It’s been over a week now since, while driving to camp in the early morning hours, I first heard the news about the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado. NPR related the known facts in sad and serious tones, and then moved on to other stories. Horrified, I cut away to my satellite CNN station to listen to the media drama. At some point during my drive, I was blinded by tears.
I haven’t really stopped thinking about what happened at the opening show of ‘The Dark Knight’ since that morning. I’ve just been having a hard time putting thoughts to words… putting anything to words, really. I’ve felt mute. It seems that whenever people enact violence, it’s a fine tightrope between the need to understand and the need to cast blame. One can easily be mistaken for the other, and it might be best to keep silent when the words aren’t fully formed.
To occupy my silence, in the week since, I’ve listened to the audiobook Columbine, by Dave Cullen, while commuting. (This NY Times OpEd led me in that direction.) It was a striking read, well worth the time. Cullen says in his book and on his site that most of what you probably know about the shootings at Columbine is wrong, and this book – which was written with painstaking attention to detail, over a decade – explains why and how we got so much of it wrong. Grief and ego, best intentions and hasty judgements, that desperate need to cast blame, all got in the way of objectivity.
By the end of the book, I didn’t exactly have empathy for the killers. Although not the “goth” I remembered from media portrayals, Eric Harris was most likely a clinical psychopath. There is plenty of evidence that psychopathology makes one practically into a different species, defying any empathy or understanding. No, not empathy… at least, not for Harris; Dylan Klebold’s depression holds some connection points for me, but not the actions he chose. But an unsettled sort of understanding – yes. And a crushing sense of responsibility.
Both Eric and Dylan wrote journals, shot videos, and wrote (and submitted) school papers that alluded (or, in Dylan’s case, almost directly described) their plans. There is a heartbreaking essay written by Dylan’s mom. It’s not an easy read. In it, she references a violent paper that Dylan wrote, and the ensuing conference with his English teacher. The teacher passed the paper on to the guidance counselor, and then no follow-up. See how quickly scales tip to blame? That’s not my intention, but you can read in her words that she feels the weight of those scales:
And yes, he’d written a school paper about a man in a black trenchcoat who brutally murders nine students. But we’d never seen that paper. (Although it had alarmed his English teacher enough to bring it to our attention, when we asked to see the paper at a parent-teacher conference, she didn’t have it with her. Nor did she describe the contents beyond calling them “disturbing.” At the conference—where we discussed many things, including books in the curriculum, Gen X versus Gen Y learners, and the ’60s folk song “Four Strong Winds”—we agreed that she would show the paper to Dylan’s guidance counselor; if he thought it was a problem, one of them would contact me. I never heard from them.) We didn’t see the paper, or Dylan’s other writings, until the police showed them to us six months after the tragedy.
What an intense, awesome, weighty responsibility we have to take care of each other. It’s a responsibility that we sometimes shirk, or sublimate to our need to take care of “more pressing matters” or ourselves, but it might be the most important responsibility we have in this world. It’s what we write about and sing about and make art about, and it’s what religions try to guide us towards. It’s stuff that’s way more important than the subjects we categorize into classrooms. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” In his essay Can You Design Kindness?, Chris Staley asks, “Our schools evaluate the knowledge in our students’ minds but how do we expand the kindness in their hearts?” That’s an overwhelming challenge. And as I’m taking the first steps towards prepping for a new school year, it’s all I can think about.
When asked what he would say to the Columbine killers, Marilyn Manson said, “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.” I wonder if it was really “no one”? I don’t know whether kindness, or a listening ear, or solid guidance would have made any sort of dent in plans of the perpetrators of recent mass violence. But, as a teacher, I’m thinking about all of the times I’ve put course content first and relationship second or lower. I’m wondering about opportunities I might have missed, or signs I might have overlooked. I know – I fundamentally and deeply know – that expanding kindness is far more important than any course content I might have to offer. I deeply know that my greatest responsibility as an educator is to pay attention to my students, and to teach them to pay attention to each other. This is the stuff of which life is made. But when content is your vehicle to get to these bigger goals, how do you best fit it all into the brief chunks that make up your contact time with students?
Many more questions than answers, tonight.
Eric Harris wrote this in a journal [expletives omitted]:
Ever wonder why we go to school? Besides getting a so-called education, its not too obvious to most of you… but for those who think a little more and deeper you should realize it. It’s society’s way of turning all the young people into good little robots and factory workers. That’s why we sit in desks in rows and go through bell schedules, to get prepared for the real world, ’cause, “That’s what it’s like.” Well…. no it isn’t! One thing that separates us from other animals is the fact that we carry on actual thoughts. So why don’t we? People go on, day by day, routine s$#*. Why can’t we learn in school how we want to, why can’t we sit on desks and on shelves and put our feet up and relax while we learn? ‘Cause that’s not what the “real world is like.”….. there is no such thing as an actual “real world,” it’s just another word…. we are humans, if we don’t like something we have the… ability to change!