17 Years since Columbine

{First published on elephant journal}

Dylan Klebold was 17 and Eric Harris 18 when they walked into their high school in suburban Denver, planted huge bombs concealed in duffel bags in the cafeteria that would have killed and maimed hundreds had they exploded, then shot dozens of people on the school grounds and killed 15, including 12 peers, one teacher and themselves.

Columbine was a failed bombing that became the worst school shooting in history. At the time. In the decade post-Columbine, over 80 school shootings occurred in the U.S., not to mention the plethora of mass massacres at other venues like cinemas, churches and airports.

I was finishing up my freshman year of college at UT at the time of the tragedy. I vaguely recall seeing televised aerial footage of the vast campus, kids barely younger than me embracing and sobbing, overcome with shock and sadness. I remember that it was a big deal.

I’ve read two books on Columbine in the past few months, one a journalistic review of the event, killers, victims and aftermath, the other a heartbreaking and surprisingly compelling account written by the mother of one of the killers, Dylan.

Sue Klebold’s A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy was written with 16 years of perspective on the day that forever altered her life and the lives of countless others in the community. She writes of praying for her son to kill himself once it dawned on her that he was on a shooting rampage and hurting others, yet she could not fully come to grips with the fact that he would intentionally harm and kill people until being shown “The Basement Tapes” by the police, months after the murders. These several segments of home video “produced” by Eric and Dylan in the weeks prior to Columbine tell of their evil plans and blare their hatred for society and particular individuals at the school (none of whom were injured or killed in the attack).

“Eric Harris appears to have been a homicidal psychopath, and Dylan Klebold, a suicidal depressive, and their disparate madnesses were each other’s necessary condition.” ~ Sue Klebold

“An angry, erratic depressive and a sadistic psychopath make a combustible pair.”
~ Dave Cullen

The multitude of media myths around Columbine are thoroughly outline in Columbine by Dave Cullen, a fascinating book that was clearly meticulously researched. Published in 2009, it is a comprehensive, narrative take on the matter.

Having absorbed these two volumes, it is obvious that the underlying root problem in mass murders/school shootings/terrorist attacks—any type of violence, really—is what Sue Klebold calls brain illness or brain disease. (As opposed to “mental illness.” Or “crazy f*cked up in the head.”)

This is something I know intimately. It hardly seems possible looking out from my eyes at my life today and the relative balance, serenity and contentment I’ve attained (balanced, of course, with periods of worry, frustration and confusion)… but for a solid 9 years, maybe more, beginning at the stroke of turning 20, I wrestled with a variety of brain demons: namely, depression, anxiety and mania. Eleven years ago, in mid-April 2005, I was committed to the Austin State Hospital for ten days during a textbook manic episode.

Brain disease is not limited to tumors. Mental illness is a brain disease. Whatever you call it, it is a huge issue among humanity that affects all of us.

Not “so many.”

All.

Even those of us who may or may not have a diagnosed brain illness and who look at murderers and terrorists as some alien entity, some “other” that does not pertain to us, an enemy of goodness and society.

My own personal mind’s disease was not homicidal or suicidal. It didn’t reach that depth. Most depressed people just turn their anger inward and hate themselves, a sentiment painfully chronicled by Dylan Klebold in his journal. (Both Columbine killers left behind mountains of written documentation.) The most frequently used word in Dylan’s notebook was “love,” while Eric’s diary’s first line stated, “I fucking hate the world,” and he goes on to fantasize about offing all humans from the face of the earth.

“Our current story facilitates the rise of psychopathy and empowers the psychopath. … We must act in order to take away their power and change the system.”
~ Charles Eisenstein

The media coverage of the Columbine shooting and the details released about the killers, their preparations, and the execution of their sinister plans have led to a large amount of copycat killings. Other teenage boys who see them as heroes, which is exactly what Eric envisioned and intended.

According to Malcolm Gladwell’s chilling New Yorker essay Thresholds of Violence, “The sociologist Ralph Larkin argues that Harris and Klebold laid down the “cultural script” for the next generation of shooters. …Their motivations were spelled out with grandiose specificity: Harris said he wanted to “kick-start a revolution.” Larkin looked at the twelve major school shootings in the United States in the eight years after Columbine, and he found that in eight of those subsequent cases the shooters made explicit reference to Harris and Klebold.”

So, one thing that we can do at the individual level is not glorify the killers. Not watch news programs or channels that do so. Not obsess over their faces and names. Not give them the spotlight. Ironically, Eric and Dylan have the spotlight in these two books and in the annals of recent history. By studying them, we can begin to approach an understanding of what happened, and why and how it happened. Changing gun laws would help. Preventing, recognizing and effectively treating brain illness would help more.

In conclusion, there is no conclusion.

Columbine was 17 years ago: April 20, 1999.

Where were you that day? Where were we? And where are we now?

Sue Klebold has devoted her life to loving and understanding her lost son and grieving for his victims and their families. Her book goes into some depth around raising awareness of brain illnesses, especially in adolescents and teens, and suicide prevention and support for the families and friends of suicide victims. She does not take responsibility for her son’s actions but seeks and finds a number of warning signs in retrospect, of course. More than anything, her book shows that violent tragedy can strike even in a loving family and seemingly tranquil community.

Anything can happen to us at any time. How can we move through the moments and experiences with grace and presence? How can we live from the heart and inspire and encourage others to do the same? How can we help those lost among us who are disconnected from their hearts—before another senseless tragedy occurs?

Confessions of an Ex-schoolteacher

What is the good of learning if in the process we are destroying ourselves?  ~J. Krishnamurti

old-teacher

I had a commonsense realization a few months into my full-time advertising career. Advertising breeds consumerism, and consumerism is destroying the world, or at the very least not helping to make it a better place. I was a writer, paid to put words together in a clever, coherent way. Yet, I was going out of my mind, hating every minute I had to sit in front of the screen and attempt creativity on call, corner office or no corner office.

So I did what needed to be done: I moved to California. Relocated my existence to Silicon Valley, of all places. There I taught yoga classes galore and supplemented my income with myriad odd jobs, including temping (very temporarily) at Google, valet car parking and substitute school teaching.

I enjoyed the experience of subbing. I would go all over the Bay area to all kinds of classrooms and schools. I spent single days with kids from kindergarten to high school. I thrived on the variety and appreciated the noncommittal aspect of the job.

Then, summer vacation came, life intervened and threw me for a loop. Next thing I knew, I was back in Austin, working in marketing again. I had a grey cubicle in a grey office in a grey building.

I was making money but drowning in boredom.

Long story short, my dad gave me a newspaper clipping of an ad (ironic) for an alternative teaching certification program to which I applied and was accepted into the bilingual teaching cadre. I had to brush up on my Spanish, big time. I learned all about classroom management, pedagogy, learning styles, lesson planning and curriculum.

Nine months later, I was released into the wild and in charge of my very own bilingual third grade classroom.

The individual is of first importance, not the system. ~ J. Krishnamurti

My experiences at that school, and the next one where I worked in Guatemala City, showed me unequivocally that the system is of first importance in a traditional school setting—not the individual. Testing took precedence over learning. Administrators admonished teachers with frequent reminders of the rules and references to the employee handbook.

Students’ needs—even basic, primary needs like hunger—were ignored until they could no longer be ignored.

My third and final school as a teacher is located in the western Guatemalan highlands and has former UN undersecretary Robert Muller as its namesake. He developed the “World Core Curriculum,” which is used by a handful of schools across the globe.

Below are two of his quotes, to give you a sense of his philosophy:

To students of political science: forget completely about any textbooks ever written, any systems ever devised, any ideologies ever constructed, for none of their authors knew the entirely new, planetary, global and scientific conditions of today. You will have to write the new textbooks, devise the new systems and construct the new ideology needed for our time. Old ideas will only confuse and blind you. ~ Robert Muller

Midway through my third year at this third school, the veil was lifted. I saw, painfully clearly, just how corrupt this wannabe utopian school actually is.

Moreover, my paradigm had shifted. What has been seen cannot be unseen, and all that jazz. New shit had come to light: school is oppressive.

School is not the answer. School is a bully. School is not the way to a good quality education.

So I got out. But in a messy, dramatic way that made me the talk of the town for a while. I literally heard strangers gossiping about me as I strolled down the street.

I missed my students, those bright, innocent, bubbly children but felt free from an unhealthy, borderline unsafe work environment.

My liberation from the school was a catalyst in our search for and purchase of a tiny cabin across the lake from where we’d lived when I was teaching. I was approached by a small group of mothers in my new neighborhood to “homeschool” their three fifth graders. I gladly agreed, and we embarked on the new project in September.

For the first month, it was like a honeymoon. The site of the new “school” was my neighbor’s lakefront house, a mere 10-minute walk from my front door. The kids would jump into the lake at recess for a quick swim. I took the plunge along with them a couple times, too. We did a lot of bonding, team building, mindfulness, free writing, and poetry. I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to them.

But by late October, it was becoming clear that the project and I were moving in opposite directions. I was wanting to get more into project-based, student-led learning while the parents were wanting more structure, formal assessment and disciplined studies of spelling, grammar and reading for their kids.

We mutually decided it would be best for another English teacher to take over, but no one was readily available, so I agreed to continue until we found a replacement. Just last week, something happened which propelled me to say, “no more.” I collected my belongings and hugged the children goodbye on Monday.

I am no longer a school teacher.

I am still, and always will be, a teacher and a learner.

[Originally published on EnlightenEd and elephant journal.]

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