointment. We say there is a shooting. We pile, literally on top of each other, into the car. We say "Hurry, go, go!"
I think about my mother, who was also in the cafeteria. Where do I go? What do we do? Can she keep us safe? I know later that she asked herself this question as she went looking for us in the midst of what had become a war zone.
Lindsey's mom drops us off at our youth group leader's house. We don't have cellphones, we don't want to go home without our mom. Our youth pastor is in the front yard, with a big floppy hat, planting flowers. It's warm. She sees us, she knows something is wrong.
We sit in her kitchen and tell her there has been a shooting at Columbine. The local schools are being canceled, she makes a few calls. We finally hear from someone that mom is safe. Hours later she comes shaking to the house, along with our closest friends.
The news coverage shows the school with helicopters and the death toll rising. Classmates running out of the building with their hands up in the air, throwing themselves out of shattered glass windows. Rumors are spreading. A local elementary school is the place parents go to claim the children, if they are alive.
People bring food and sandwiches. People keep bringing food, fried chicken and lasagna and cold cuts, for weeks after the shooting.
Then there are services at the suburban megachurches, and quilts that people have made and delivered, Japanese cranes, letters full of well-wishes and even a visit from President Clinton. A song called "Columbine Friend of Mine" is burned onto a CD, T-shirts are made. Friends closest to those who passed away are given attention.
Funerals. I attend four funerals in quick succession. Isaiah, and I spell his name wrong on the card. Cassie, Kyle, Dave. Some are closed-casket, some are not. There are all different colors of caskets. The open caskets are especially hard -- their faces look like teenagers asleep with caked-on makeup. There are different people at each funeral, the receptions following seem to be in a sepia tone. I wear the same black Limited skirt to the funerals. Later, I would want to keep that skirt, but I never wore it again.
We finish the year at a nearby school, Chatfield High School, doing half days. Books like "Lord of the Flies" are taken off our reading list. We don't have bells signaling the end of passing periods, no fire alarms. People who are old enough or have their parents' permission get tattoos that say "4/20/99" and "Never Forgotten."
One day, we see a box full of donated backpacks. Many of us have backpacks we left behind at Columbine. A group of middle-class kids, who do not want for material things, storms down the hallways to break into the box of backpacks and school supplies. I remember this being confusing but still having some kind of primal need to get a backpack.
The message from the world is that we are the lucky ones. It's true. We have support counselors and they are there to talk. We don't speak publicly because it's "selling out." Those who do talks or "take advantage" of the shooting are someone exploiting the situation.
In the fall the community makes a tunnel of hands and arms for us to run under as we enter the school. In front of the library, where most of the shootings occurred, there is a line of lockers hiding the entrance. The build-out of a new library will be completed by my senior year. For now, a temporary trailer outside has books and teen magazines available as well as study space.
To go to school and participate in after-school actives and live in a building where so many died is to put a protective covering over our hearts and the physical space. We enjoyed our high school years. Many students were depressed but that was normal.
We thought never again, never again. That's what everyone said. There was no rally, no cause that united us, no legislation.
After Columbine there have been 20 years of continued mass shootings. Here I am, a mother myself. I am still asking: Am I safe? What has changed in 20 years? How do we answer these questions? Remember when we believed "never again"?