The names Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are still familiar. I remember being on the national desk at the Akron Beacon Journal as the chaos erupted in Colorado (one of those “where were you?” moments, along with Waco and Oklahoma City and 9/11).
I remember the stories about the ostracized kids in their “goth” get-ups, how Harris and Klebold planned the massacre for weeks, and reportedly were giddily laughing as they slaughtered classmates. I remember how they were reportedly treated like outcasts, were basically loners hanging with other loners: angry, bitter.
I remember feeling angry, of course, that kids could be so cold-blooded and vicious. But something else was there too. Being in the news biz means having to suppress emotional responses to events and issues. But these kinds of events still elicit some raw emotions.
So as the stories unfolded about the circumstances behind Columbine, I was a little surprised to sense something else: guilt.
A lot was made about the cliquish behavior of the kids at Columbine, how the outs were really out, how bullying was an issue, how the other kids thought the goth kids with their dusters and so forth were weird.
I’ve been on both ends of the bully stick. Victim and perpetrator. Guilty. My particular stuff was pretty mild compared to what you’ve seen and heard about. Most of it was childish taunting, pick-pick-picking, just being a jerk. Sometimes I participated in some pretty cruel stuff. But being on the receiving end of that made me realize (eventually) how wrong it was to act that way.
There was an incident when I was a freshman in high school that probably represents a turning point.
Being a freshman in high school and wanting to prove I was a tough guy meant having to present a tough guy personna.
There was a tall, gangly, utterly unathletic kid on our football team. Socially awkward. He was kind of an easy mark. We’ll call him “Tim,” just cuz I don’t really see any benefit from using his real name.
One day after practice “Tim,” apparently feeling the same need to prove himself, said something. I said something back (It’s been 30-plus years, so details are a little fuzzy. Maybe I said something first). I can’t remember if he shoved first or if I tripped him first. Not important. After a couple of trip-knock-downs, he came up and threw a punch. It sort of landed near a kidney, didn’t really hurt. Hey, he threw the first punch. (Can you hear the rationalization going on here?) So we went at it, arms flailing and then BAM! I connected right on his kisser. Well, of course he was wearing braces. His lips just exploded. Fight over. No coach or teacher or parent saw it, but a few other players did. It lasted maybe 15 seconds. Maybe.
After showering up, I went and got high with some “burnout” buddies (that was a short-lived phase, thankfully). At one point, before heading home, another player on the team said to me, “I hope you’re proud of yourself.” I knew exactly what he was talking about despite my weed-induced haze. This kid was big and strong enough to have turned me into hamburger if he was so inclined. He didn’t. (He’s a Columbus cop now.)
And I realized I had become the bully. I didn’t like it.
The next day, one of the coaches asked “Tim” what happened to his lips. “I ran into a door” was his answer. So I got away with it. Maybe that’s why it stays with me to this day. Maybe it’s the sense of shame that hung over me.
I got into one other fight while in high school – this time on the losing end with a complete stranger – another one-hit wonder. I got a bloody nose out of it. I’ve never been in a physical fight since then. (Sibling fights don’t count.)
But enough of that.
The whole notion of bullying, school violence and so on has resurfaced from time to time, most notably in the Virginia Tech shootings and a few ugly bullying incidents that resulted in suicides of tormented kids who were punished for being fat, socially inept or gay. Or, for no reason at all except that some asshole decided it would be fun to torment someone and had found an easy mark.
But my own experiences have sharpened my awareness and vigilance for these destructive behaviors. If I see bullying, or if I suspect it, I will speak out. My daughter was on the receiving end of some “mean girl” type bullying. That girl is no longer in the picture, so that’s resolved itself. But it was becoming a problem to the point that I stopped allowing my daughter to be around this girl.
And now with a son in high school, I watch for signs of trouble. So far, my biggest worry has been when Matt wiped out on the snowboard slopes and hurt his back (what if some knucklehead jostles him while he’s healing?). But he’s always made friends pretty easily, which makes life a lot easier (I acquired that skill a little later, in high school). Being on the soccer team with a few upperclassmen helps.
My kids’ schools seem to have a grip on those issues, which is a relief.
It still goes on, acts of cruelty big and small. Sometimes they are met with rebukes. Sometimes nothing good comes out of it. Cliques have been around probably since we fell out of trees and started living in caves. We have a long history of war and cruelty that reduces us to something less than human, certainly not noble.
I hope another Columbine never happens, but it probably will. There will be senseless violence, shock, horror, recrimination about what coulda shoulda been done, what “they” did wrong, what “we” could have done to stop it. In the end, we are human beings with flaws that sometimes lead us to do horrible things to one another. I wish it weren’t true.
And I hope it doesn’t happen too close to home.