Brian Shea reflects on violence in schools vs. his memories of years ago. And calls upon a new young generation to find their own way.
Sitting at the counter of a New Hampshire diner not long ago, I looked around at my friends of 30 years and marveled that we still knew each other, no less converged on home every October to hike the White Mountains together. With our old high school already on my mind, I glanced up at the television and saw the name of our alma mater in the news ticker at the bottom of the screen. It was not good news, but it could have been worse.
A student brought a loaded gun into the halls we used to roam and he had been caught.
When we were students there in the 1980s, I’m not sure such an event would have made it to broadcast. After all, nobody was hurt. But today, a loaded gun in a school is often a preliminary to slaughter and becomes news in itself in dreaded anticipation of what might happen. I don’t feel old enough to lament how the world has changed since we were young. Nostalgia is an exercise in selective memory and always over-promises.
But as my friends look up at the television screen and we exchange nervous glances, we realize how much the world really has changed since we were young.
We were no strangers to guns in school, but they were of a very different variety. It was not unusual to see us running down the halls in black ninja masks and costumes, black machine guns in our hands as we ran towards our targets. Hearing the commotion, students would peek out their classroom doors and declare, “The ninjas are back! it’s a hit!”
And, our team was available for hire. $40 a job, which was good money in those days. We had entry and exit routes mapped out, timetables, getaway vehicles, and behavioral profiles of our targets. Our clients hired us through middlemen, keeping our identities unknown to the teachers and students who always wondered who those guys in ninja suits really were. We were simply “the ninjas,” becoming campus folk legends to the bored freshmen looking for sensory stimulation during Algebra.
But our weapons contained only water and our targets were overbearing teachers and school bullies. We were odd, but we had a code: no substances in the weapons that could sting eyes or stain clothes. No target was random. Nobody could get hurt. We soaked many people in the middle of the school day, disappearing as quickly as we’d swooped in. We raised eyebrows, but not alarm.
Today, of course, running down a hall in a black mask, ninja garb, and what looked like an Uzi submachine gun would rightly be met with a SWAT team. Looking back on our unusual pranks, my friends and I didn’t need to state the obvious as we watched the news feed in our old diner years later. During high school, we prepared for every contingency when we planned our “hits,” but never for real fear or real bullets. The chill shooting down our spines reminded us that it was now a very different world with different rules for everything, even pranks.
Soon, another child, almost certainly a boy, will walk into his school with a gun and will open fire. That is the country we now live in.
I have no explanations for what drives a boy to homicidal madness. In my youth, massacres were reserved for distant lands, not small American towns. We had drug dealers, drunk driving, AIDS, and domestic abuse, of course. All the things that make life difficult everywhere in America. It was not the cozy cocoon that nostalgia offers us to escape the present. But it was different.
Now, mental health and law enforcement professionals are scrambling to decipher the minds of young mass murders because they know more are coming.
Such work seeks patterns that help us predict rather than react. The tragic sample base we have suggests that almost all of the shooters are males and at least in their minds, they are unutterably alone. These young shooters seem convinced they stand alone as prey to whatever monsters hunt them, perhaps born of untreated mental illness that turns them into monsters themselves.
I do know that in my formative years, I was never alone, even in the darkest days of being raised by an alcoholic parent. The honest and fraternal love of my friends anchored me to what really mattered and freed me from being seduced by what didn’t. To this day, we reaffirm our bond every year, hiking the forests of my home state together. Before heading out, we get breakfast on the way; our last stop for a coffee at the diner counter and some news on the television.
The teachers and administrators in my school did not understand what motivated young teenagers to don ninja uniforms and infiltrate our school for clandestine water operations. But they spent little time investigating, seeing no real threat from a small band of bored eccentrics. They did not know our identities, but they knew we meant no harm. Back then, that was enough.
Today’s youth face new challenges in a new world, of course, but most do not become murderers. The behavioral analyses may suggest who may and how, but not when or why.
Watching pundits and psychologists propose theories on television after the latest shooting, I notice that many of them are my age or older. French poet and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said that “to grasp the meaning of the world today we use a language created to express the world of yesterday. The life of the past seems to us nearer our true nature, but only for the reason that it is nearer our language.”
Trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, perhaps my generation lives in a world of the past to which our vocabulary no longer corresponds. I do not have answers to what drives a boy to murder, but I’m not sure the experts do either. Our language fails us.
Today’s young boys inhabit a web of social connections to their friends, families, and communities that both unite and isolate them in ways unimaginable when I was their age. The connections that bind them can bring the charity as well as the hatred of strangers directly to their smartphones, but those who kill unleash their failure to connect mostly on those close to home: their schools, their families, their communities.
In the end, it will be up to the young to understand and purge themselves of the demon of violence now claiming young lives far too regularly. I’m sure there is much in their world that eludes their understanding, but it is a world they understand better than we do. Ultimately, we may be the first generation that must turn to its children for guidance.
I only hope that thirty years from now, those children will still know and love each other, meeting for breakfast every year before setting out on an adventure together.
Above all, I hope that as they sip their coffee and glance up at the news ticker on the television, they will be glad for how much the world has changed since they were young.
Photo: gudlyf / flickr