In the aftermath of the school shooting in Connecticut, we will all wake up for a few days or weeks and speak the truth. Then we will all go back to sleep. We will talk about gun violence, alienated youth, the various systems that did or did not respond to the situation; how the tragedy might have been prevented.
As someone who has spent each working day in school for the past 30 years, I have always had one question: Why schools? Since Columbine in 1999, school shootings have become a crime genre. If a gunman is looking for crowds, he could choose a mall, a church or a movie theatre – and some have done so – but these have not become a distinct genre.
Gunmen choose schools, and school shootings have become a genre, because schools embody a central contradiction that we have all experienced. In our collective imaginations, schools are safe havens. Schools are places where we will be loved, nurtured and protected. In school we are all special and unique snowflakes. On the other hand, school is a place where we are subjected to pressure to perform and we are judged. It is a place where special and unique snowflakes are required to conform to a mould. The problem lies in the fact that school is both of these things at the same time, and it makes for a very contradictory existence.
Am I loved or am I hated? Am I succeeding or am I failing? Am I accepted or rejected? Do I stand out or do I fit in? School is one of the most confusing institutions we have ever devised.
Most of us can bear the contradictions. The teacher tells us what a good job we did one day and the next day we get a test back with 55 per cent. We are told to be ourselves, and the next day we are sent to the office for “inappropriate behaviour.”
Add to this the fact that in school, students live in two separate worlds – learning world and kid world. Learning world is all about performance and marks and getting ahead. Kid world is all about social acceptance. The bottom line in both worlds is “fit in.” Again, most of us endure and survive this tension.
I believe that many school shooters are trauma victims who return to the site of their trauma, trying to resolve the huge internal conflict they feel about their experience in school. They are often the dispossessed, the alienated, the outsiders. Most of us survive the trauma of school because we have other people – parents, siblings, friends – who affirm us. A former classmate, remembering suspected shooter Adam Lanza to The New York Times, said, “I never saw him with anyone. I can’t even think of one person that was associated with him.”
The term Asperger syndrome has been used in connection with the killer. It could well be the case – trouble with social interactions and a preference for routine behaviours make children with Asperger ideal candidates for getting lost in school. They follow the three rules of school very well: sit still, be quiet and do what you’re told. In addition, I would guess that this boy’s psychological profile would include high intelligence and extreme sensitivity – two characteristics that can make school a difficult place. Intelligence is not always recognized or rewarded at school. We hear that he got good marks, but this is not the same thing as being intellectually challenged or stimulated. As for being highly sensitive, well, we just don’t have time for that. Life is hard. You better get used to it.
Finally, these shooters are virtually all boys. We have tried to blame video games, but that hasn’t stuck. Testosterone is certainly a factor, and by the time this little boy is 20 years old, he has enough testosterone to fuel the anger that has been building for about 15 years.
I would argue that it is no coincidence that school shooters are almost always boys. They are among the most traumatized at school. Whether it is because they are highly kinesthetic, and therefore bored by all the sitting and reading and writing, or they’re intelligent and not challenged by the curriculum, or they’re highly sensitive and bullied (both by peers and the system itself), we have a huge population of disenfranchised, alienated, angry males in our schools for whom the system simply does not work.
School shooters are the extreme tip of an iceberg that I see every day in my classroom. Kids who need to be seen for who they really are, not for who we want them to be, who need to be listened to no matter what they say and who need to be touched with nurturing affection.
Michael Reist is the head of the English department at Robert F. Hall Catholic Secondary School in Caledon, Ont., and the author of Raising Boys in a New Kind of World