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.]

Bowing Out of the Learning Circle.

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My experiences in my first six years as a school teacher 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.

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

My final school as a teacher 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.

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

Moreover, my paradigm had shifted. What has been seen cannot be unseen, and all that jazz. I had realized several truths:

  • 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 bright, innocent, bubbly students 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. I was approached by a small group of mothers in my new neighborhood to “homeschool” their three fifth graders… two of whom had been in my class at the school the year prior. 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. Since no one was readily available, so I agreed to continue until we found a replacement. Last week, circumstances arose which propelled me to say, finally, “No more.” I collected my belongings and hugged the children goodbye. They understand. For now, the other teacher, Ed, has taken over my classes.

I am no longer a school teacher.

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

Here’s to the journey.

May you live with light, love, goodness and beauty every hour, every day, every week, every month, every year of your life.

I wish happiness to all those I love
I wish happiness to all humans
I wish happiness to this divine planet
I wish happiness to God and to the universe

What an extraordinary universe we live in!

~Robert Muller

Why We Don’t Believe in School Anymore

Although we are grateful for our educations and experiences as students and teachers in traditional schools, here’s why we don’t want to work within schools anymore, ever again, nor want our children or grandchildren to be subjected to the tyranny of the classroom.

Michelle’s Story

School worked for me. I was always on the honor roll, a teacher’s pet, a nerd, an academic achiever, a lover of reading, writing and math (until trigonometry). I liked school and made many wonderful friends there. I graduated near the top of my gigantic class in 1998 in a suburb of Austin and immediately matriculated at the University of Texas, all of 20 miles from my childhood doorstep.

Going back into the classroom in 2004 as a substitute teacher and then in 2006 as a certified, full-time, bilingual elementary school teacher for me, at first, was like a sweet homecoming, bringing back cheerful memories of my early school days. So why wouldn’t I want that same experience for my daughter?

Well, even though the 1980s weren’t that long ago, our world has changed drastically. The internet mushroomed. The planet is facing dire environmental crises and by that I mean the System and the ecosystem are on the verge of destruction. We cannot, should not and will not stand back and watch helplessly.

But what can we do? We can and we must… connect with our local communities and increase the sustainability of our lifestyles through becoming way more mindful about the foods we are eating, the liquids we are drinking, the clothes we are wearing, the products we are purchasing, the mode of transportation we are using… and the education (formal and informal) that we are giving our children.

As a teacher, I gradually became more disillusioned each year of my career. After just three years in a low-income, public elementary school in south Austin, I fled the district, state and even country. Working at an elite, private K-12 school in Guatemala City for the next three years, I had access to incredible resources and made some amazing friends, yet I felt more and more clear on the fact that the traditional, “American-school” style of classroom education was not for me. My last stop on the education career merry-go-round was at a small, private school in rural Guatemala, near the shores of gorgeous Lake Atitlan. My first two years there, in retrospect, felt like utopia to me, thanks to small class sizes and a caring, close-knit community of fabulous folks. In contrast, my third year was a nightmare. Leadership and almost the entire staff changed, as did much of the student body, and we were left without the core of compassionate community that had sustained us.

I realized that even a very small, progressive school that teaches “global citizenship” and promotes peacemaking (in theory, at least), is still a school, and still just simply does not work for the vast majority of learners.

I am still a teacher and a mentor. I am also a mother, which clearly did help shift my perspective on education as I contemplated what I want for my girl. I am excited to never again have to coerce kids to sit still, nor make them line up like little soldiers, nor force them ask my permission to use the bathroom or get a drink of water. I am blessed to have this opportunity, yet I have also made it happen through my choices which have led me to drop out of the system and to try and encourage others to unite in a new learning experiment here in our neighborhood. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Kat’s Story 

School also worked for me. Because I was a hard worker. Apparently, I was even well-rounded. I was the top academic athlete in my school year after year. I even got a full ride scholarship to play soccer in the U.S. After the degree came the career, the house, the car, the husband… then the depression, illness, divorce and desperation to figure out who the hell I really was and what this “real” world was really about.

My teachers and coaches were right. Hard work did bring me success, but I wasn’t satisfied with society’s superficial version of happiness. By this point, I had read, travelled and seen too much injustice and exploitation to accept the textbooks’ versions of truth. Everything I had ever learned and worked for was a lie, an illusion, complete bullshit. I was angry, fragmented, full of contradictions. That didn’t feel like me either, so through trial and error (and reading, writing, hiking, relaxing and meditating – and yes, counselling), I learned to love.

Once upon a time, school worked for me, so much so, that I had decided to work for it. Initially, I wanted to help students gain opportunities to further their education, like I had. It was my way of giving back. But at the end of the day, between mandatory tests, curriculum, and policies and procedures, I felt I had little left to give, regardless of how creatively I approached the content. Some teachers do somehow manage to create more than consumers from within the educational system. Maybe, for some time, I was even one of them.

But when it came time to relocating, again, and submitting my collection of certificates (this time to teach in B.C., Canada, not the U.S. or Guatemala or Costa Rica), I noticed that my heart wasn’t in it (maybe it never had been and I had previously let my mind boss me around). When my teaching certificate became due for some upgrades, I got trained in NLP instead; courses in unlearning seemed more intriguing than learning about lesson plans and assessments. There weren’t even teaching job openings here anyway, so this time, everything – but school – worked out.

I fell in love – not only with myself or with life this time. I started writing more. I moved, again, this time to a small town in the mountains. I spent more time at home, learning how to garden and preserve food. I began to dream of having a child, an integrated child who will be free to become who he or she is. I’m not claiming a happy-ever-after, but this could be the beginning of a new way…

Where did you go to school? What are your feelings on your school experiences? What would your ideal learning environment look like?