Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Remembering Columbine

It was ten years ago this week that the massacre at Columbine High School took place, and set into play the other culture war now mostly forgotten. I was still teaching at Columbia Central High School at the time, and the news story shook my very foundation. I remember turning on the classroom television and watching the students run from the building in Colorado with their hands on their heads. I was lucky that the art room was along an outside wall, and actually had two access doors to the outside. While they were a distraction to some students who couldn’t keep still or needed to run outside to smoke, they suddenly became my life line should a tragedy such as this unfold in Brooklyn, Michigan.

The similarity in the names of the high schools was enough to raise the hair on my neck, as was the description of the two gunmen. I went into teaching art because when I was in high school, the art room was a sanctuary for me. I could go in and create and be flamboyant and not have to worry about being judged different by my classmates. The same was true of my association with the drama department at Whitmer High School. While I never actually graced the stage, I did earn a letter in high school for my involvement in the Thespians and back stage work. I wanted that same kind of special place in CCHS’ Room 112 for my students. Taunting, teasing and name-calling were all forbidden. While I am certain that some did take place under my watch, I did what I could to stop it. My classroom attracted the outsiders of the school, the kids who wore makeup and dark clothes and listened to Marilyn Manson and NIN, the kids who openly mourned when their hero Kurt Cobain took his life a few years earlier. These were also the kids whose sexuality was called out because of this were often the most comfortable in my class, as I didn’t forbid the outrageous clothes and would play their music when it was appropriate.

While some may look at my clothing back then and when I was a teacher and call me a closet preppy, the fact of the matter is that I am punk/goth/emo kid at heart. I may not dress that way, but deep down, the music and attitudes of those movements make me smile and my music collection reflects this secret love. When it came out that the two gunmen were member of the Trench coat Mafia at their high school, shivers once again traveled up my spine. While we are hardly considered an urban school, we were far from rural as well. We straddled that awkward middle ground with kids coming to school with hip and trendy urban clothes and kids coming in with more rural, western/cowboy wear, including the long dusters that the trench coats wore. Suddenly, suspicion was turned on these students and a call came out for banning that type of coat and all backpacks. This hysteria was a prelude to the insanity that followed 9/11 and the prohibitions put on flying with liquid and the checking of shoes. The high school became a police state with doors kept closed and locked and secret staff meetings held after school to discuss students and their behavior.

While I am not here to memorialize the two students who perpetrated the massacre, I am here to remind folks of the power of intimidation and bullying in the classroom (at any level). Had these two students had the chance to go to school and not be taunted and bullied, this may have never happened. The LGBT Blogs that I read feature far too many stories of kids who took their own lives or were murdered because they were either perceived as LGBT or were indeed Gay. Ironically, while the two killers were on the receiving end of taunting on a regular basis, they were not above calling students who they perceived as weak “queer” or “fag.”

I watched Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” and enjoyed the silliness that he brings to his movies. But my mood suddenly changed as the film switched to grainy black and white security cameral footage from the day of the massacre. I sat up and could hardly breathe as the cameras showed the two young men going from room to room killing those in their way. I had to ask Tod to stop the DVD for a moment while I collected myself, as I realized that the same thing could have happened when I taught high school. Things aren’t perfect at the college level, and I have actually had more problems with unstable students at the college level then at the high school level, and have had a student removed from my class because of their outrageous behavior. While my teaching philosophy waxes eloquently and perhaps sounds a bit Pollyanna, I do stand by its simple message of “all students can learn.” However, if you’re bringing a car full of crazy to my class, then you are infringing on the other student’s right to learn and we need to talk. If you are skipping your meds and wondering if it’s safe to take off your space helmet in my classroom (yes, this happened) you need to help yourself before you even begin to learn how to draw or sculpt. If you have zero social skills and have alienated most of the class because of your behavior, I will do what I can to help draw you back into the group, but if you continually work to destroy that help as well, you’re on your own pal.

So why this post? Yes, it’s a bit rambling, but that’s how I felt back then regarding what happened, and to a great extent still do to this day. My heart goes out to the 15 people killed that day, and to the countless injured. But my heart also goes out to Dylan and Eric’s parents and friends who must wonder each day what they could have done to help prevent this massacre. There are some lessons to be learned from all this and as time marches on, we’ll find out more and more about what happened. Now that I am teaching at the college level, I size up my students when they come in and ask them for a letter of introduction on the first day. I think the more we get to know our students (and coworkers for that matter) we can begin to watch for signs of this kind of behavior and get them the help they so desperately need.