Friday, October 9, 2015

Shots Fired

Last Thursday another kid loaded up with guns walked into a place of learning, and killed.

So, the gun debate is back in the media again.  I suppose that is good.  Better control of guns in a country with far too many gun deaths seems like a good idea to me.  I believe in background checks, semi-automatic weapons bans, waiting periods.  I am not sure what the point of a handgun is other than shooting people.  I think even our forefathers would agree that the guns out there today are not the single-shot muzzle loaders they considered when framing The Constitution.  If they could travel through time, I think they would tilt their heads to the side in disbelief, and say The Second Amendment was never meant to protect those guns.  But, gun control is not the solution to the problem.  A good idea, yes.  A solution, I don't think so.

The conversation about mental health care is back in our national consciousness again as well.  No doubt that is a good thing.  We have all seen the history of mental illness, often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, that runs through the profiles of so many of these shooters.  I am sure most reasonable people would agree that it is a good idea to restrict the mentally ill's access to weapons.  That is not really my point either, however.

My point is this: the epidemic of school shootings our country faces, the concern that lingers in the back of my head each day as I send my two young sons to school, the fear that is stirred each time the school where I teach practices a lockdown drill designed to prepare for an active shooter, won't be remedied by legislation.  The problem is too big, and the people who understand it best are not really involved in the solution.  The people who understand the root of the problem best are kids.

These shootings are aberrations, the most extreme responses to an epidemic far more wide spread than these isolated incidents indicate.  For every kid who goes into a school firing bullets at innocent classmates, there are hundreds who have imagined doing so.  For every kid who has imagined shooting his classmates, there are thousands who have felt untargeted desperation and rage.  Anyone of those kids could be a pre-cursor to a tragedy.  Yet each day, kids tweet messages of hate, and humiliate each other on anonymous message boards; they laugh at behavior they think is different, and watch as a fellow student eats by himself each day.  

Because of that, this problem cannot and will not be fixed by law makers, school response planning committees, or the heartfelt words of our nation's President.  None of that can fix the problem.  Kids are going to have to fix this.  My sons and my students are going to have to fix it.  Our nation's children must set this right.

I am in no way condoning the actions of these shooters; they are unforgivable atrocities.  We must do more, however, than demonize them as so many people have during their formative years.  We need to take a good hard look at what we allow kids to say, and the impact of those words.  We need to ask what our kids are doing to find their struggling peers and make them feel welcome.  We need to call them out for their anti-social behavior, and challenge them to change.

Why them?  Because in the overwhelming majority of shooter profiles we can hear stories of social isolation, cruelty, humiliation, and relentless torment.  I have written before, and spoken often with my students, about my own experience being tormented by other kids during those early teenage years.  Navigating junior high school as a doughy kid taking tap dancing lessons wasn't super easy, but I was lucky.  There was no social media then, no cell phones, and the comments were silent for a good many hours each day.  My tormentors were not around for the holidays.  Their words did not tuck me into bed each night whispering hate through a screen.

I have told my students again about my nephew: a wonderful, inquisitive, funny young boy who is on the Asperger's spectrum, whose Korean heritage makes him look different than his peers, who has struggled with his speech.  He is still young, but already he comes home crying.  Already he is the focus of the worst parts of his little classmates' natures.  

All of my students nod along in understanding when I talk about this.  They have all experienced it.  Some have been the victims, some the perpetrators.  All have been silent witnesses.

So we must forever stop excusing their anti-social and hate filled speech because "kids will be kids."  We must make our children see the world through the eyes of a kid who feels different from everyone else, who feels alone, who feels as if life has little value.  We need to make them see the power they have to make that kid feel accepted.  We need to show them the simple power behind inclusion and a kind word.  We need to pull their faces out of phones and force them to once again look each other in the eye, and scan the room for the kid who needs some form of human connection.

Kids are the answer.  If you know one, maybe you could pass this on for me.  Tweet it out to them.  Text it.  Print it and deliver it by hand.  Talk to them.  Maybe this can be a starting point for conversations where we explain the rules to this brave new world where anyone can say anything at any time and have an avid, if not rabid, audience.

Kids are on the front lines of this war.  Let’s make sure kids are heading off to school armed with a watchful eye, empathy, kindness, and understanding.  Perhaps then we can prevent them from heading to school loaded down with anger, loneliness, and guns.