Friday, March 9, 2012

The Kids Are Not Alright

Two days ago, a 16 year old student attending Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California, the school where I graduated from more than a decade ago, was arrested for an alleged plot to kill two students whom he claimed bullied him and a teacher who had recently given him a bad grade.The kid was said to be upset about the recent death of his grandmother and there was mention of something to do with medication. In the end, no charges will be filed, no students or teachers were harmed and this young man, supposedly one of the brightest in the school has been expelled.

In 2009, I was sitting in an Admin meeting at the school where I work at, just after learning that a student at Dalton, one of if not the most prestigious high school in New York, jumped from an eleventh story window he pried open landing in front of a bunch of fourth graders about to play. He was known as a physics prodigy, a three-sport elite athlete, someone that held more than potential, but promise.

Last week, in Ohio, a seventeen year old student came into his high school and (supposedly at random) killed three students and injured two others. He then fled the scene and eventually gave himself up. He now stands in court, a trial that may decide to try him as an adult. Yesterday, the last of the three victims was laid to rest. 

I can remember sitting in my Economics class my senior year of high school the day two teens in Columbine, Colorado unleashed an arsenal of violence and rage on their high school resulting in the deaths of 12 students, 1 teacher and over 20 people injured, some critically. We all sat there frozen, stunned, wanting to talk about it and not wanting to talk about it. Then the details. They wore trench coats. They were bullied. They were on anti-depressants.  The handful of censored goth kids at out Catholic-uniformed school were suddenly suspect. Trench coats were no longer allowed. There were always kids bullied. There were the kids we knew were depressed, but back then no one was on medication other than accutane and birth control. Or if they were, they certainly weren't talking about it. And then there were the kids that just hid everything really well. I remember our economics teacher saying, "That could happen here. You think you're safe from something like that?" We had two months before graduating and suddenly, the idea of surviving high school took on an "otherness." We all knew this wasn't a one-time event. We knew this was something that could happen to us, could happen at any high school. We knew it would happen again, because the kids are not alright.

Every time I read one of these stories, I stop before I get to the end. I flip the channel. My stomach drops ever so slightly, the hair on my arms stands on end, my hands get cold. Everyday kids are bombarded with the pressure to become "something." Become popular, become pretty, become a champion, become an Ivy league student, become heterosexual, become successful, become happy, become thin, become a rebel, become funny, become perfect, become a gang member, become a graduate, become a soldier, become someone better than your parents. Become...because what you are is not good enough, because what you can be is so much better, because you're perfect and you deserve it, because if you don't become something, you will be nothing or at least end up with nothing. There is so much fear with every step down those locker-adorned corridors. Even the ones that look like they have it all, sometimes are the most scared. When you have it all, what happens when you lose it? The angst, the heartbreak, the emotions, they are all so real, perhaps even more real than the angst and heartbreaks we experience later in life, because these are our firsts and everyone remembers their first.

We have a country run by big business, corporations, health insurance industries, celebrities, money. You can get Zoloft for $8 covered by insurance but a therapist is most likely going to cost you. You can get a Facebook and Twitter account for free, but a newspaper will cost you, but who wants to read those old things anyway? You can get a scholarship to college if you work hard enough, but no matter how fast you run or how many questions you get right on the SATs, you will still arrive at college with you your experiences from home, your experiences from your childhood, your experiences from high school, your ancestral karma. You can graduate at the top of your ROTC class and still end up dead four years later. You can be the son of a U.S. Air Force pilot and end up a high school killer. You can be a physics prodigy and end up as a memorial piece on the cover of New York Magazine. You can be really distraught over your Grandmother's death and really confused about the difference between a cathartic release of anger and emotion and a threat. Or you can just be a stone cold killer without any explanation that would ever make sense to the family member of a murdered loved one. You can survive high school relatively unscathed and graduate college top of your class only to find yourself lost and aimless in your twenties, not understanding your own psychological paralysis until you face the effects of a childhood without a parent. What I'm trying to say is that we are failing our kids. It is fair to say that no one could have predicted Columbine. No one could have predicted Virginia Tech or the tragic most recent killings in Ohio.  But the world has changed. The world has become increasingly more violent and increasingly more accessible, increasingly more desperate, increasingly more fearful, increasingly more...just increasingly more. The world is bearing down on those lockers and "surviving high school" is no longer a melodramatic joke or an "otherness." It is a reality. You think you're safe from something like that?

I don't know what we need, but I know we need to do better. We need to have the conversation. Some of the questions I would ask, why isn't mental health taught alongside with sex ed and phys ed? Can there be more school psychologists in high schools AND middle schools? How do we talk about bullying in a way that won't immediately induce eye-rolling? Should we re-evaluate gun laws? How the hell would that ever work? How do we alleviate the fears and pressures kids today face? Can the arts help? How do we help without blaming? How do we help without alienating, judging, assuming? How do we help? Can we help? Is there anything more we can be doing? 

I fear that maybe there is nothing that can be done to stop a kid from stepping out on that ledge, picking up that gun. But don't we as a society, have some kind of duty to examine more closely what is happening in our schools? What is happening to our kids?

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