I remember hearing about Columbine when I'd just been sprung from a Kansas City hospital for getting over one of the number of countless physical miseries that were driving me to early retirement. Late that week, I read the TIME article about the debacle and about the two high school kids who had perpetrated it. And it shocked me. True, the photos of the boys were for the school's yearbook, so they didn't properly reflect the kids‚ underlying madness. Rather, their faces, and evidently their clothes, were those of a million other middle-class boys bent on "getting along with" their "peers."
Later on, there were stories and photographs of other odd-ball Columbine students dressed in long, dark trench coats, like those worn by the western outlaws in Clint Eastwood's gritty western movies. And why not? Each of those kids at that tender age, instead of trying hard to develop their individual personalities and forge their own values, sought out the most "popular" of their classmates, and devoted their lives to "fitting in," to making themselves as much like their high school idols as they possibly could, even down to their dirty, canvas trench coats. In my own day, you wore d.a. (duck's a**) haircuts, thin black ties, pink shirts, chino pants (which, I remember, cost $5), and dark brown penny loafers. In the generation before mine, it was white-buck shoes, a la Pat Boone. In my father's generation, it had been raccoon skin coats. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. All this is cyclical, natural, and a boon to the ever-adaptable clothing industry, which, like every other American industry, thrives on changes in fashion, the destroying of the current. Parents of teenage high school killers always express, first, disbelief, and later, the greatest dismay, that their angelic kids could even think of shooting their classmates. And TV reporters, interviewing the parents, always report shock that the parents didn‚t wear their dirty hair down to their waists, but wore good, clean, respectable middle-class clothes that are widely supposed, I guess, to ward off evil.
It's a natural part of growing up to rebel against your father's and mother's generation and their values. But where, you ask, does the current crop of American kids get their appetite for killing? Well, for one thing, they get it from nine-tenths of the TV they watch instead of completing their homework; ten-tenths of the R-rated movies they watch on the weekends; and eleven-tenths of the TV news that comes from Iraq and other war-torn countries our kids can't begin to locate on a world map, at 5:30, every evening. Without our even being aware of it, since the end of World War II, more than half a century ago, our country has become not a savior, but, rather, a bringer of death to the rest of the world.
For a long time in all teenagers' lives, before they know who they really are, being like the other kids is the guiding goal of their lives. Their "peers," and not their parents, become the most powerful influence in their young and more-easily-re-shaped-than-Silly Putty lives. If they tell you different, you‚ve got my permission to disbelieve them.
This past Monday, on my way to a doctor's appointment in a Joplin hospital, Ginny and I saw the flashing lights atop a number of police cars stopped around 7th and Range Line. We changed our course, and thus avoided the ruckus ahead. But, once at home and watching the 10 p.m. TV, news, we heard there had been the threat of violence in a Joplin school. A student had brought a gun with him (her) to school, and had thus brought about a near-panic reaction from adults. When school authorities notified the parents, they got the standard, if heartfelt, reply: "Why, you must be mistaken! My Billy (Susie) would never do a thing like that! He (she) is always super-careful to obey all the rules. Academically, he (she) stands first in his (her) class. You must have mistaken him (her) for someone else! How dare you!"
As a parent myself, it must be hell to be accused of harboring a would-be murderer as a son (daughter). Especially one who keeps getting all A's in his college-prep courses.
How does a parent get close enough to his high-school-age (or, these days, even younger) child to be aware of sudden violent turns in his personality. As I recall, it was only after Columbine that the police, combing through one of the perpetrator's upright parents‚ house discovered in the basement the makings of a fair-size bomb, and tape recordings of all sorts of Nazi-esque conversations with like-minded strangers. Well, how, in heaven's name, is a parent supposed to know what-all goes on in the life of his child? My gosh, in this case, an occasional, casual stroll through the family basement should have alerted even Mr. Rogers that something was rotten in Denmark. I'm depressed by TV's public-service announcements that offer a free list of questions by which parents can introduce the topic of drugs into a conversation with their kids. Has it come to this? That a parent has to rely on some stranger's words to begin a meaningful conversation with his (her) own flesh and blood? In all honesty, I think, and I use my parents' own family as an example, some children and their parents have drifted so far apart that it takes nothing less than a disinterested third party to bridge the gap.
My point in writing all this? To remind all parents, even those of the most exemplary students, that there's a certain junior-high and high-school age when you cease to know your kids half as well as you think you do (Sorry!). It may not be your fault. It may just be a fact of modern life. Advice: keep in touch with your kids; talk with them as often as you both can. Don't be judgmental. Encourage them to find their own best path. And don't, as parents, take anything for granted. That comes from teaching young women for 31 years; and from, with wife Ginny, raising our own independent-minded and non-murderous daughter Jessica.