I spent most of my childhood afraid to go to school. I was 9 years old when Columbine happened, and, unlike a lot of kids my age, I had a lot of access to and got a lot of enjoyment out of the news. I remember lots of mornings sitting at the kitchen table with my favorite red bowl filled with Cocoa Puffs looking at the pre-fluffed newspaper and pretending I was a grown-up. It was great.
But the Wednesday morning after the Tuesday massacre I didn’t like what I saw. And really quickly I became aware that I wasn’t a grown-up, not even a little bit. I was a kid. I was a kid that was eating kid-cereal. I was a kid that was eating kid-cereal before I went to spend all day at school and suddenly that in and of itself became the scariest thing in the world to me.
And I guess that’s where it started. Scared kid into scared adolescent into scared teen. All those creative ways to skip school. All those creative, cooler-than-absolute-fear reasons for why I wanted to. The way I dropped classes that didn’t have two doors. The way I always knew my exit strategy. The slamming door in d-wing. The movie “Elephant.” The images I’d see in my head. The way I never could wipe Eric and Dylan’s faces from my memory. The way my whole body would tense up when I saw something I didn’t like. The way I couldn’t shake it if I tried, couldn’t learn geometry if I wanted to, couldn’t stop thinking about it never ever no matter what I did. The guidance counselor’s message on the answering machine. And eventually the school psychologist.
I remember everything about that first meeting with him. Especially those first five-minutes when I knew he was determining if my fears were really “fears” and if I was a kid with a plan. I still resent him for some of those questions. I still resent the way some friends at the time were like “this is a pretty safe school, you shouldn’t worry about it” or how it was implied that while I was somewhat known, I wasn’t popular enough to be an actual target. Cool. Just a witness. My dream come true.
That was 2005. And the psychologist’s strategy for how to deal with me was whatever the opposite of experiential avoidance is. He essentially suggested over-exposure. I was terrified of something that wasn’t all that common at the time. So his thought was to prove to me how unlikely it was that it would ever happen to me. So he told me to read the articles about the shootings that happened. Do some research. To see for myself—school shootings are extremely uncommon.
You’re safe, little girl. Now get back to class.
Seems kind of ridiculous now, huh? I guarantee school psychologists today are seeing way more paranoid kids like me and giving them incredibly different advice. I certainly hope so. Because I’m an adult now. Out of school for two years. And I still read the articles. And in case you haven’t noticed, the stats have changed and the likelihood has increased.
These past couple weeks have been crazy. If I was still in school, I’d probably ask my parents to take me out. If I had kids in school, I’d probably take them out. I have friends who are teachers and a whole posse of middle school friends and I seriously consider asking each of them to just knock it off and stay home. Let’s all of us just knock it off and stay home, right? But that’s a band-aid. I know it is.
Nothing drives me crazier than the debates. Please don’t get me wrong and don’t get hung up on my skimming the surface political beliefs- I do absolutely think we need less access to weapons and more access to mental healthcare. I think a lot of video games are super violent and that the media does somehow glamorize the shooters in a disgusting way with those biographical pieces that make my skin crawl every time. I think the #yesallwomen movement stirred up a lot of really empowering moments and I think that Jon Meis is a hero.
I also think that people get really lost in all of that and get all hot and bothered in disagreements or hang their hat on the issues as a way to distance themselves from the actual tragedies at hand. And while I get that, I can’t do it.
I don’t know what’s going to stop school shootings. As a Christian it’s hard for me to write this. It’s hard for me to not want to just say “Ugh, they need Jesus.” “God will work in this somehow” “We just need to be praying—praying is the answer” Quite frankly, I don’t have a clue how to pray on days like this—it’s hard for me to pray about shootings. I don’t like feeling dumb and I feel dumb when I try to talk to God about something that I find to be incredibly senseless. So, I don’t. There’s that and I’m sure my Christian of the year award is en route now.
I also don’t like writing things that I don’t feel somewhat settled on. That I haven’t found some sort of landing place for. I don’t know what to do with school shootings. I don’t know how to talk about them. I don’t know how to write about them. I don’t know how to string together cognizant sentences about something that somehow still baffles me. I mean, I’ve been trying to figure them out for 15 years. I see them. I face them. I’ve looked closely at each one and its ugliness. But I’ve never seen anything that’s actually connected the dots for me.
I follow a bunch of fictional characters from The West Wing on Twitter. My favorite character tweeted this on Tuesday.
The numbness you feel when you hear about yet another school shooting? That’s PTSD, too.
— Joshua Lyman (@joshualyman) June 10, 2014
I don’t want that to ever be true for me. And people that love me really well worry that I shouldn’t be exposed to it all anymore— that it’s all a trigger for a relapse into anxiety and never leaving the house out of fear again. I’ve had lots of friends over the years that have made literal attempts at shielding me from the news, which is kind. But that’s a band-aid. That’s a band-aid like pulling all kids I love out of school. That’s a band-aid like insisting my teacher friends become virtual school teachers. That’s a band-aid like every single time that I would skip school and head back home because I was too freaked out to be there.
There is a problem. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it too many times and I can’t just blindfold myself now to its reality. As much as the debates drive me crazy, I’m grateful that people out there are talking. And maybe those disagreements and issues will lead them to talking about the ugliness of it—the tragedies at hand. And maybe that will spark someone being willing to expose their own ugliness, their own tragedies and fears. And I gotta believe that’s helpful. That’s the only thing I can say with confidence through my exposure to shootings, my counseling experiences, and my walk through December 10th. That even if it doesn’t always feel like it— talking about our own demons is the first step to silencing them.
For those that may be interested, this is one of my favorite recent pieces about this issue. I don’t know much about this blogger; he apparently usually writes dating advice stuff. But I read this after the Santa Barbara shooting and thought it was pretty solid writing. How We All Miss the Point on School Shootings