Not far from where I live, a 9th grade boy was sending text messages to two 8th grade girls one night, saying he was going to show up at their school with a gun and shoot everyone. He told them he planned to enter through a side door and described his path through the building. He told them to stay away from the doors. The girls reported this to the school first thing the next morning. The police were called. The school was locked down. The boy was arrested. It’s not clear to me where they found him or if he intended to follow through with his threats.
America has a violence problem. Maybe it’s something ingrained in our culture, like the myth of the glorious war, or maybe it’s the falseness of the world we’ve created. When you’re young and misguided, and you see through the bullshit for the first time, it can be unnerving. Maybe it drives you to act out in a variety of ways like vandalism or self harm. Maybe you threaten to shoot someone. And maybe you really even do it if you’re maladjusted enough. If Holden Caulfield were a teenager today, he would do something stupid like threaten to blow up a school just because “they’re all phonies.” He wouldn’t have meant it, but he would’ve been in trouble anyway.
There is still a big problem with the ease with which a child can get a gun. Let’s not ignore that part. But what in the world makes a child want to hurt people? Or even to threaten?
Yes, Holden, the world is full of phonies. Things have not gotten any less false in the age of information. Our so-called personal lives are arranged picturesquely and displayed on blogs for all to envy. We crop out the pile of laundry in the background. We only say things that are very funny. We curate our lives to death. Sex is something dolls do on television or the internet, and which we mimic while shouting “oh yes, oh yes,” and wondering what to cook for dinner.
I cannot blame anyone who is disappointed with the unreality of our world. I saw it as a child, and I see it now. My parents saw it, too, and their reaction was to find the humanity in everyone. They refused to reward falseness. I had a friend who had a very cute laugh like a television character, and I tried to laugh like her. My dad said, “Stop that. It’s not real. It’s gross.” I thought my own laugh sounded ugly and near maniacal, but it was better than a gross fake laugh.
When I complained about a boring teacher, my dad said, “There’s no such thing as a boring person.” He didn’t care if I liked the class or if I failed it. He wanted me to find out what made the man tick, and that may just be my most valuable life skill.
My parents were my co-conspirators in confronting the falseness of the world head on, which made me completely unfit for a career as a corporate drone, and for which I am extremely grateful.
I often wish I could offer other people the kind of solace my parents gave me, teach them to weed out falseness and value the genuine. I wish I could start a class for middle schoolers called “Existential Basics: A tool kit for coping with the fact that you’re alive.” It would feature a timeline of the average human lifespan with key developments noted along the way, a bit of philosophy, some transcendental poetry, a sampling of world religions, an argument for atheism, a brief section on dream analysis, exercises in compassion, and a field trip to the planetarium. All of this would be set against the backdrop of meditation and a lot of practical tips for coping with stress, anxiety, depression, breakups, hookups and the occasional mental breakdown.
Maybe that’s too much for middle school kids, but I think it’s more useful than continuing to ignore them while forcing their teachers to carry guns.
I’m not trying to be a one-woman solution to our violence problem, but I do believe in being the change you want to see in the world. I think addressing the problems we have now requires sincerity, compassion, and honest self-reflection — things that can’t be legislated and aren’t being taught nearly enough. You can make all the laws you want, but if society hates itself, it will continue to self-destruct.