To School, Perchance to Learn

Last week’s post, published on Wednesday morning as is the norm, included graphs summing the number of school shooting events and the number of victims in the United States. Within two days those graphs were already out of date; there were two more school shootings on Friday. The question of why our young people are killing each other is one contemplatives and all people of good-will need to wrestle with.

Last week’s post looked into video games as an enticing factor. Elsewhere in blog land Kunstler made the very perceptive point that much of this horror is a result of there being a serious lack of meaningful work in our country: take away a young man’s hope for recognition from a job well done, take away a young man’s hope to provide for his own family, take away a young man’s father and bosses as role models of impulse control and this is what you get. His post captured some of the magnitude of the problem we are considering here.

Notice that there is a lack of future at play here? Young people are not stupid. They are looking at the reality of the financial shenanigans that are eating the middle class, the corporate raider ethics of the business world and the dismal set of shabby products that make up the bulk of consumerism choices and draw the not unreasonable conclusion that a safe, fulfilling future is likely not in the cards for them. Isn’t this lack of a realistically wholesome future one of the central features of the dark enlightenment we have achieved by learning of the ecological crisis unfolding all around us? This lack of a viable, hopeful, and better future is the psychological burden of our age, an age of monsters born as the myth of progress dies.

I am interested in a compassionate response. In sticking with the theme of mindful ecology, specifically I am interested in what an individual response can be to the outbreaks of social madness. As mentioned last week these acts of madness do not just drop out of the sky, there are specific causes and conditions that nurture it. There are also specific causes and conditions that do not. Compassion is not milk-toast, feel-good, new age mumbo-jumbo. Compassion is first and foremost a willingness to stay with the personal suffering that knowledge of dark subjects entails and second it is a drive to find what realistic actions you can take to do your part in tipping the balance towards the light. That effective action could be one of body, speech or mind; it can be grandiose or minuscule and directly related to youth violence or related to some other aspect of the nightmare entirely. Pure intention is our work. We can trust it will organize the causes and conditions of each of our uniquely individual lives. Our aspiration remains: may I be of benefit to others.

It is important to have the courage to admit that these school shootings are something new. The introductory chapter of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill is entitled ‘It’s Not Normal’ and includes this timely reminder:

“We have deterred many violent crimes by putting thousands of armed police officers in our schools. But it seems that we have forgotten that it is not normal to put thousands of cops in our schools to stop our kids from killing each other. And it’s not normal for every kid in America to practice hunkering down, hiding under tables when their classmates come to kill them.”

So what else is new in the environments in which our youth are growing up? Statistics can be a good way to start to get a sketch of what those environments are now like if we take the time to really absorb what they mean. In Our Kitchen Table Conversation we looked at the statistics around sexual abuse. Here it bears pointing out just how corrosive a direct experience with sexual abuse can be, whether as the victim or when the victim is someone close. It corrodes trust in our cultural institutions since the perpetrators are almost never prosecuted and the powers that be have known how extensive the abuse is for many decades and yet choose to turn a blind eye. Abuse is an important thread. Mike Huckabee in Kids Who Kill mentions 90 percent of the violent teens have suffered some sort of physical, sexual or emotional abuse. He also mentions 80 percent of all juvenile offenders are from broken homes with 70 percent from single parent households.

In fact abuse makes the top of the list of “ten common things behind the making of a violent and murderous teen” in Phil Chalmers study Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer. The list:

  1. An abusive home life and bullying
  2. Violent entertainment and pornography
  3. Anger, depression, and suicide
  4. Drug and alcohol abuse
  5. Cults and gangs
  6. Easy access to and fascination with deadly weapons
  7. Peer pressure
  8. Poverty and criminal lifestyle
  9. Lack of spiritual guidance and appropriate discipline
  10. Mental illness and brain injuries

That suicide is on the list requires some clarification. Many of the mass murders have been committed by people choosing to commit suicide but hell-bent on taking other people down with them. Harvard University psychologist William Pollack has stated that by the time of the shootings 78 percent of the perpetrators were suicidal. The teen suicide rate is up 200 percent since 1960, a statistic that should chill our hearts. Add that children are the primary group suffering malnutrition and 32 percent are below the poverty line and it is not hard to see an environment in which cognitive and emotional developmental expressions can easily go haywire.

The pervasiveness and degree of viciousness in school bullying has recently been a subject of national conversation. It is important to recognize that what our youth are suffering is not only the old schoolyard bully of decades past and more innocent times. This is the reason it made it to the top of the list. Social media, to site just one of the new conditions, provides a means of taunting the victim 24 hours a day, non-stop. The abusive messages can come anytime in the day or night but rarely are they predictable. Random threat factors like this are known to wear on the nerves, multiplying their effect by requiring their victims to always be on their guard.

Serious assaults accompany the bullying. These are not like the schoolyard fights teachers would break up throughout the history of American schools. This is much more serious with the victims suffering hospitalizations, trauma, and suicides and sometimes picking up firearms and getting revenge.

In schools a lack of respect for teachers and staff is off the charts compared to the norm of just a few decades ago. I know at least one teacher who keeps a bullet proof vest in a cabinet in their classroom, not an inner city classroom I might add. I wonder how many other teachers do the same.

Where do our kids learn such viciousness? Kids have always been mean to one another but what was the gasoline poured on that fire that has led to this? These are the questions we should be asking. Oh, by the way, here is one more statistic. This one is about a show that was very popular among teens for a while, The Apprentice. It “contains eighty-five acts of verbal or relational aggression per hour.” (Grossman, DeGaetano 2014). Now of course some people think the “star” of that show would make a good American president. What a chump, ah, I mean trump of meanness over civility.

We need to consider what these shootings are doing to all our students, our children. How are our kids supposed to be able to study well? You know they are all darkly fascinated by what’s happening to their fellow schoolmates throughout this land. Who do we provide for them to talk to? Our over-worked, over-burdened, underfunded, underpaid teachers? Our kids can afford a movie ticket but not a half hour talk with a therapist or other caring adult. When we follow the money in this society we sure do uncover a screwy set of values.

Let’s consider the experience of a student in a school with a shooting. Contemplatives develop empathy by taking the time to imagine themselves into another’s experience. Does it seem strange to direct your imagination to work on what people involved in violent crimes like this experience, yet not seem strange to let strangers fill your imagination with images of the same on television?

This student is not one of the victims, contemplating the victim’s experience is beyond blog material. When a shooting at a school happens the traumas are compounded. Imagine it. First you hear the shots, then see people running, screaming. You are locked down in a classroom waiting for the firestorm to be over, which it is in a few minutes. You have no idea what the extent of the violence has been. Waiting. Maybe with others. Maybe alone.

Then the SWAT team clears the buildings. Now those not directly involved are all paraded out at gun point by camouflaged police – each student walking with their hands up like we’ve all seen in every TV show when the police catch the bad guy. What is this? We are all bad guys, all us young people? Oh, and every bag is searched by large men in bullet proof vests. You are now allowed to go and with the rest of your schoolmates stumble towards shocked, mourning crowds.

Crowds of mourners, parents, and police are there. Others are there as well. There is also the ambulance chasing media scrambling to get to the scene of the crime as quickly as possible to capture those ratings. Cameras and lights, interviews and makeup… The whole media circus will keep hanging around your town, invading privacy every chance they get until the last drop of blood has been squeezed from the event.

Your everyday world has been shattered: shattered by the hate in the act, the horror of the bloody results. You were mortally terrified during the time of not knowing just what was happening and then surrounded by military in your home environment – a very strange thing if you haven’t experienced it yet in the new U.S. of A. – paraded out publicly like a suspect and your private belongings invaded and then you were cut loose.

Mind you this is an exercise in empathy using imagination fed on photos and news footage I have seen. I think it captures a taste of the psychological experience of the young people involved. The reality of how such students are treated and helped by the first responders is typically compassionate, courageous and quite simply those rushing in to save, heal and protect are the real heroes of our day and age. We know what needs to be done tactically to minimize the probability of continued or escalated acts of violent killing. Hands in the air and searched bags are parts of those tactical necessities. Even counselors are made available for the students to help them process. Still, there it is, a dark turn of affairs to be putting thousands of our children through. Thousands is no exaggeration when estimating those who have been at schools where these mass killing events have happened. How many will suffer PTSD issues the rest of their lives from the trauma of bringing the battlefield to their schools?

And those in schools where no acts of such violence has occurred, do you think they wonder and worry terribly if maybe theirs will be next? You better believe they do. Now the ripple of violence has extended from the thousands to everyone who is in any American school. The ripple effect doesn’t stop there. There are also those parents who have learned to add this new, terrifying worry about sociopathological shootings to their list of things to worry about concerning their children growing up in our societies.

The contemplative works through the same ripple of violence, extending felt-thoughts of consolation from the close and personal through the whole tangled web that reaches to touch everyone.

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