on this story
No easy answers
by Stephanie Piper
Here's what I don't get. How does a kid go from lonely, disaffected high school sophomore to killer? What, exactly, happens to these fresh-faced children who wake up one day and decide to open fire in school corridors?
The latest shooter looks like someone who might have lounged in my kitchen after school, microwaving a burrito with one of my three sons. He might have played pool in our basement, or scarfed pizza with us on a Friday night. He looks OK. He doesn't look like someone I would have worried about, back when my boys were teenagers and a procession of adolescents, disaffected and otherwise, trailed through our house on a regular basis.
I don't know him, of course, any more than I knew the Columbine children or the Jonesboro children or the girl in Pennsylvania or the boy in Pearl, Mississippi. I don't understand it, I say, watching the news and shaking my head. And then I catch myself, because in a way, I do.
When I was nine, we moved from one suburban town to another and I moved from classroom star to instant loser. I went from a sunny third-grader who read to the class at story time to a desperately unpopular new girl.
I never really understood what my offense was. On my first day in the new school, the teacher seated me next to the janitor's daughter. Apparently, this was reason enough for the cool clique to brand me as damaged goods. It was a designation from which I never recovered during my years in that reputedly stellar school system. They teased me about my hair, and my clothes, and my last name. They whispered about me at recess and excluded me from slumber parties. Ignored on the playground, reviled on the bus, I developed stomach pains and insomnia. Some days I faked sick to stay home. Many days, anxiety made me physically ill. A psychologist today would say I was "at risk," and I guess I was. But depression was not a household word then, and drugs were what you got at the drug store, and guns were only in cowboy movies. I fantasized about turning the tables on my tormentors, reducing them to tears with a few well-chosen words. It never happened.
No one paid much attention to pre-teen angst in those days, and it was a long time before my parents realized something was wrong. Finally, they moved me to a private Catholic girls' school. The nuns did not permit teasing, cliques, or unkind behavior of any stripe. They assigned me an "angel," a veteran student to shepherd me through the first term. Her name was Ann Marie. I can still see her leaning across the lunch table, pushing her own cupcake in my direction. "Take it," she whispered. "It's the only good thing here." She was wrong. I was a fish restored to water, breathing acceptance. The ancient sister who answered the door adopted me as her special pet. She called me "precious" and taught me calligraphy and smuggled me gingersnaps in a white handkerchief. My stomach pains abated. Sleep returned. In the words of an old rock song, love rescued me.
Not every child is so lucky. Some stumble on, mute with misery. And a few, when there is no rescue, turn to the array of devastating, destructive choices now available.
I read today that Colorado may pass legislation to make school bullying illegal. Bullying was forbidden at my new school, but I'm not sure that's what saved me. In the end, it was such little thingsa cupcake, a calligraphy pen, a shared joke. In the end, it was a place where kindness was not only required, but woven inextricably into the fabric of daily life.
In the end, the answer is simple.
Which is rarely the same as easy.
March 22, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 12
© 2001 Metro Pulse