* This post may have triggers in for some – if you are at all worried or affected by anything in this post, please seek help from The Samaritans, Beyond Blue or your local support service, including your GP
I’ve had an odd weekend. The two things I’m going to write about aren’t linked per se, but in my mind they’re swirling around together. Images all mixed up, words still sounding in my head that I’ve read and now can’t unread. This may be a jumble, but I can’t edit it, I just need to get it out. Hence me putting the warning at the top of the post, I can’t go back and read this to sort it out. If you’ve any doubts, please do not read on – or indeed, stop when you’re uncomfortable.
This Marilyn Manson quote popped up in my Tumblr feed on Saturday. Michael Moore made a documentary over gun control called “Bowling for Columbine,” where he was looking for answers as to why the kids would do something so horrific and wondered if America’s culture could have something to do with it. In the documentary, he interviewed Marilyn Manson and asked, “What if the kids at Columbine were here today, what would you say to them?”
Marilyn Manson replied, “I wouldn’t say anything. I’d listen to them, which nobody else did.”
For someone who’s music and influence on teenagers has been soundly vilified in the press, make that hounded, it is an extraordinarily aware and conscious thought. There is no bitterness behind it, just recognition. Recognition that to be on the outside of the ‘in-crowd’ the clique when you’re at school is a horribly lonely, sad place to be. If you don’t fit in, it doesn’t matter what you do, you will never fit in. All my life, I’ve been on the outside, not quite making it to the in-crowd, bullied at school for being tall, for the size of my feet, for being clumsy, for my laugh, for not having the right clothes, shoes, hairstyle, family car, for my traditional name even. Words do hurt you, they wound and maim for far longer than sticks and stones ever will.
The funny thing about Marilyn Manson? Neither boy had his music in their collection. But he was still aware enough that how he chooses to express himself through his music means that people will take a skewed view of him.
Having not been interested in the Columbine incident before, I’d been aware of it, but not really read up on it, on Saturday I progressively read through more and more articles online, each one leading like a breadcrumb to the next. Hence the images and words I now cannot un-see or hear in my mind. I’m fine about it, a little quieter maybe, but that is due to processing the information that I’ve read, not through what I’ve seen. On Saturday I told Hubs that I’d been reading about it, just in case I woke up overnight with a nightmare. In the end, I didn’t. I just felt unutterably sad for the people involved. Including the two boys that did it.
Many people have red rage when they’re constantly excluded. Many people commit stupid acts to get attention that they need help because they’re not being heard or if they’re being heard, they not being listened to. Not properly. The two boys broke into a van and stole items from it, they asked friends who were aged 18 to buy guns, one father found a pipe bomb at home, from what I’ve read – alarm bells were ringing in multiple places, but the pieces didn’t fit together enough. What is enough? If your teenage son had made a pipe bomb and you found it then asked him what it was for, would you tell him off? Or when he told you it was for a science experiment, would you talk him through with it and show an interest in what he was doing? It’s a tough call. Many parents would choose the former route. If you were a teacher in a school and you noticed no-one wanted to sit next to someone in class, what would you do?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, the clues were there that these two boys Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold needed someone to reach towards them and help them transition to adulthood painlessly. But when does that start? 6, 7, 8 years old? Or 16, 17, 18 years old? With an age now of more and more children having their own phones and tablets linked to the internet, TVs and computers in their bedrooms, do we actually know more about what they’re doing now, or less than in 1999? I would hesitate a guess as we know less about what our children are doing in and on their own time than ever before.
There is a whole community of people, primarily young adults, who are fascinated about the Columbine incident. They pour over the 11,000 documents made available, and are waiting for more information to be released when statute has been reached. This in itself is worrying parents who can’t understand the fascination about the whole thing. But like me, maybe they see themselves in the Eric and Dylan? On the outside, looking in. Wondering what they have to do to be accepted? But now, people remain angry that Eric and Dylan were able to do what they did, that they could amass so much weaponry. But to me, they are two separate issues. Eric and Dylan went looking for a way, bent the rules time and again, people were concerned, worried, but still it happened.
Teenagers are having a hell of a time. The amount of hormonal changes that are going on render them helpless in life a lot of the time. They struggle to understand what is happening to their bodies, wondering when their periods are going to start, how big their boobs will be, will they speak with a deep voice or a squeaky one today, and pubic hair, no-one in any video they may see online has pubic hair any more. How do you explain that them? That it is normal, when everything around them is telling them it isn’t? That life is to be lived, relished and chewed over with people you care about.
Which brings me to the second issue that I’m struggling with. The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Which left me in tears this morning. Too many people struggle with drug and alcohol addiction for it to sit comfortably with me. Alcohol is somewhat easier to reconcile, it’s everywhere. Sponsorship for most sporting events in Australia will have at least one drink sponsor. It’s in people’s homes, people go out and celebrate at the drop of a hat with a beer in a stubby holder, or a glass of wine. Alcohol is filling A&E departments every weekend, putting strain on an already strained system. I could go on about licencing laws, but I’m not going to, I want to talk about the absolute lowlifes who think it is appropriate behaviour to suggest to someone that they try this, it’s great.
There must be people in the crowd at parties and functions who go to them with the sole purpose of passing drugs onto others. Tom Chaplin from Keane has been open about how his struggle with drugs began, he was approached and asked to try something… So it must happen in lots of different circles. People still think that drug taking is like Trainspotting, and for some people it is, they live from support check to support check, stealing to supplement their habit along the way. But other people have money because they’re in the entertainment industry or the city, and people with drugs go looking for the vulnerable people who as soon as they take it, they’re gone. And it is a long, long way back to sobriety.
Philip Seymour Hoffman said last year that he was hopeful of beating this. Somewhere along the line, he fell backwards. Someone gave him access to what is suspected to be heroin. If you’re selling drugs, you won’t care that someone is trying to lift themselves out of it, it’s just a transaction to you. But to the person buying it – it is their life. Their precious life.
Aside from wanting to smack seven bells out the person who sold it to him, I want to smack seven bells out the person who gleefully told the gory details to the press.
One thing I’ve learned this weekend? Life is valuable, you need to watch out for people. If someone doesn’t seem right to you, ask them if they’re ok. And if they look like they’re fobbing you off; persist, gently and kindly to tell them when they need you, THAT YOU WILL BE THERE FOR THEM. Then carry on checking in with them. Repeatedly. Be in their lives, be a sticky beak, be persistent.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for listening. If I lost you with some of the content, I’m sorry. I tried to be circumspect with what I wrote, the information is there if you really want to find it. I wasn’t expecting to find all that I did about Columbine. I could have stopped reading, but as the parent of a boy who will grow up to be a teenager then a man, it is my responsibility, with Hubs, to ensure that he gets there as whole a person as possible. Be a sticky beak, it might be all that loved one needs to stay on the straight and narrow. But, I’m going to leave you with this – how one teacher picked up on the children who could fall through the cracks.
A few weeks ago, I went into Chase’s class for tutoring.
I’d emailed Chase’s teacher one evening and said, “Chase keeps telling me that this stuff you’re sending home is math – but I’m not sure I believe him. Help, please.” She emailed right back and said, “No problem! I can tutor Chase after school anytime.” And I said, “No, not him. Me. He gets it. Help me.” And that’s how I ended up standing at a chalkboard in an empty fifth grade classroom staring at rows of shapes that Chase’s teacher kept referring to as “numbers.”
I stood a little shakily at the chalkboard while Chase’s teacher sat behind me, perched on her desk, using a soothing voice to try to help me understand the “new way we teach long division.” Luckily for me, I didn’t have to unlearn much because I never really understood the “old way we taught long division.” It took me a solid hour to complete one problem, but l could tell that Chase’s teacher liked me anyway. She used to be a NASA scientist (true story) so obviously we have a whole lot in common.
Afterwards, we sat for a few minutes and talked about teaching children and what a sacred trust and responsibility it is. We agreed that subjects like math and reading are the least important things that are learned in a classroom. We talked about shaping little hearts to become contributors to a larger community – and we discussed our mutual dream that those communities might be made up of individuals who are Kind and Brave above all.
And then she told me this.
Every Friday afternoon Chase’s teacher asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student whom they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.
And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, Chase’s teacher takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her and studies them. She looks for patterns.
Who is not getting requested by anyone else?
Who doesn’t even know who to request?
Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or “exceptional citizens.” Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down- right away- who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.
As a teacher, parent, and lover of all children – I think that this is the most brilliant Love Ninja strategy I have ever encountered. It’s like taking an X-ray of a classroom to see beneath the surface of things and into the hearts of students. It is like mining for gold – the gold being those little ones who need a little help – who need adults to step in and TEACH them how to make friends, how to ask others to play, how to join a group, or how to share their gifts with others. And it’s a bully deterrent because every teacher knows that bullying usually happens outside of her eyeshot – and that often kids being bullied are too intimidated to share. But as she said – the truth comes out on those safe, private, little sheets of paper.
As Chase’s teacher explained this simple, ingenious idea – I stared at her with my mouth hanging open. “How long have you been using this system?” I said.
Ever since Columbine, she said. Every single Friday afternoon since Columbine.
This brilliant woman watched Columbine knowing that ALL VIOLENCE BEGINS WITH DISCONNECTION. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness. She watched that tragedy KNOWING that children who aren’t being noticed will eventually resort to being noticed by any means necessary.
And so she decided to start fighting violence early and often, and with the world within her reach. What Chase’s teacher is doing when she sits in her empty classroom studying those lists written with shaky 11 year old hands – is SAVING LIVES. I am convinced of it. She is saving lives.
And what this former NASA scientist and mathematician has learned while using this system is something she really already knew: that everything – even love, even belonging – has a pattern to it. And she finds those patterns through those lists – she breaks the codes of disconnection. And then she gets lonely kids the help they need. It’s math to her. It’s MATH.
All is love- even math. Amazing.
Chase’s teacher retires this year – after decades of saving lives. What a way to spend a life: looking for patterns of love and loneliness. Stepping in, every single day- and altering the trajectory of our world.
TEACH ON, WARRIORS. You are the first responders, the front line, the disconnection detectives, and the best and ONLY hope we’ve got for a better world. What you do in those classrooms when no one is watching- it’s our best hope.
Teachers- you’ve got a million parents behind you whispering together: “We don’t care about the damn standardized tests. We only care that you teach our children to be Brave and Kind. And we thank you. We thank you for saving lives.”