In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Florida last week, there has been much hand-wringing, blaming of parents, and teens taking charge. Everyone is asking why all this is happening and coming up with solutions ranging from the rational (tighten up gun regulations, get rid of assault weapons) to the irrational (arm all the teachers, ban all video games, blame all the parents). I've done my own fair share of guesswork, to no avail.
I can't for the life of me come up with a good answer to "why." Parents only have so much control over a child's nature and behavior, especially as they age. I've seen fantastic kids come out of homes with atrocious parents, and vice versa. Kids are sneaky. When I taught high school, it wasn't unusual for kids to have 2-3 phones on them at any given time - one sanctioned by the parents and full of goodness and light, and one or two more cheap, untraceable Tracfones they used for their real dirtywork. They had multiple social media accounts under different aliases and e-mails - one shared with parents, the others for more...teen-agery use. These were GOOD KIDS who, like all kids, resist adult intervention into their lives, and do some really, really dumb stuff. Unfortunately, that dumb stuff is forever documented and posted online, but that's a whole other issue.
I was thinking about the kids in school right now. My oldest child is almost 17. She was born just a few months before September 11, 2001. She has never known a world in which terrorism isn't at the forefront of everything. She has never known a world without technology and social media. She has never known a world without a 24-hour news cycle. She has never known a world without copious school shootings reported every year. Multiply that by millions and millions of kids just like her, and you have a whole mess of kids about to graduate from high school who are angry, scared, and ready to fight. I think there's a reason why the whole strong-teen-rises-up-from-the-dystopian-hopelessness-and-subverts-the-dominant-paradigm-with-peace genre is so popular, and why we'll see some real change once these kids come of age.
I think what these kids experience is incomprehensible to us old folks, who still remember with nostalgia the days of our unfettered "Lord of the Flies"-style childhoods in which we rode our bikes everywhere, played in the woods unsupervised, and were able to leave our worries at the door of the schoolhouse. Today, kids can't escape. There are threats to their well-being circulating constantly on Snapchat - real or otherwise. There is constant news of death, destruction, and dire economic circumstances. Expectations in school and life are unrealistic. No wonder a record number of children under the age of 18 are on medication for anxiety, depression, and insomnia. They live in a constant state of what I call earthquakiness - an unsteady, shaky existence that can be shattered in an instant. This way of life is unprecedented and unsustainable.
Thankfully, I think we'll see a real shift when these people become men and women capable of affecting change. There are rumblings of uprising; a rising realization that, while the adults are clutching their pearls and crying WHY, their peers are dying at the hands of other kids in senseless attacks brought on by fear and helplessness. I read an unfortunate attack on a well-spoken young man who had the audacity to question a senator at the CNN town hall meeting. Some adults were calling him disrespectful; I say GOOD. FOR. YOU. I teach rhetoric to my students, and was so impressed with the ethos, pathos, and logos he employed to make his points. Since when is it disrespectful to question the status quo? Oh yeah - Nazis. Of course, that's hyperbolic, but you get the point. Hearing my daughter and her friends, who are such articulate people about to leave high school and venture forth into their lives, I have hope that they will do what the adults who are SUPPOSED TO PROTECT THEM will NOT do (for fear of what, I do not know - losing political clout?) and start insisting that guns are more difficult to purchase, start insisting that people stop treating each other like subhumans, and start insisting that we stop attacking each other simply because we are different.
So I say to these kids, go forth! Lead the way! Show the old fogies how it's done. And I'm sorry we've failed you.
I grew up in the 1970s and 80s. We did have an irrational fear of Russians nuking us, but other than that, I led a fairly fear-free childhood (well, in terms of going to school). I never worried that I'd be shot or hurt in a school building. I never had to huddle, silent, in the corner of a classroom as an armed shooter simulation played out in the hallways. Kids were mean sometimes, but none ever took that meanness so far as to shoot up schools. Many kids at my high school openly had guns and hunted. It honestly didn't occur to any of us that anyone would bring the guns to school for the purpose of shooting people.
What has happened in the last 20 years that school shooting news is commonplace and almost an accepted part of life in America? As I watched news of the latest horror in Florida, tears streamed down my face. All I could picture was my own precious children shot down in cold blood. All I could feel was the fear those students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School must have had pressing in their brains and on their hearts as they ran screaming from their school, watching classmates and teachers senselessly gunned down. I have a moment of worry every day as my kids drive off to school. Will a kid who's really hurting bring a gun today and shoot them? Would a potential shooter think about what amazing people he planned to murder?
People like to blame guns/social media/video games for these shootings, but the real answer has to lie much deeper. From what I've seen in my years of teaching in several states across the country, kids are isolated in general and pressures are so high to achieve more and more from a very young age. School standards are not developmentally appropriate. Kids have fewer and less forceful consequences for their behavior, and more poor behavior is tolerated much longer than it should be. Parents aren't as present, despite the reputation of helicoptering over their offspring. These, plus the relative ease of availability of firearms and other weapons, add up to disaster.
The question is what can we do about it? People are tired of platitudes, if my Facebook feed is any indication (one friend threatened to unfriend anyone who offered up "thoughts and prayers" to Florida families, and I have no doubt he was serious). I feel so helpless and bereft of ideas. The reality is that gun laws are unlikely to change much, despite the clear need for stricter regulations, and if my criminal brother is any reflection of the overall criminal element, changes in laws are unlikely to keep people determined to get their hands on a weapon from procuring one - legally or not. And then there's the whole political issue of NRA contributions.
I do think we need better, government-subsidized mental health interventions and threats made by people to be taken seriously and investigated - a news update tells me that several tips were sent to the FBI about the Florida shooter (I refuse to write his name) that were simply filed away. Yes, it takes time to follow up. Yes, many of the tips will turn out to be nothing to worry about. But are we willing to take that chance? I look at the faces of my children. They trust me to keep them from unsafe places - and I send them to school every day. I hate the nagging worry that I may be willfully sending them into the firestorm of a hurting person who sees no other way to work through the pain. As a teacher, I worry about the safety of the 25 young people in my care every day. I'm trained on what to do in case of such a situation. I don't ever want to use it. I WILL go out of my way to get help for any kid I see who I think needs it. I WILL talk to my kids EVERY DAY and make sure they're connected to other people and find out what's happening in their schools. Some of the things they share are shocking; some are not. I WILL report anything weird I hear that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I WILL e-mail and call local, state, and national representatives to express my concerns as a mother and a teacher, and I encourage you to do the same. Please put down devices and really TALK to your kids. Get them (or their friends) help. Make sure they're connected and invested in their school and community through activities and sports. Take action if you hear anything untoward. Call for mental health services and stricter gun regulations - what does a teenager need with a gun anyway outside of parental supervision?
Personally, I don't trust our current administration to do much more than cry crocodile tears as part of a media show. Any change needs to start with local action and grow from there. Any change needs to begin in the hearts of today's kids.
During a typical drive with my daughter, age 16, I found myself embroiled in a conversation with her about quantum physics, alternate realities, and Schrodinger's cat. She has long been obsessed with all these ideas (as well as One Direction and nature documentaries), and loves to engage in esoteric, philosophical conversation with me as we cruise through our small, bucolic town in my Ford Flex.
I found myself thinking quite a lot about Schrodinger and his cat - how the cat can be both alive and dead, but the reality isn't revealed until one opens the box. I'm particularly interested in the Uncertainly Principle, and often I ponder is what my reality would be like if I had opened different boxes along the way. What would life be like if I hadn't had the kids? If I hadn't moved back to Indiana a few years ago? If I'd followed a different career path? Do I even understand the Uncertainty Principle enough to be discussing it, or am I getting it all wrong? Can we be both particles and waves at the same time? Arrrgh.
One possible reality is pretty grim. I do spend time fantasizing about the ease of life with no husband or kids, how I'd wantonly stay up late on school nights and buy white silk furniture and blow all my money on books. But I also know that I have a tendency toward disorder, overconsumption of snack foods, and an irresistible draw to cats and kittens. When I really think about it, I realize that I'd be a top contender for (likely multiple) guest appearances on Hoarders, My 600 Pound Life, and My Strange Addiction. Having a husband and kids limits my cat ownership to ONE, allows me to delegate cleaning to multiple sources, and my teens eat all the snacks before I can get to them. So I'm grateful I have this reality in my personal life. I shudder to think of who would take care of my 600-pound body and all the cats in the alternate realm, especially if there is only one narrow path to my bedroom among all the detritus of my life.
The staying in New England reality is a little more difficult to find fault with. Except as a single mom (at that time), economic circumstances would've dictated that I live with three growing kids in a tiny apartment in a questionable area of town, not the beach house existence of my dreams. So I guess I'm grateful for midwestern home prices and lower cost of living.
Career-wise, I've always imagined myself as a brilliant, tortured artist selling millions of books that make little sense and are therefore regarded as masterpieces (ie: Finnegan's Wake) and afford the reality of white silk furniture and all the books I want, but that the kids (whom I've decided to keep - see above) would destroy. I also really like to sleep, and my research on brilliant, tortured artists reveals that they work for days on end without sleeping or eating (and we've already established my affinity for snacks). Also, they have to work in the summer, so in the end I'm grateful for my teaching job and relative non-brilliance (though PLEASE FEEL FREE TO BUY AND READ THE BOOKS I'VE WRITTEN. See: Cate in Flux page on this site, and look for my second book to be published in March - they sort of make sense and are full of dark humor, some mild gore, and romance).
At the end of the day, I'm glad for my reality, as chaotic and exhausting and unpredictable as it can be. For now, I'll just leave the cat in the box and choose to believe it's alive. And I'll watch a little reality TV to distract myself from smart stuff that I don't know if I understand or not.
It's winter in Indiana, so there's nothing to do except go to the mall and try mightily to avoid chain restaurants. I loathe winter, with its cold, gray expanse of desolation. Every winter is the winter of my discontent, but there's an awful lot going on at the mall if one just pays attention.
In my last couple of visits to the Fancy Mall (aka Keystone at the Crossing, a mecca of stores that people loiter in, but cannot actually afford any of the merchandise brazenly priced above middle-class affordability), I've noticed that there are men who just sit in ergonomically correct chairs, looking lost and forlorn, holding purses and shopping bags as their wives/significant others shop. These men have eyes fixed in the million mile stare, their mouths slackjawed, shoulders rounded from years of mall-sitting and staring at devices as they while away countless hours waiting. They make sidelong eye contact with their fellow sufferers, ostensibly wishing they lived somewhere with something remotely exciting to do, lamenting their Hoosierness as I do.
I want to reach out to them, to tell them they're not alone. That I, too, trudge through the shiny stores avoiding the chirpy cheeriness of avaricious salespeople, wishing for something more out of life as I crumple onto a chair from sheer ennui. I imagine such groupings at all the malls across the world, and my heart goes out to these soldiers of love, enduring artificial light for hours for adoration of their counterparts.
Last weekend, while strolling the mall with my dear darling husband (who is of perpetually good cheer to counterbalance my perpetual crankiness), I noticed that some of the men had trainees with them. Boys ranging in age from about 8-16 joined their future selves on said ergonomic chairs, tapping away at their phones and affecting the "mall face" so prevalent on a frigid Saturday in the heartland. Where, I wondered, are all these men and their trainees from, and for whom are they waiting? Is this something passed from father to son? There don't seem to be enough people in the stores to pair with all the chair-sitters. Do these men come to the mall alone just to sit with their cronies and wait for no one? Do they have nothing better to do? I make up stories about them as I try to figure out which lady goes with which man (In my mind, the sitters are straight; I don't know why). Are they here of their own volition? Is it their own personal purgatory? Do they make friends? These questions plague me.
I wanted to toss my purse and a shopping bag at my husband, and task him with infiltrating one of the klatches to find out the stories. I floated the plan to him, and he replied, "But I want to spend time with you - and our movie starts in just a few minutes." Another question - why does this gem of a man like me so much? Perhaps that is an even bigger mystery... but I digress.
According to Punxsutawney Phil, there is still way more winter than anyone deserves going forth. This will mean many trips to malls "just to get out of the house" and continue my sociological study of the chair- sitters. Perhaps I'll ply them with some fro-yo from Pinkberry so they'll accept me as one of their own and allow me to study their psyches. I'll get back to you with my findings.
Courtney is a most fabulous writer and teacher of gifted middle school students. She is the author of two novels - see the "Cate Books" page of this site for information! Watch for updates about future books that need to be part of your personal library. In the meanwhile, enjoy her pithy life observations.