I heard about this documentary on the radio this morning: Haunted by Columbine
I was a high school teacher for exactly one semester and that happened to be the spring of 1999. I was so invested in the beginning, but, by the end of the semester, I was barely there. It’s the only time in my life I would have been fired had I sought to remain employed. I didn’t.
At the time, I attributed my apathy to my dislike of teaching. While that’s true, it’s not the whole story. Looking back, I can see that the aftermath of this event played a huge role.
I disliked lesson planning and lecturing and dealing with parents (I only ever met disgruntled ones), but I enjoyed connecting with kids on an individual level. The jocks interested me about as much as I did them. I was too clueless about drugs to connect with stoners. There was a girl in one of my classes who always had her head on her desk. I’m pretty sure now that she was on heroin. At the time, though, I thought she was just sleepy.
No, the ones I really connected with were mostly nerds and kids who felt they didn’t belong. I remember two boys in particular. Let’s call them Eddie and Terry. Mrs. X, the teacher with whom I shared a classroom and a curriculum, also goes into the mix.
Mrs. X was not old by my current standards, probably late 40s, but she was old school. She wanted subdued, obedient kids with nothing flashy or new in the mix. Except computers. She was very excited when we got laptops for the classroom because we could do all sorts of educational things. Like search the internet. Why she thought we needed to teach high school seniors to use a search engine was beyond me, but that’s what we did. It was before any sort of parental controls were available, so I spent most of those class periods patrolling to make sure nobody was pulling up porn.
Eddie was kind of androgynous and wore black nail polish. Mrs. X was convinced there was something wrong with him. I’m pretty sure Eddie enjoyed that.
Terry was wicked smart and incredibly bored with my class. I couldn’t blame him; I was bored with it, too. He was a bit of a loner and had the nerve to be obese. He had a tendency to mumble and a nasal septum perforation that caused his nose to whistle sometimes. And he liked to wear a trench coat at school.
Mrs. X had never been exactly discrete in her grumblings about Terry, but, after the events of April 20th that year, she kicked up a notch. His trench coat was a particular sticking point for her. Those coats were eventually banned from school, as I believe they were in many schools across the nation that spring.
Mrs. X complained about his mumbling and his tendency to write things in a little notebook he carried with him. I don’t remember what he wrote exactly – I think it was poetry – but I remember that it was benign. Even so, he refused to let Mrs. X read it. She was convinced it contained a kill list.
Terry’s locker was searched a number of times. I know for a fact, because she told me, Mrs. X was directly behind at least one of those.
Terry didn’t know that I had walked up behind him while he was doing a group project in my class one day. The other two kids at the table tried to warn him, but he was too worked up at that point to stop. I heard him saying that maybe he should just write a kill list so they could go ahead and expel him and put him out of his misery.
I don’t know if he was serious about it or not- it’s not like he would confide that to me. But something broke in me and I wanted to hug this kid. This poor, misunderstood, seventeen year old kid who was now being harassed by adults who had direct authority over him. The only power he had left was to sacrifice his future by giving in to the accusations. I know that happens around the world every day to people in much worse circumstances, but I don’t get to bear witness to those in this way.
And I had no power to help him. I was a transient teacher (everyone knew by then that I was just waiting for the school year to end so I could get out of there) who had already told both Mrs. X and the administration that there was nothing to fear from this boy. To no avail.
I did the only thing I could think of in that moment. I put my hand on his shoulder and said (something like, but infinitely less clear than), “Terry, please don’t let people hear you say anything like that. I know that you would never hurt anyone, but fear does weird things to people. They’re not afraid of you; they don’t even really know you. They’re afraid of what they think you represent. They’re desperate to feel like they’re doing something, anything, to protect the school, so don’t add fuel to the fire. Don’t give up your rights, but don’t egg them on, either. Graduation is a few weeks away, so do your best to be calm until then. No matter what, you know you haven’t done anything wrong. And other people know that, too.”
Terry was not expelled and did graduate on time. I have no idea whether what I said had any effect, but I like to think so. I’m glad I said it either way.
Even in the days after the shooting in 1999, I was not afraid to be in the classroom. I was not afraid of a student coming in and opening fire. I believed then, as I do now, that fear of these relatively uncommon occurrences will results in paralysis and over reaction. By that I DO NOT mean over reaction to the tragic deaths – the pain caused to the people who cared about the victims is unimaginable and real.
I mean over reaction to the threat. Like putting metal detectors in schools. Arming teachers. Police stationed permanently on campus. These things do not prevent violence. If they did, school shootings should be virtually nonexistent by now.
What scares me is the witch-hunt that follows an event like this. The Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the Holocaust, McCarthyism. The common denominator is neighbor turning on neighbor out of misunderstanding and blind, irrational fear. The 24-hour news cycle necessitates immediate information, the veracity of which is secondary. It’s like throwing napalm on a barbecue pit. It happens again and again, but we never seem to learn from it. How can that be?