They huddled in a circle around a bonfire on one of the last nights of summer.
Under a full moon on a cool night, hundreds of teenagers watched flames crackle from a bin filled with wooden pallets. Yellow leaves peaked through green foliage, even here, near Littleton, where the elevation is lower than the Rocky Mountain peaks that loom in the distance.
September had arrived, marking the season for Friday nights on the football field, for crowning kings and queens, for pep rallies and for dancing. Teens stood with their friends, snapping photos and recording videos of the fire. A Katy Perry song blared from speakers nearby.
‘Cause baby, you’re a firework
Come on, show ’em what you’re worth
Make ’em go, “Oh, oh, oh”
Here, in a parking lot at Columbine High School, students welcomed the annual return of what long has been a quintessential American teenage experience: homecoming.
Here, the atmosphere was reminiscent of life before the virus, when schools were filled with students, when there were no masks and teenagers didn’t have to come of age amidst the worst pandemic of the century.
Here, things were almost normal.
Ashlyn Elwood, a junior, stood watching the fire.
“It doesn’t feel like homecoming,” she told a friend.
“Because it’s so early,” replied Megan Lichlyter, also a junior.
The 16-year-olds felt as if the academic year had only just begun.
“And it’s a normal school year,” Ashlyn added.
When the coronavirus first swept through Colorado in March 2020, schools shuttered their buildings and administrators canceled extracurricular activities like homecoming later that year.
As the world found itself in a historic public health crisis, teenagers across Colorado were separated from their classmates and teachers. They lost family members who died from the virus, their families faced financial hardships. Ninth-graders started high school via a computer screen.
They missed out on typical high school traditions.
“(We had to) try to figure out our identity with nobody around us,” senior Sydney Somers said.
But the return to the classroom wasn’t easy. Last year, Colorado schools couldn’t find enough substitute teachers, bus drivers and other staff, leading to even more closures and more remote learning. Then COVID-19 cases surged once again, causing outbreaks in schools and more children and teens became sick.
And teens have said they are facing even more pressure to do well academically since returning to their classrooms as school boards and administrators worry about potential learning losses caused by the disruption to in-person teaching.
Still, autumn of 2021 offered glimpses of normalcy as homecoming returned to Colorado high schools. Sure, students at Columbine still had to wear masks at the dance, but, student body president Joey Tonelli said, they didn’t really complain about them. It was enough to be back at school, to have dances.
“Before the pandemic, we took everything for granted,” Sydney said.
Now, in the third year of COVID-19, the virus remains — but mask mandates, contact tracing and social distancing have mostly disappeared from schools.
So here, in the parking lot at Columbine, homecoming week was as normal as normal can be during a global pandemic.
Fresh off watching the volleyball teams beat Boulder High School, students filed out of the gym and into the parking lot for a school-sanctioned bonfire.
Six members of the softball team gathered around a net to play a game called spikeball. Nearby, their classmates tossed beanbags at cornhole boards. Throngs of teenagers lined up at two food trucks for churros and creamy, carbonated soda concoctions.
“This is how it is supposed to feel,” said Jenny Zichterman, a French teacher chaperoning the bonfire.
After all, Joey said, this is “kind of what high school is about.”
“It makes you feel like you’re in high school”
Principal Scott Christy drew both of his arms to his chest, lifted his left leg, then his right — almost as if he was galloping — as he moved in a circle. Hundreds of students were in the bleachers, cheering and laughing as MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” reverberated through Columbine’s gym.
He came to a stop, right in front of the seniors, wiggled his shoulders and pointed at a student standing to his right, who already had begun to challenge the principal in a dance-off.
“Homecoming is one of my favorite events,” he would later tell his pupils.
At Columbine, homecoming isn’t just a dance or football game. It’s a week-long celebration. And if there is one thing Columbine — a school marked by tragedy and with roughly 1,700 students — has, it’s school spirit.
“When the student body gets together, it’s a different kind of community than I think other schools have,” said senior Jersey Jamison, senior class president. “It shares a bond that no place around here really has.”
The week before the dance was spirit week and there were themes every day for students to dress up. The bonfire, which was on a Tuesday, was one of the week’s highlights.
On Friday, there was an assembly, followed by a football game, where the homecoming king and queen were revealed. Then, to wrap up the week, they danced on Saturday.
“Homecoming really makes you feel like you’re in high school,” Ashlyn said. “It really starts the year.”
“Without it, a lot of kids don’t start off as strong,” added Sydney, who helped plan the dance.
As the pep rally ended, but before they went home, students crowded around their principal in the center of the gym.
Christy shouted, “WE ARE…”
“COLUMBINE!” the students roared.
“The poster-making club”
Sydney walked into an almost empty gymnasium, where four other students were preparing to hang a massive black poster with stars on the bleacher seats that had been folded up against the wall following the pep rally.
In just over 24 hours, students would be dancing the night away.
Sydney needed to make the gym ready for them.
The Student Senate — which is made up of teenagers elected by their peers to represent their class through roles such as president, secretary and historian — plans homecoming. So it’s students like Joey, Sydney, Jersey and Ashlyn who decide on the spirit day themes. They chase down teachers to get chaperones for events, sell dance tickets and emcee the assembly.
They attended a barbecue in the summer at which they first began planning. But they only had a one month between the first day of school in August and the homecoming dance on Sept. 17 to make sure everything is ready.
Students in the senate order decorations — or make them — and spend the Friday afternoon before the dance decorating the gym and adjacent hallway. This year’s theme was “Hollywood.”
“Senate is known as the poster-making club,” Ashlyn said.
The dance was Sydney’s domain.
She oversees the committee that was in charge of planning the event.
The 17-year-old barely remembers attending homecoming week as a freshman. Last year’s dance, which was still not quite back to pre-pandemic times, was the only one she really recalled. That dance drew a large crowd — which Sydney hoped would happen again — as students were excited about its return.
“I feel like I’ve only been to one homecoming,” she said.
And at the same time, Sydney said, “I’m realizing it’s my last homecoming.”
Planning homecoming was stressful and Sydney didn’t have time to stand around; the students needed to decorate the gym before the football game later that evening.
“Syd, where is the job list?” a classmate asked.
“It’s on the wall,” she replied as she moved to help the other students unfurl the black poster.
They needed to figure out how to hang the poster without it ripping. Students, including senior Vanessa Diaz, scaled the bleachers, using the steps as a ladder. (Vanessa would be named homecoming queen later that night at the football game.)
Sydney was already on the move, leaving the others to deal with the poster. She passed students blowing up balloons and joined another group, helping them push a trolley filled with tables outside.
It was mostly sunny, but a few drops of rain fell and a cluster of dark clouds threatened a downpour.
“If it rains…” Sydney muttered, before unloading tables from the trolley.
As she walked through the building, checking on decorations, she passed Ashlyn and another student, Kate Valdivieso, who were standing on a metal stand in the hall hanging shiny stars from the ceiling.
“Syd, how do the stars look?” Kate asked.
“They look wonderful,” Sydney replied.
A Hollywood night
They came in pairs, large groups, and alone. They wore vests, suits, sunglasses and dresses paired with Chuck Taylor sneakers. Couples held hands.
They all walked in on two long red carpets, flanked by matching velvet rope, that stretched from the ticket tables outside, and down the hall to the entrance of the gym.
They swaggered in as if they were ready for a horde of paparazzi to be on the other side of the rope, snapping their photos. Their classmates greeted them instead. “Strut your stuff,” one teen told a friend.
Black and gold stars sparkled overhead. Balloons lined the walls and at the end of the hall a poster read “Hollywood Homecoming 2022.”
“It’s a vibe,” proclaimed sophomore Alix Vendednia as she walked through the doors with her friends.
Music roared from inside the gym, where students packed together in front of a DJ. More than 1,150 students attended the dance — just more than the 1,118 who attended in 2019.
Green, purple, and red lights swirled overhead as the teens jumped and sang in unison to a Black Eyed Peas song.
Tonight’s the night, let’s live it up
I got my money, let’s spend it up
Go out and smash it, like, oh my God…
They lifted classmates in the air as they moshed. Couples might have snuck a kiss or two. Students whispered and watched from the sidelines.
They belted at the top of their lungs and spelled Y-M-C-A with their arms. They formed a circle as students swayed and twirled in the middle until someone crowned a dance-off winner by placing one of the homecoming royals’ coronets on their head.
And there were lulls, pauses in the dancing.
But more often than not, a certain song started to play, and suddenly, the floor vibrated once more.
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