Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The boy in camouflage


I am shattered by yet another horrible set of images of students slain by "loners," Columbine revisited at Virginia Tech. It took me back to the shootings from the 27-story tower at the University of Texas in 1966. There a disgruntled young man named Charles Whitman acted as a sniper, killing 15 people and wounding 31. This was an event nonetheless devastating, unbelievably, in a society grappling with President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, growing numbers of Vietnam casualties, and an increasingly fetid climate of violence. Still no one seemed prepared for a rampage aimed at college students.

I hope we haven't become horribly inured to reports of the deaths of our young: Certainly the five U.S. deaths in Iraq the same day as the shootings at Virginia Tech qualify as hideous reminders of war's toll. That these young troops chose to serve their country does not mitigate the grief and loss their families must feel. As a mother I have always feared the call at night, the police news, the long-distance message that would bring me unbearable grief.

I will not, cannot, comprehend any of this. Even the usual generalizations about our country's tendency to see violence as a means to solve problems, or the easy platitudes about what we might do. These seem hackneyed and cliché as the violence increases.

I do have a story, though, that has echoed in my memory every time I have read about a young gunman taking out his frustrations on his peers. When I was a young English teacher at Santa Monica High School, I had a 10th-grade student who came to class every single day in the same clothes, camouflage khakis. His buzz cut was not fashionable at the time, and his slight build and askew glances behind thick glasses were thought to be signs he was "harmless." However, when, day after day, in spite of my private entreaties, he sat alone at the back of the room, often with his head hidden behind a book placed upside down, when his parents didn't respond to my calls to confer about him, and when his writings became increasingly violent in content, I began to be truly concerned. I told myself I shouldn't stifle free speech, that it was just adolescent rebellion, that I was making too much of it, that if I was kind and not confrontational, he would trust me enough to tell me what was wrong. But when he started drawing bloody cartoons and doodles of hanging teenagers, I went to his counselor. She said, in essence, that it was indeed just youthful rebellion, that I should not exaggerate the situation and that ignoring him was the best path.

Later in the year, he wrote his term paper on "A Tale of Two Cities," one of the few times he seemed motivated to participate in class writing sessions. It became a treatise about the guillotine, lavishly illustrated with graphic renditions of beheadings witnessed by cheering crowds.

I followed his progress through the next two years of his high school career and was not unduly surprised when he appeared at graduation in his usual military duds and, when presented with his diploma, pulled in his feet in a quick click, saluted with outstretched arm, and shouted, "Heil Hitler!" It was too late for anyone to do anything about it, but most of the audience was rightfully shocked. It must be noted that he received a scholarship to "Ole Miss."

I have often wondered what happened to him, and I suffered attendant feelings that perhaps I could have helped somewhere along the way. I'm afraid I later pictured him taking a rifle to the top of a building and massacring fellow students much as Charles Whitman did. I hope the lack of news about him all these years is a sign that I was just overly melodramatic in my fears. But this week, as I heard one of the accused murderer's English teachers at Virginia Tech relate how she had expressed her trepidations about the mental state of Cho Seung Hui, her student, I could identify. I don't claim to have any insight about this tragedy. Does the answer lie somewhere between adult responses of too much attention to perhaps youthful rebellion or a derelict lack of attention to a cry for help? I can't comment beyond saying that I hope my sad and outcast teenager survived his depression and did not take anyone else with him if he didn't

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