AURORA, Colo. — The movie theater just up the road had long served as a hangout for students from Gateway High School, and they had a habit of treating the place as if it were theirs. They threw water balloons in the parking lot, flirted in the ticket lines and sneaked in beer in the pockets of their cargo shorts. They were the theater’s most loyal customers. A purple-and-black banner for their school occasionally hung in the lobby.
Dozens of students and recent graduates arrived for the Batman premiere late Thursday night, and their attendance transformed a cookie-cutter megaplex amid the suburban sprawl of Aurora into a familiar community. “The Dark Knight Rises” was playing in four theaters after midnight, and students walked freely from one to the other before showtime, exchanging fist bumps and trading tickets to sit closer to friends. A running back on the football team was supposed to be in Theater 8 but sat instead in Theater 9. A 2010 graduate left her seat in the back row to join friends near the front.
They acted like teenagers at a midnight premiere, tossing candy wrappers across the rows, texting friends in the theater next door and making loud jokes during the previews. But they were also preoccupied with their own lives in transition. Jennifer Seeger, a Gateway alum who had just moved out of her parents’ house and into her own apartment, arrived late and sat in the second row of Theater 9. Earlier in the day, she had taken a certification test to become an Aurora firefighter, devoting three hours to multiple-choice questions about what to do in an emergency. She texted a friend as she arrived at the theater: “I better have passed.”
Several rows behind her, Seeger noticed A.J. Boik, a wispy Gateway grad who was headed to art school and had recently become engaged — even though he hadn’t yet mustered the courage to tell his parents. Behind him were several members of the Gateway football team: both starting running backs, the tight end and star offensive lineman Zack Golditch, 17, impossible to miss at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds with a blond mohawk. Golditch, a junior, visited with friends, drank a bottle of 5-hour Energy and eventually walked over to Theater 8 to join more of his Gateway classmates.
There was something else that connected all of them: They had grown up and attended public school in the age of Columbine, in the place of Columbine, just across town from the high school where two gunmen killed 13 people and themselves in 1999. It was the massacre that ushered in a new age of mass shootings and redrew the childhood boundaries of the students now waiting for the movie to begin. Most of them didn’t remember the specifics of that day — they were only 5 or 6 years old — but its evidence had been all around them as they grew up.
It was the photos in their modern U.S. history textbooks of news helicopters circling the high school and grieving teenagers standing at a flowered memorial. It was the Gateway security guards who patrolled the parking lot in white SUVs, a gun at the hip of each gray-and-black uniform. It was the statewide school safety hotline that was advertised on fliers in the hallways; and the bomb threat that had closed an Aurora school some years earlier; and the annual “Code 3” lockdown drill, in which they barricaded themselves inside classrooms, taped black construction paper over the windows and scrambled into the corner farthest from the door to sit in silence for five minutes.