Memoir – the Columbine High School massacre, April 1999

I found this document quite by accident. My computer, like my house, is cluttered with “stuff”, and I’m trying to get rid of some of it. I don’t remember writing this, but I find it to be entirely accurate and painfully relevant.

Why post it NOW? I’m under a general request (from a family member) to share memories. Every once in a while, I come up with something odd or interesting. “Write it down!” says my son. Okay… Another reason is that violence, especially among and directed towards the young, continues to prey on my mind. I follow the news, worry over loved ones, and recently overheard a conversation that disturbed my soul. More about that later. Maybe.

This is what I wrote in May of 1999, a few weeks after Columbine, when my sons, ages 9 and 14, went off to public school daily. I have not edited it in any way:

Since the disastrous murders in Littleton, Colorado, I’ve been thinking hard about schools, and one direction my thoughts have taken is the path of memory. What was it like to be a teenager? What worked and what didn’t in the school system I traversed? How did we get along? Who were the disaffected? The successful? How tight were our cliques? How hurt were our outcasts? I found one memory that seems to be important. It’s very clear and coherent. And I don’t think I’ve ever discussed it with anyone.

I was thirteen, sitting in math class. I was the kind of kid teachers want in class, well behaved and easily able to learn. I wasn’t “popular”, but I had friends. I was a “brain” in a town where that was mostly OK. I wore glasses and was a little off-the-mark in terms of dress and hairstyle, but nothing drastic. I was supported and protected by a home and community that were reasonably consistent in their expectations. There is nothing wrong with this picture. The important memory is what, in that idyllic time and place, I was thinking about.

Unfolding in my head as I sat there in math was a violent fantasy. I was very systematically destroying the school. I smashed (with a baseball bat?) everything breakable, overturned desks, savaged textbooks, broke windows. I was very, very thorough. I must have spent lots of time on this fantasy, to be able to find it waiting so clearly in my head, 35 years later. What was I so incredibly ANGRY about?

I don’t find an answer in any of the expected categories – abuse, change in family structure, etc. I think my problem was junior high school. After seven years in what is now called the “self-contained” classroom, we switched to a seven period school day. Ten different teachers when you add in homeroom, gym, etc. Three minutes to get from one place to another. I know I bitterly resented the regimentation, but I think my anger was based on the fact that NO adult knew me. Not the way (for better and worse) my elementary school teachers knew me. A kid with high test scores and a good behavior record merited no particular attention. All my other traits – creativity, capacity to love, longing for adventure – were ignored. And I was furious. The sociological term, I think, is alienation. I had a bad case of it.

To me the message of junior high (or middle school) is “You kids are poison”. Too nasty to be around the cute little tykes and not big and smart enough to mix with the high schoolers. What kind of a message is this for children on the brink of physical adulthood? Meaningful adult contact is lost and the peer culture moves into the vacuum. It was luck, not good rearing, that kept me from serious trouble.

From this derives my first suggestion for school change. Bring back the K-8 school. If its necessary to shift students around to fit the expertise of teachers, do it so a student has three teachers, not ten. Everyone says teachers “should have noticed” something wrong in Colorado, but a teacher who sees more than 100 students each day just isn’t going to.  Make seventh and eighth grade special by adding privileges and (much more important!) responsibilities. By eighth grade every student should do meaningful work for the school, and in a K-8 setting opportunities abound. Play and read with the kindergartners, run flashcard drills and clean up after art with the second graders, work in the Library and office. Plant a garden. Organize classroom parties and put on good assemblies. Eighth graders can do all this.

What to do about high school? I’m open to suggestions here – it’s time to try anything and everything. We know specialized schools work well in cities. Perhaps we should regionalize and specialize. Make high schools smaller – how about a top size of about 1000? Move some teachers along with the students when they enter high school. Selected teachers could alternate between 8th and 9th grades to provide continuity. Look for other opportunities to keep student/teacher groups together for more than one year. Increase guidance counselors and reduce teaching loads until meaningful mentoring is available for every student.

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