A Look Back at Littleton
|by Scott D. Henrichsen|
When an oil tanker turns to the port or starboard, a process known as trim-tabbing is employed. Trim-tabbing refers to the use of a small rudder attached to the end of the large one. It takes an enormous amount of power to employ the full-sized rudder, but considerably less to begin the process by trim-tabbing. The smaller rudder is employed first, until the tanker's direction begins a slight change. At that point, the full rudder can be used, effecting a much faster, as well as energy-efficient turning of the tanker.
Last spring at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the oil tanker of American education almost ran aground. As a teacher and a citizen, I have thought quite a bit about the episode since. Long after the hype and high news ratings of the immediate aftermath, a careful re-reading of the newspaper clippings has brought many clues to my attention. These clues keep sending me back to the trim-tabbing metaphor.
There was much reported evidence that the two boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were repeated outcasts and rejects. This rejection appears to have been long-running, and to have come not just from their peers, but also their teachers and families. That their parents never noticed the boys' grim fascination with guns, violent video games, bomb-making and Hitler leads me to believe that like many children, their parents were so busy with their own lives that they didn't even know their own kids. We all read about the taunting and the teasing these boys suffered at the hands of the "upper crust" students within the school. Reports of hazing, being called "faggot", and even the throwing of rocks and bottles have been verified. Yet the principal and most of the teachers, as well as the parents, all claimed they never noticed a problem.
Even those who were professionally trained to notice these things fell down on the job. Last year, the State of Colorado assigned Harris and Klebold parole and anger-management classes as part of a plea-bargain. They were found guilty of vehicular petty theft, a crime which doesn't usually demonstrate hate. Why were they given anger-management classes for a simple automobile break-in? Wouldn't that suggest that someone discovered their hate to some degree during the investigation, booking or trial for that crime? What was noticed and by whom? Doesn't this bring into question the competency of the Littleton parole system's officials, and/or the effectiveness of it's anger-management classes?
At the school, these two passed under the radar of several officials. One teacher graded a video assignment completed by the boys. It featured a staged preview of the real shootings, complete with people dressed as the jocks and other types they would eventually target. Yet this teacher didn't report anything. A writing teacher assigned the boys to write about one of their dreams. Their paper featured yet another preview of the fateful day, but this too was not reported. One teacher did report suspicions, but absolved herself by saying, according to the Rocky Mountain News, that, "there's nothing that permits us to take action based on signs."
The part that has made me angry is all of the hiding behind 'official reporting'. It appears as though these two boys' emotions finally reached the point they did only after years and years of ostracism on every front. Indeed, maybe there was nothing official that could have been done, but who says love, warmth, acceptance and inclusion have to be official? I find it amazing that of all the teachers, family members, neighbors and everyone else along the waterway of these two boys' childhoods that no one ever successfully trim-tabbed them away from the hateful and violent direction their lives were taking. There had to be plenty of opportunities, but none seem to have surfaced.
In no way am I condoning the actions of Harris and Klebold. Very likely, they earned some of the rejection they received based upon their behavior. But at the same time, I refuse to stand with the Littleton community in their self-declaration of absolution. That community was guilty of allowing two cultures of hate to grow. The one of Harris and Klebold, as well as the one of their tormentors and those who made outcasts of them. Any psychologist, or for that matter, any student will tell you that school is the epicenter of a kid's life. Constant social rejection is horribly painful. Acceptance from family and friends is vital to the happiness of any person, but it is paramount in the mind of a child. When it is not attained, and instead replaced with years of repeated rejection, the results can clearly be very extreme.
Many in the gay and lesbian community have very little to do with children on a daily basis. However, we were all kids once. (Actually, many of us still are.) Most of us have felt at least some of the rejection that these boys felt. Some of us may have felt even more. But we survived it with little or no emotional scarring. Since, as a community, we are in tune
with how this type of pain feels, I feel it is our responsibility
to be aware when it happens to the children in our lives. Most of us have nieces and nephews, younger siblings, neighbor's kids, etc. Some of us have students. Many of us even have children of our own. Whatever your connection to children, I challenge you to be a trim-tabber in their lives. Get to know the kids in your life. Find ways to tell them they're OK, and
that you love them. And do it often. Most importantly, find a way to help them understand that whether they're gay or straight, artsy or jock, brainiac or slacker, stylish or nerdy, or even just plain average that they can be proud of who they are. They can know that they are unconditionally loved and admired for just who they are. Someday your little bits of pride and love for the children in your life just might save a life.
Appropriately, one of the hand-held signs carried by one of the students at the memorial services in Littleton said, "If you let yourself hate them, you let yourself feed them." Indeed. Too bad no one carried that sign before the shootings.
Scott D. Henrichsen is a teacher, musician and man about town.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 9, No. 12, Aug. 27, 1999