Some of you may have heard about the most recent school shooting, this one at Freeman High School in Rockford, WA (near Spokane). What most of you don’t know is that I grew up there, know those people, and attended Freeman Elementary and Middle Schools before transferring to a high school out of district.
Freeman is, as I’ve always half-joked, conveniently located between two wheat fields (just take a right at Bessie the Cow); more accurately, it’s a small school district with about 80 students per grade level, and many of those students come from farming or working class families. The great thing about small communities like that is they’re tight knit, and people take care of each other, as many families have known each other for generations: their fathers were friends, their daughters played soccer together, her brother married his sister, they opened up a store together, etc etc. It’s a really beautiful thing because it feels like everyone is a family. Except when you feel like the very distant cousin from Mars.
I transferred to a high school in downtown Spokane after 8th grade because I was often isolated, friendless and miserable while at Freeman. I was that Martian cousin, ostracized by my peers and occasionally their parents. I was always different — being outspoken, liberal, AND feisty isn’t the best combo if you want to avoid conflict at a conservative school. Sometimes I sought conflict because I didn’t know what else to do; I lashed out verbally at times, because I never fit in with the cliques that formed as early as first grade. Truly, I felt uncomfortable, out of place, and desperately unhappy for most of my time at Freeman. Children are horrible to each other no matter where you live. Teachers and parents, too.
The world changes so quickly. All three of the schools were remodeled shortly after I left. Students come and go, and a lot of my old teachers have retired. Perhaps a lot stayed the same. Perhaps it’s still a home full of family for some students, and a place of isolation and despair for others.
As I write, I can only think, “I don’t really know how to do this.” I don’t know how to convey both my sympathy and my memories all at once. I don’t know how say that my heart is broken for the community I grew up in and that I look back at my time there and feel ill and vulnerable, just as I did when I was 8. I can’t explain how uncomfortable I am with my conflicting feelings. I can’t cry over the beautiful memories I had there, because none really come to mind. But I can cry for the fact that there is something very, very wrong in our society when these events keep happening in different settings all over this country. Barely anyone knew where Freeman was, even in my neighboring town of Spokane, because it was quiet and small. Now, CNN is reporting on it.
I will never sympathize with someone who hurts others. But I can, perhaps unfortunately, empathize. I don’t want to make Freeman out as a horrible place…it is no more deserving of tragedy than any other place on this earth. But I see this combination all too often: a child obsessed with revenge — obsessed with school shootings — attacking the place they’re supposed to call home.
They released the boy’s name within the past day or so. He looks a little familiar, but his name doesn’t. I probably don’t know him at all. Maybe I just know the look on his face, as it reflects that of so many school shooters before him. He’s a child. He’s a child with the strength of an adult, weapon in hand. It’s no one’s fault. It’s everyone’s fault. I don’t know where to place blame, so I let it float out in the air hoping it’ll eventually land on something.
I was bullied in school, but I never did something like this. I wasn’t obsessed with school shootings. I wasn’t allowed to be obsessed with guns. Guns aren’t exactly uncommon in rural communities like this, and I remember children joking about using them when I was little, too. Everyone grew up much too comfortable with weapons. I was terrified of them, but my peers didn’t always seem to be. We can’t just say this boy was a wacko, because that ignores the real problems we need to face in this country. We can’t blame this solely on mental health problems. He was suicidal, but most suicidal people don’t try to bring others down with them. He took liking guns to another, more dangerous, level. Perhaps the fact that he had access to a gun is less important than his desire to use one to hurt others at such a young age, or perhaps that access to guns is what caused that desire in the first place. These problems are widespread across our society, and we need to find ways to teach our children that violence of any kind is just not the way to go. And we need to teach our children to stop treating each other so badly. Children, as I’ve said, are horrible to each other. But they don’t have to be. Not if we teach them how to love just a little harder.
I don’t know how to convey my feelings. But perhaps if we were a little more honest with ourselves about the complexities of these situations, we’d find more complex and effective ways to prevent them.