Columbia author Barri Bumgarner had been writing her novel, “Dregs,” the story of a school shooting, for years before its slated release on April 20, the eight-year anniversary of the Columbine massacre.
So when the massacre at Virginia Tech occurred April 16, the timing seemed to be an extreme case of bad luck.
The shooting at Virginia Tech “made me feel guilty,” Bumgarner said. “You know, my publisher and I talked — she was the one who told me about the news that Monday. We talked for about 20 minutes about whether or not to release ‘Dregs.’ But we decided to go through with it, because we think it has such an uplifting message.”
Bumgarner started writing “Dregs” even before the tragedy at Columbine. She came up with the idea of writing about school violence while teaching language arts classes at Oakland Junior High School. Disturbed by the number of cliques at the junior high level and by bullying occurring in school, Bumgarner knew she wanted to do something on the topic.
And then three school shootings happened almost consecutively. Three students died at a school shooting in December 1997 in Paducah, Ky.; five died in March 1998 in Jonesboro, Ark.; and one died in May 1998 in Springfield, Ore.
“My students were just so impacted,” Bumgarner said. “And I think I was particularly impacted by that. My kids kept saying, ‘Ms. Bum, you should write about that.’”
Bumgarner began researching school shootings immediately after and continues to do so. When “Dregs” was released by Tigress Press almost concurrently with the Virginia Tech massacre, Bumgarner said she was contacted by multiple schools and media outlets asking her to share her knowledge on the topic.
The work of fiction focuses on two seventh-graders who call themselves “dregs.” Bumgarner said she used the term — used to describe the sediments left at the bottom of a coffee cup — to describe the students, who plan to use school violence as a way to “mix themselves” in better with other students.
Before it was published, the novel was developed into a stage play and performed by the Columbia theater group Theater Reaching Young People and Schools two years ago, on the sixth anniversary of Columbine.
Bumgarner stopped teaching at Oakland in 2005 after seven years to pursue a full-time writing career. “It was hard,” she said. “I don’t miss the politics of teaching, but I miss the kids and being in the classroom.”
Jan Summers, a media specialist at Oakland who became friends with Bumgarner while Bumgarner was teaching there, said Bumgarner’s love of children and energy help her with both teaching and writing.
“Being a reading teacher, she always got a special joy in matching kids up with the books,” Summers said. “She was very inspirational, and she drove me to try and find good books for the kids.”
Summers said that aside from “Dregs,” one other of Bumgarner’s books is available at Oakland, because some of the content of her other works is too mature for the students at Oakland.
Bumgarner’s other pieces include “8 Days,” a science-fiction thriller, and “Slipping,” a psychological thriller as seen through the eyes of a serial killer. She is working on a prequel to “8 Days”, and a non-fiction piece on the murder of former MU student Jesse Valencia and the conviction, which was recently overturned, of former Columbia police officer Steven Rios.
When Bumgarner isn’t busy working toward her doctorate in English education from MU, she fills her time with writing and with speaking engagements as both an author and motivational speaker.
“I have a really, really big imagination,” Bumgarner said. “I’ve wanted to be an author since I was 7. I like the independence of this.”