Dan Kimber has seen pain and anger in too many kids during his career in education.
My student, age 14, handed in an end-of-the-year report on Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, and added this chilling postscript after a rambling salute to his “heroes”: “God bless them for what they tried to do and God forgive me for what I plan to do.”
The boy was bright but socially awkward and disconnected from his classmates. Until I read his report he was just “the shy, but exceptionally bright kid sitting in the back of the room”. From my perspective, he was one of 150 kids I saw for an hour each day for the better part of a year. He belonged of a menagerie of children making their sojourn through their public education, each with separate needs, and each with separate stories that were just beginning to be told.
When I read the boy’s report it occurred to me how little I knew of his story. How could a child of so few years have developed such a warped view of humanity? How did I not see behind downcast eyes and an introverted personality a deeply troubled, angry fifteen year-old? I sent his piece to the counseling office at the high school he would be attending, thinking at the time that the boy warranted special attention.
That was thirty years ago and I am happy to report, not having seen his name connected to any public outrages, that my former student has led his life, so far, in relative obscurity. Perhaps he long ago made peace with this world and his place in it. Perhaps someone entered into his life who reassured him that he was not alone; perhaps there were others who saw and celebrated a unique individual rather than shunning someone who did not conform to the norm. Perhaps he found a love later in his life that had been denied earlier.
Over the years of my teaching I’ve observed a number of children detached from the mainstream of their peers and thought often that we in the profession need to do a better job of gathering them up and bringing them into the fold, so to speak. So many children I can recall, harboring pain and bitterness, and anger—more, I suspect, from the indifference of others than their cruelty—and always I am struck by the fact that these are only children, so young, so innocent, and yet I know how easily they are damaged.
Most of them will grow up and have smoothed over the scars of their youth, but some of them will carry their open wounds into adulthood, where old festering resentments have metastasized into personal vendettas or, God forbid, crusades.
And when those boys/men decide to go public with their tormented souls and wreak their havoc on an unsuspecting populace, we are all left with questions that lead us to different conclusions. It’s the guns, it’s the parents, it’s the schools, it’s our morally, spiritually deprived and depraved society.
So many contributing factors, but so few facts to face.
Gun manufacturers and their clients need to face the fact that military weapons belong in the hands of the military and not in its citizenry. We educators need to face the fact that some of our students need something more than reaching performance standards in our schools. We need to raise our antenna a bit higher and tune in to the fact that some of our kids are hurting emotionally, socially, psychologically and need more than what we are offering.
I am reminded of another student in my first year of teaching. She was a delightful child with seemingly everything going for her. She was pretty, popular, bright—all the things a 13-year-old wishes to be. One morning the principal called me out of my class to tell that this precious young girl had just blown her brains out early that morning with a high-caliber pistol.
After we who taught this girl overcame the shock of this news, we were dumbfounded. How did we not have some inkling that this child was suffering? How was she able to keep her private hell from everyone around her? If only we would have, could have, said some words to her that might have mattered. Words to tell her that life can be difficult but that it is worth living; words to help her to talk about what was troubling her; words to reassure her that what is now will not always be, and most important, words to reassure her that she was loved.
And there’s the rub.
Every child that comes into this world needs that reassurance. It is a need that begins at birth and never diminishes throughout life. Our schools, standing in place of the parents as they do, representing our society’s collective will to “educate the whole child”, and holding itself responsible to meet the needs of the next generation—can surely do a better job of meeting all those needs, including being wanted, being valued, and to this old educator looking back on a long career and thousands of precious children, being loved.