Before we go any further, there is something you should know about me. I was one of those kids. The scary, weird kids that you try to keep an eye on, ’cause you know there is something wrong, but you don’t know what to do about it. The kids that you say are so intelligent, they could do anything they wanted to, if they would just apply themself. The quiet, sullen kids that you know are up to something, but you can’t ever manage to prove it. The ones you want to approach, but they just aren’t approachable, so you let it go, hoping some miracle will float down from the sky and change their view on the world, before they hurt themself or someone else. Those kids.
When I was in high school, I got tired of being a pariah. I got tired of not having a group where I felt accepted and safe. I got tired of the snarky comments, tired of the ramdom, pointless rules, tired of being attacked in the locker room during gym class. I was sick and tired of having to show up every day only to be bored out of my skull by teachers who in some cases knew less about the subject matter they were teaching than I did. I hated almost everyone there, and I would go home and cut my arms with razor blades just for the cathartic experience of watching the blood ooze out. I hatched a scheme with one of my few friends to release anthrax in the hallways. It was a viable plan, but I didn’t go through with it.
I was a “disturbed” kid. One of those kids who doesn’t talk much to anybody, and when they do it is usually just a scathing commentary on the other person’s latest idiocy. I made it a point, every year, to come in the first day and ask questions my teachers couldn’t answer, in order to train them to leave me alone while I read through every class. I skipped school as much as I possibly could, spending my time in rather questionable pursuits. Out of the people I considered friends, several wore black trench coats every day (the rest wore thick glasses and Ramones t-shirts). I toted around a copy of the Anarchists Cookbook and hated everyone, including myself.
I spent my off-time setting things on fire, watching gory horror movies, having unprotected sex with boyfriends, and reading avidly everything from Romantic Poets to Robert Anton Wilson. I listened to The Cure in a darkened bedroom and tested how close I could get my hand to a candle flame. And I wrote, a lot. I wrote about voices screaming in my head (I heard them, and if you have not ever had the experience, count yourself lucky). I wrote about suicide and murder, rape and chaos. I wrote graphicly about how I would love to dismember the prom queen, the quarterback, and whomever had tried to beat me up that week. I wanted to write about my sense of impotence, the injustice of being an intelligent person with no recourse to enact their ideas, and the futility of trying to be taken seriously, but I didn’t have the words. When the anger and pain got to be too much, I would turn back to the razor and the candle and tales of revenge upon which I knew I would never act.
My Mom did haul me to a psychiatrist, but after a few sessions I informed her that that person did not give a damn about my feelings, and it was a waste of money for me to continue. A couple of teachers took an interest in me, and their efforts were of great value when I decided I had had enough. I marched in and announced that I was dropping out. Being an “honor student” had its perks, I suppose, as everyone went into alt and a compromise was quickly arranged: instead of dropping out I would attend a session of summer school to pick up my last English credit, do two independant study projects, and graduate a year early. The previously mentioned teachers volunteered to supervise the projects, and I barreled my way through to graduation. I was sixteen, and finally free. As I suspected, life was a lot better on the outside of those walls.
I can write all of this now, because I am 31 years old and protected by the freedoms granted by the first amendment of the Constitution. I have to wonder what would happen if I had the misfortune to be born in 1990. Would I have gone to jail?
Of course it is apparent that not all kids will take out their angst only on themselves. Not every scheme for mass destruction is contained forever within the skull which hatched it. Kids can get guns, and with those guns they can unleash a version of hell which brings the survivors into their own, impotent fury. We do have to take these things into consideration.
But turning a kid over to the cops for a creative writing essay is fear-induced hysteria at its worst. It’s not going to help the kid in question, it will only serve to make him angrier. It is not going to stop other kids from killing, it is just going to ensure they don’t write down their plans and hand them in for a grade. It is a quick and dirty solution that only exacerbates the problem. If we want to stop these horrors from continuing to devestate our schools, we have to start considering why they would happen in the first place. There is a pattern, though the profiling attempts by various organizations are counterproductive at best. The perpetrators are typically described as intelligent, and are inevitably socially marginalized. They have often been subjected to bullying and abuse. They just can’t seem to find their place in a system that they just can’t get out of.
Let’s start by contemplating the case of a subject who displayed many of the characteristics which might indicate a propensity for mass violence, but never acted on those inclinations: me.
What was the crucial factor in my decision to direct my violent impulses inward, rather than outward? There is, of course, the genetic predisposition factor which cannot be entirely ruled out, but we cannot control that, and what we are interested in here is the potential for decreasing the probability of another school shooting. Looking at controllable factors, then, we come to rest on two which seem significant: responsibility/freedom ratio, and validation.
There is no way of underestimating how little freedom most kids are given. They have no legal rights, even while they face significantly more legal consequences. Parents may attempt to teach responsibility to their children, in the form of an increasing chore list or accountability for grades, but will not even grant their kids the right to make their own choices about their bodies (“No, you cannot dye your hair blue!”). Consequences for misdeeds are often in random proportion to the misdeeds, themselves. A kid might find themselves grounded for a month in response to dying their hair, while a report of bullying another kid may be met with a fifteen minute talk. What is needed is a steady increase of real responsibility along with a proportionate increase in personal freedom.
In my particular case, the impotence and idiocy of the school system was balanced by a home life where I was expected to behave in a mature and compassionate manner to those around me. The friends I brought home were deeply wounded people, many escaping from nightmarish homelives of their own. They were welcomed into my home, on the condition that each one of them made a contribution proportionate to the amount of time they spent there. For my part, it was made clear again and again that I brought them there, and both their well-being and their behaviour was, therefore, at least partly my responsibility. If I was cruel and thoughtless to a friend, it was never overlooked, and my mother made damned sure I understood what effect my actions had. If we ate all the food in the ‘fridge, we experienced first hand the consequences of our actions (like the night the can of calf brains disappeared and no one realized it until after we had eaten dinner). Each one of us misbehaved on a regular basis, but there were lines we did not cross, because we all felt some responsibility for the small community we had created. No one wanted to cause hardship for the others.
In exchange for the responsibility we were given, we were allowed a proportionate amount of freedom, far more freedom than most kids. We could discuss anything, openly and without fear of reprisal. Over the years both alcohol and drugs came into our home, and were allowed to exist, so long as no one seemed to be suffering as a result of their use. Our choices in music, movies, and reading material were our own. Sexual relations were permitted, although lectures on safe sex were frequent. Curfews were negotiable. We all pushed even the loose parameters we were given, on occasion, but no one wanted to lose the community we had created, and so infractions were slight.
In applying this on a larger scale, we might look to communities such as Summerhill and other “free schools”, where children are given the freedom of self-governance, along with the weight of that responsibility. In a system where the kids, themselves, are made responsible for the maintenance of their community, we do not in fact find life-size reenactments of “The Lord of the Flies”. Instead, these environments have long histories of creating stable, constructive communities where bullying is quickly confronted and dealt with and the entire student body feels a sense of attachment and dedication to itself.
The other significant factor in my not winding up on the evening news was the fact that my feelings were validated. My mother, and those remarkable teachers mentioned earlier, did not dismiss my claims that I was being forced to serve time for crimes I never committed. They admitted that I had no rights, empathized with my sense of powerlessness, and confined their comfort to assurances that I would be out soon. Far more valuable than just being told I was loved, I was informed that I was a person worth existing, that my place in the world was just as important as theirs. They listened to my assessments of the insanity around me, and responded as sincerely as they would have had the same claims been made by an adult. While it didn’t make the nightmare of public schooling disappear, it did on crucial occasions make it bearable, just to hear “Yes, you’re right. That is the stupidest policy I have ever heard of. I am on your side.”
Kids are not stupid, and they deserve to be taken seriously. Every time someone says to them that their feelings are invalid, it increases their sense of frustration. None of us are so far removed from our own childhoods that we cannot place ourselves back in our sixteen-year-old shoes and remember just how the world looked from there. It takes only a moment to say that we can see it through their eyes.
The Big Picture
We cannot avert future tragedy by simply removing every child who looks as if they might pose a risk. Many who appear deeply disturbed on the surface will never act out their distress by taking up arms against those around them. Some who might be inclined to do so will never show any signs until the day they appear to take their starring role. Clearly, attempts to set up metal-detectors and random searches at schools are not fixing the problem. Imposing adult legal penalties on minors, overreacting to minor indications (such as wearing specific apparel), and labeling violent content in video games and movies isn’t “fixing” the problem. We are fools if we do not think the issues run deeper.
If we are going to end school violence, we must overhaul the foundation of our beliefs about childrearing. We are not going to return to a simple life of vegetable gardens and Bible readings around the family table after dinner. It is just not going to happen. What is necessary, therefore, is for us to fully face why some of our children are so angry, and for us to address the root of those feelings. We can open ourselves up to them and take the time to really get involved with kids who seem extraodinarily unhappy. We can and should work to remove their sense of powerlessness. We can and should accept their feelings and thoughts, and work with them to create a better system. They are talking to us, all the time. In our kitchens over breakfast, in the essays they write for classes they feel are pointless, and occasionally, tragically, with bullets. As adults, it is our responsibility to listen. We must question our own wisdom, our own system, and our own beliefs which have led us to this point. Something is terribly wrong, and it is long past time we should listen to the children.