The 10th or 11th time DanCBS/PeterABC/TomNBC told me the massacre in Littleton, Colorado, was especially horrific because it happened in a high school, “somewhere children feel safe,” I started screaming at the television. What high school were they talking about? I went to three, and in none of them did I for a moment feel safe. High school was terrifying, and it was the casual cruelty of the popular kids–the jocks and the princesses–that made it hell.
“Once upon a time,” People said in a manipulative and dishonest cover story, “the most that kids had to worry about at school was a looming test or a deadline for a paper.” What fairy-tale time was that exactly? In high school I had much more to worry about than tests and papers. Like most students, I lived in fear of the slights and public humiliations used to reinforce the rigid high school caste system: poor girls were sluts, soft boys were fags. And at each of my schools there were students who lived in daily fear of physical violence.
There was a boy at my second school, Saint Gregory the Great, who was beaten up daily for four years. Call him Marty. Jocks would rip his clothes, knowing his parents couldn’t afford to buy him a new uniform, and he would piss his pants rather than risk being caught alone in the bathroom. He couldn’t walk the halls without being called a fag, and freshmen would beat him up to impress the older kids. Teachers, presumably the caretakers in this so-called safe environment, knew what was going on–some even witnessed the abuse–but did nothing to stop it.
A sophomore I knew was thrown through a plate-glass window by a jock. When his mother complained to the principal, she was told that if her son insisted on dressing the way he did–like a new-waver–he’d have to get used to being thrown through plate-glass windows. A jock jumped another friend of mine, beating the shit out of him and breaking his nose. The jock was suspended, but my friend, who never threw a punch, was suspended too.
“The motivations of the two killers,” People continued, “were hard to fathom.” Actually I had no problem fathoming Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s motives. While I didn’t suffer the extreme abuse some of my friends did, I was fucked with enough to spend four years fantasizing about blowing up my high school and everyone in it. I can only imagine the scenarios that must have rolled through Marty’s head on a daily basis. Watching SWAT teams inch their way toward Columbine High, I wasn’t shocked that something like this could happen in a high school. I was shocked that it hadn’t happened in any of mine.
I’m not saying Klebold and Harris were heroes. They were hateful, twisted racists who, in addition to going after jocks, hunted down and murdered one of Columbine’s six black students. But they didn’t go guns blazing into a vacuum. Harris left a suicide note, discovered by police and reprinted in one of Denver’s daily papers, the Rocky Mountain News. I haven’t seen the note printed anywhere else, which strikes me as odd. (Though the official police line is now that the note isn’t authentic, the News reporter got it from a police source.)
The note reads: “By now, it’s over. If you are reading this, my mission is complete…. Your children who have ridiculed me, who have chosen not to accept me, who have treated me like I am not worth their time are dead. THEY ARE FUCKING DEAD.
“Surely you will try to blame it on the clothes I wear, the music I listen to, or the way I choose to present myself, but no. Do not hide behind my choices. You need to face the fact that this comes as a result of YOUR CHOICES.
“Parents and teachers, you fucked up. You have taught these kids to not accept what is different. YOU ARE IN THE WRONG. I have taken their lives and my own–but it was your doing. Teachers, parents, LET THIS MASSACRE BE ON YOUR SHOULDERS UNTIL THE DAY YOU DIE.”
The power cliques that rule American high schools are every bit as murderous as Harris and Klebold, but their damage is done in slow motion, over a period of many years, and fails to draw the attention of parents or teachers–let alone news anchors, SWAT teams, and presidents. How many kids who are ostracized, humiliated, and assaulted in American high schools are left scarred for life? How many commit suicide as a consequence? If they survive high school, how many are left with psychological scars that last a lifetime–much like those of the survivors of Columbine High?
Watching the traumatized Columbine students rush TV cameras to share their stories with a national audience (traumatized, but composed enough to take a few questions from the media pack), I heard more than one describe Harris and Klebold and the rest of the Trenchcoat Mafia as “freaks” and “fags,” and some boasted about having picked on the two. In our rush to make martyrs of the victims and demons of the murderers (the cover of Time screamed, “The Monsters Next Door!”), the culpability of the other kids at Columbine has been glossed over. So long as some kids go out of their way to make high school hell for others–while other students and teachers stand by doing and saying nothing–there will be kids who crack, and not all of them are going to quietly off themselves.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Dan and Peter and Tom went in search of lessons we could learn from Columbine High. The most important, judging from network TV, is how to spot and further stigmatize already miserable kids for their bad clothes, bad music, bad attitudes. But there’s another lesson we might want to learn. If nothing else, the murders at Columbine may restrain the equally–if less dramatically–violent behavior of high school royalty. Before the jocks beat the shit out of the skinny freaks in black or humiliate the geeks from the French Club, maybe they’ll remember what happened in Colorado and think twice: “What if the kid I pick on today shows up tomorrow with a gun?”
“There can be few students,” said People, “who feel entirely confident that they won’t one day encounter a fellow student with a gun in his hand and madness in his eyes.”
Call it a silver lining.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ken Wilson.