Schools of Alienation


The last victims of the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, have been buried, if not fully laid to rest. Indeed, there's every reason to believe this terrifying incident will–and should–haunt our national consciousness longer than similar tragedies in Springfield, Oregon; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Paducah, Kentucky; and Pearl, Mississippi.

That's not simply because the death toll is so much higher than in past massacres. However horrific, the actions of schoolyard gunmen such as Kip Kinkel or Luke Woodham can be readily understood as stemming from individual pathologies and, hence, not particularly reflective of broader social issues. The Columbine shootings, however, seem to implicate not only the killers' own sick, twisted minds, but a school culture which humiliated and tormented them in ways that are all too familiar to most Americans.

The result is an exceedingly uncomfortable–but strangely understandable–empathy for Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. When Newsweek quotes a classmate saying that the two walked the halls of Columbine "with their heads down, because if they looked up they'd get thrown into lockers and get called a 'fag,'" who doesn't exactly understand the anger and frustration such abuse inspires? When Time reports the killers and other members of the self-styled "Trench Coat Mafia," were routinely physically threatened and taunted as "dirt bags" and "inbreeds," who doesn't feel a twinge of outrage on their behalf?

After writing a column on the shooting for the World Wide Web site Slashdot (www.slashdot.org), journalist Jon Katz was surprised to receive a deluge of "jarring testimonials from kids, adults, men and women" that while in no way exonerating the killers, "explained more–a lot more–about Littleton than all the vapid media stories about video violence, Goths, [and] game-crazed geeks." As one respondent put it, "I'm a geek under the skin….I was a state champ in the high jump, and the leading scorer on the track team, so I was not quite the outcast that some…geeks are, but I understand what they are going through." Or, as another wrote, "I was much like those kids when I was in school–weird, cast out, not much liked, alienated, all that sort of thing…I used to imagine bringing weaponry to school and making the [expletives] who made my life miserable beg for mercy."

In the wake of the Columbine shootings, politicians and public figures ranging from Hillary Clinton to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) to GOP presidential hopefuls Gary Bauer and Patrick Buchanan have hauled out the usual suspects to explain what happened: Violent movies and television programs, graphic video games, dark popular music, the ready availability of guns, the breakdown of the traditional family, "spiritual rot." As always, such formulaic responses explain precious little, if anything. Certainly, they do not begin to address a pervasive school culture that is generally acknowledged as nasty and brutish.

Nothing, of course, shifts the final responsibility for violence away from its perpetrators. Yet the disturbingly widespread understanding of the killers' mind set should give us great pause, even as it also helps explains the recurring motif of school-related alienation in popular fictional works as varied in age and tone as The Catcher in the Rye, Rebel Without a Cause, S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, The Basketball Diaries, Carrie, Pink Floyd's The Wall, Heathers, MTV's Daria, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and She's All That.

It is wrong to hope for anything decent to come out of a tragedy like the one at Columbine High. But perhaps some small scrap of good can be salvaged if it forces us to envision–and to create–schools that do not become personal hells for so many kids. Indeed, doing so can only help ensure the safety and well-being of all students.