Another school shooting: What can we do?
A few weeks ago, my 14-year-old son got called into the principal’s office.
He was sitting in class when the boy next to him put a clay penis on his desk. My son did what any immature eighth-grade boy would do: He put it on the desk of a girl next to him – a friend of his.
She thought it was funny and then decided to get the first boy in trouble by going to the teacher with it. Both my son and the potter were punished.
My son’s friend told me the claymaker is the kind of kid who’s always in trouble and doesn’t have many friends. Then you need to be his friend, I told him. He needs friends. I told my son he should have put the offending art back on the boy’s desk. And now that it was over, he should still be that boy’s friend.
My son has also talked about another kid whom he says gets bullied a lot at Irving Middle School – a school whose anti-bullying program was featured on a national television show. I asked Jacob whether he’d tried to be the boy’s friend, and he said he did, but the boy said, “I’ve heard that before.” He’d learned not to trust kids, even those offering to help.
My son could easily be one of those kids who gets bullied – he has a disease called alopecia that makes him bald. Through the grace of God, I guess, he is not bullied. In fact, he has more friends than I can keep track of.
When I hear about school shootings – like the one in Millard yesterday, in which 17-year-old Robert Butler Jr. (formerly of Lincoln) shot and killed an administrator, wounded another administrator and then killed himself – I think of kids without friends.
Today, kids in schools and parents at work all over Lincoln will be talking about what happened in Omaha. We’ll all wring our hands and try to wrap our brains around what happened – wishing for an answer to the question, “Why?”
On a day like today, I think of those kids – and adults – on the margins of society, and wish I was doing more for them.
When school shootings happen, my husband always thinks back to his first year as a high school English teacher. He had this smiley kid who always talked to him before and after classes to the point of annoyance. The kid was a likable but insecure C student, a semi-skilled wrestler who had the acne to prove it.
A semester later, the sophomore killed himself over a dispute at home and with a girlfriend. Like in a suspense movie, the shocking ending forced my husband to think back to all the clues that led up to it that made it almost inevitable. After that suicide, he felt an almost oppressive need to get to know every one of his 187 students and make his classroom a safe haven for all students. The education system – with its factory-like approach to school — made that difficult and he felt like he was placed in a position in which he could only do the best he could. He felt a bit helpless.
I can’t figure it out, and neither can you, but I can still do something. How about we reach out to people on the margins. To that kid who sits alone at lunch and isn’t involved in any sports or clubs and who acts like they’d like to be left alone, but inside they’re dying for a friend.
A coworker once told me about her cripplingly shy son, who hardly talked to anyone at school. One day he told her he’d figured out what he was going to say if anyone ever tried to talk to him. She and I both had tears in our eyes as we talked in the break room.
That story breaks my heart – to think that nobody had really tried to strike up a friendship with him or just be kind to him? Maybe he’s exaggerating, but perception is reality for a teenager.
Instead of focusing on having perfectly straightened hair or the right brand of jeans or a boyfriend or straight As or a starting spot on the basketball team, today (and every day) students can do something to help.
They can make an effort to reach outside of their circle of friends, and make a new one. You know who needs a friend — go be that friend. They may not be perfect and they may be socially awkward or even downright weird — but you’re not perfect either and the weird people are often the most interesting.
You don’t have to become BFFs or go on a date or even hang out. Just think about how good it makes you feel when someone just says something nice to you (“I like your haircut.” “Cute jeans”). It can make your day. Make life seem better.
We all need a support system — friends, parents, somebody, anybody who’s there when we’re falling, falling, falling and ready to crash. Somebody who cares. Somebody who’s there to catch us.
Tragedy has struck in the schools again, just as we’re beginning a new year. This seems like a good time for all of us to resolve to reach out to others, just a little bit more. Especially if they don’t look like us, they don’t act like us and they don’t seem like they fit in at all.
It may not prevent another school shooting, but it may make someone’s life just a little bit better, if only for awhile.