I resisted saying anything publicly about the recent shooting in Springfield, OR. I felt like anything I could say would be trite, or had been said already by others. And for lots of reasons this tragedy cuts me a lot closer to the bone than any of the other recent school shootings, or (sigh) other murders in general. I was not sure how to articulate my feelings.
But I just read something in the paper, in one of the many articles and editorials that the Oregonian has carried since this . . . incident . . . something that just made me howl. And I decided that it was time that I howled aloud. For my own sake, if nothing else. In sympathy for anguish I have turned my homepage black.
I just found out that a student that I have worked with in the past knew the shooter, Kipland Kinkel, personally.
I won't give this student's name, or where and when it was that I worked with him. I haven't talked with him about this, and he deserves his privacy. I'll just call the student Mark, since finding out this new fact left one on me. For some reason, it was the last straw of connection to this suffering, the one that finally broke this particular camel's back.
Mark is in the right age range to know Kipland, but of course so are many people. Up until reading that article, while I figured I would probably know or meet someone who knew Kipland, the concept was all hypothetical. I told myself, "Well, Eugene is right next to Springfield. I'll probably see students this summer, when I'm teaching at TAG SEP in Eugene, who went to Thurston High." The concept didn't have a name or a face, though, to make it more personal. More personal, that is, than a shooting in a town adjacent to the town that I lived in for eight and a half years already feels.
Now the idea does have a name. And a face.
I am frightened by the possibility that it will get another one, or several more. How many people that I know already, or will have as students this summer, were affected by these few minutes of terror and insanity? How many families that I knew and worked with in Eugene are wondering if it is safe to send their children to school in the morning, chilled in the aftermath of a shooting that happened only a few miles away?
I don't pretend to know what Kipland Kinkel was thinking that morning, although I'll guess that his actions are the product of feelings I'm glad I don't share. Persecution. The feeling of being trapped, that all more reasonable courses of action are futile, that no rational way out of pain and humiliation and agony can be seen.
And so an extremely irrational way out is chosen.
Who can say what was going on in his mind that day? Perhaps not even he fully knows. When choices that horrendous are made, they are often made while the mind is refusing to think fully, to proceed reasonably, to admit conscious knowledge of where one is and what one is really doing and what the horrible, horrible consequences of all this will be, later, when the internal screaming has been quenched, the anger has stopped giving its rush of energy, the dust has settled, and a measure, a passing semblance, of sanity has returned.
How does a human mind get to such a place? Sorry, class, that is beyond the scope of this essay. I do have a few ideas about what I am going to do in response to this tragedy, though. And here is the first one. I am going to stand up and say:
Kipland Kinkel, what you did that day was wrong.
That's quite the obvious understatement there, you say. Well, perhaps. But the full implications of that statement are powerful, and it still needs to be said. That statement says, whatever your problems were, Kipland, that was not the answer. There were better choices. It is up to you, Kipland, to realize that, and as long as you do not, I hope that there are bars between you and anyone that I care about. You have shown me what you do when given freedom of action, and I assert in return that your freedom must be curtailed, at least for a while. How long depends on the choices you make in the future.
But it is not just up to him to make the good decisions, the positive choices. It is up to us as well. What steps can we take? I have to fight off the urge to say, "Well, since the ultimate causes of his actions can never be fully known, an ideal, permanent solution cannot be defined, and so there is nothing I can do."
When I am working with children, or anyone else whose patterns for making decisions are not yet set, I have the opportunity to show them all the different options they have in a given situation. Teach them how to look at things in a different light, get a little perspective. Let them see, in as full consciousness as possible, the results of their choices.
This includes how to resolve conflicts. Everyone, including kids today, has heard a hundred times, "Violence doesn't solve anything." I do not find that expression to pack any particular punch. Say instead, "Violence closes doors, takes away options, and eliminates possiblities. Often permanently." If you do something violent, even if no one is killed or permanently disfigured, people remember, and their trust in you decreases. They decide that you are dangerous and unpredictable, and people either shun the dangerously unpredictable or try to render them harmless. Perhaps forcefully. And if you don't like being ignored, or feeling alienated, or having people try to control and limit you, you might react with more violence. And the cycle continues, each time digging in further, and making healthier decisions, like admitting that maybe you were in the wrong in the first place, harder to come to.
Try not to go down that road. The farther ahead you look, the more obvious it is that you lose. Before, after, or along with everyone else. And if you do kill or permanently disfigure someone, you are taking away their choices. Now the target of your violence will never be a professional ballplayer. Or go skiing on weekends. Or see her children again. And he or she will bear no love for you, I can almost guarantee you that.
Violence reduces, if only incrementally, the beauty of the world.
I am sorry, Mark, that Kipland was not kidding, not this time. This is all too real.
And so it goes. And when the children ask the inevitable questions about war, and when is violence justified, and such, then speak very carefully of life-threatening provocation, and the human capacity for mistakes, and the like. By all means, teach them how to analyze a situation and thoughtfully weigh the consequences of each potential action. In between black and white there exist shades of gray.
But a violent, lethal outburst like Kipland Kinkel's is always the result of someone's poor judgement and someone's fear. Perhaps several someones, at different points up and down the line leading to the moment he pulled the trigger.
There are a lot of people out there hurting because of one morning's work. There are calls for blood donations, and counselors, and cool heads to try to decide whether or not any part of this problem will actually benefit from having money thrown at it. There's a lot to do. I intend to try to help do some of it. For one, I want to hunt Mark up and see how he's doing.
More globally, I intend to do what I can to reduce the level of fear in the part of the world near me. No problem is too big to be nibbled to death. My usual chosen tool for this is the light of education and knowledge, but I'll use honesty, or the sweat of my brow, or the incredible healing power of trust and compassion and sympathy, or anything that works.
"It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness."
Here's someone else's response to the above essay.
If you feel that you wish to do something in the wake of this tragedy, I have a list of suggestions for places to start.