Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Innocence lost, protection needed

Watching all the heart-wrenching coverage of those who grieve such a senseless crime at Virginia Tech university, we all keep wondering how can someone become such a hateful person seeking so much bloodshed?

Growing up in a very small isolated rural community, I never had to worry about whether I would be alive at the end of the school day. There were no fences around our schoolyard, no metal detectors at the door, no police or security officers to patrol the hallways to keep us safe. There simply was no need. Heck, we were just a bunch of farm kids and small town school students.

Sure, there were bullies. There were physical fights, verbal attacks, and psychological torture that kids can all be so great at inflicting upon each other, and particularly on the most vulnerable children in the schoolgrounds and classrooms.

To pretend none of that existed would not be realistic. To say that all of us were perfect and never said or did a mean thing to another kid would be a lie. Sometimes we gave, sometimes we received. Sometimes we cried, sometimes we laughed. Sometimes we all worried whether we would survive the day, but life was so exaggerated in our minds that it probably wasn't as much of a life and death struggle as we thought.

So instead, we'd swallow our pride, carry home our wounds and shame, and quietly went about doing our chores, and often pretended nothing happened in school that day to us. After others hurt us, we slowly healed and hopefully forgave. Sometimes we were bullied — and sometimes we were the bullies. Things are never black and white in those school years. There is always someone stronger and someone weaker.

While we hate to admit it, we probably rarely gave a second thought to the other kid we ganged up on and teased or tormented, because it just seemed like fun in our immature minds. It just all seemed to even out.

At least, that was what it seemed like, until we became acne-faced, gangly awkward teenagers and suddenly the games became more cruel, more painful, more horrible in their consequences.

High school years triggered — even in small rural schools — suicide attempts by peers.

There was always the hushed voices of the teachers as they tried to herd students away from the location of where something had happened. There were gasps, sobs and shock among the students when they learned what happened, although usually everybody attempted to keep things quiet. There were rumors of emergency races to the hospital, of the amazing efforts of doctors and nurses, and somehow, miraculously, these kids pulled through. They might be gone a few days, a few weeks, the rest of the school year. But these kids usually came back.

And we, the fellow students, never felt the same in our small rural school — while those kids were gone or when they were back. We couldn’t understand what had happened, yet were furious at ourselves for not doing more, for not reaching out, for somehow preventing whatever happened whether it was our best friends or just a passing acquaintance.

But we didn't know what to say or do when these people returned to our classes. We always wondered what was this person thinking, feeling, and whether a suicide attempt might happen again.

In high school, there were several suicide attempts — that we know of, but how many never even made the rumors?

It was a world where we learned that sometimes life became so challenging to our peers that they felt they needed to end it all. However, at that time, it always was against themselves that they did this. It never crossed our minds that these kids would ever endanger the lives of their classmates. We were still innocent, Columbine and other tragedies still years away.

University was supposed to be better. The knowledgeable, the wiser, the more mature, the strangers who know nothing about your past, your family, your living conditions. Everyone was supposed to start new, fresh, equally inexperienced, we thought. We were eager to seek these halls of higher learning.

How quickly reality hit. There was pressure from professors, competition among students, and suddenly everyone treated us like adults — which we wanted so desperately to be, and yet in many ways really weren't ready to handle — and we now needed to worry about more than just our homework being done.

We needed to think about rent, food, transportation, living expenses, relationships with others. We worried where the money would come for next week, and how to pay for all those expensive text books.

Some of us took part time jobs to help us afford university. We took what we could get.

That was how my friend Brad and I became security guards for one of the colleges. Our duties were simple. We took turns doing lock-up at night. We would carefully walk through all the college, check every classroom, hallway, bathroom stall, even church chapel pews to make sure no one was hiding in the college. We checked behind pop machines in the cafeteria, the heavy curtains on stage in the auditorium, behind sofas in the lounges. There was a bank attached to the college, so there was even more pressure on us to make sure no one was left in the building.

Sometimes a pack of friends would accompany us, sometimes the two of us would go together for moral support. For the most part, we did our jobs alone, flicking lights on and off, jingling keys, opening and closing doors and locking them tight.

We had our regulars we needed to deal with and sternly order to leave. The students who liked to drink alcohol in the student offices in the back. The homeless woman who wore a cape with some religious writing sewn on the back, and rode city busses to keep warm if she didn't find a chapel’s wooden pew as a bed at the college.

There is one person who especially stands out in my mind. Considerably older, he was the perpetual student who never seemed to earn his degree. He was a loner with no real friends, yet liked to lurk on the fringe of other groups of friends or students. Occasionally he spewed religious rants — he had changed religions already several times — and sometimes he just made very rude, inappropriate comments. But at the college, my friends and I still tried to treat him kindly.

His behavior became more erratic, and we all increasingly felt more uncomfortable around him, but still didn’t think of him as a threat.

One night, Brad and I went into one of the college study lounges to lock up when we stopped abruptly and stared: there was that guy, and he was red-faced, upset, agitated, acting erratic, and swearing out loud. In a frenzy, he scribbled all over the blackboards in big, chalked letters words that made our hair stand on end. Occasionally he read out the words, like a mantra.

Kill, mangle, destroy. Kill, mangle, destroy. He wrote those words over and over again along with various profanities.

We quickly exited the room, afraid to do anything. We didn't return for an hour or longer, until we were sure he had finally left out a side door. Long into the night, my friend and I talked about what we witnessed. We later talked to others. It was a sleepless night.

Most people felt it was a joke. Surely it was a joke. No one could really be like that, no one could have that dark of a side, right?

Years later, listening to what happened in a university so far away from the one I attended, I find I still shudder, thinking back to what evil might have lurked among us. I wonder what that student was capable of doing — and what ultimately prevented anything from happening — and the rest of us becoming some horrible statistic. I sometimes wonder what happened to him.

My friends and I have been blessed to have gone on with our lives. We have graduated, many of us now have spouses, families, careers in different parts of the world.

We see the sun rise, feel the wind against our faces, hear the laughter of children, and tell our loved ones what they mean to us. We welcome spring, celebrate special occasions, and almost every day we communicate with our friends, family or others who may have influenced our lives in some way.

For those at Virginia Tech, so many lives have been robbed of that: those who died, and those who loved them. So many suffer so greatly from what one person inflicted in so little time.

Our innocence is gone in schools and universities, whether we live in big cities or even in rural communities, but we must stay vigilant and be our brother's keeper for the future.

Life is too precious to let it escape in such a way in such a tragic ending. Whether a young kid or a teenager, they deserve us to be on guard for them. We need to protect them, whether it’s from us, from each other, or from themselves.

It is time for the violence to end.

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3 comments:

Gary L. West said...

When I was in high school in a small Eastern Oregon town many of my classmates and I actually lived out in the country and had to drive to school.

It was not unusual to see pickup trucks parked in the student lot (which was also the staff lot) with gun racks affixed over the cab's rear window. It was also not altogether unusual to see a rifle hanging from the gun racks, especially during hunting season. We didn't think twice about it.

About a dozen years later I was Principal for A Day at a High School in Southern California on a campus that had locking gates to keep students in and visitors out and armed police officers on school grounds.

The ignorance of school violence was indeed bliss. However, we can not lose site of the fact that our children are more likely to die in a car accident with us, or them or one of their friends, behind the wheel than they are to die in school-related violence, involving a gun or otherwise. Just because it is sensational and nationally broadcast on TV, radio, Internet, etc., doesn't mean the risk is large. It is news in no small part because it is unusual. Just because we can name incidents from the past — Columbine, Springfield, now Virginia Tech — doesn't mean there is a massive epidemic out there.
This link to the Youth Violence Project, ironically from Virginia, puts school violence in perspective. http://youthviolence.edschool.virginia.edu/violence-in-schools/school-shootings.html

Elaine Shein said...

You're right: looking at these deaths in context, more danger exists on highways than lurks in school hallways.
However, the difference is that as soon as people are taught to drive, they are warned to always be alert, aware and be ready for potential danger. We are supposed to be constantly watching for accidents that may happen and do all we can to prevent them.
Even in airlines, a much safer form of transportation, passengers are taught what to do if something should go wrong.
Schools and universities are not supposed to be places of danger. They're supposed to be learning institutions. We don't teach kids that they should be constantly alert and ready in case someone bursts into the classroom with a gun. We usually say the worst that can happen is fire, and we do fire drills. In different areas of the country, we might have weather-related drills or earthquake drills, but we don't normally teach kids how to defend themselves under violent attack.
That is not our normal world.
We teach kids that they should be (hopefully) in a safe place there, where their attention should be concentrated on what their teachers and professors are telling them — not anxious if they will make it home safely that night.
That is the other perspective we need to consider, it's not just comparing numbers of deaths in traffic accidents compared to shootings in classroom situations.

threecollie said...

This was a terrifying thing. I worry every day when I send the girls off on their fifty mile round trip to college, but this is just more somehow...perhaps because of the incredible hatred behind it. That was a good post, Elaine. I can't imagine dealing with such a thing.

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