Feb 162018

I graduated high school the year before the Columbine shooting. Columbine was a neighboring high school, only a few miles from mine. That day was a bad day for me. I kept thinking “that could have been me.” In retrospect, I don’t think it could have. I don’t think I could’ve ever brought myself to do such a thing. But I understood the urge. The despair and the rage.

The initial post that started this semi-diary blog was an emotion dump after a mass shooting. I guess here’s another one.

I feel lucky to have survived high school. Many of my peers feel the same way. High school is torturous on many levels, and it’s commonly accepted that analogies to prison aren’t far off, though not to the same scale. Sleep deprivation, social gangs, enforced idleness, and helplessness rule the day. I’ve never heard anyone in high school say it was anything but various levels of awful. I have heard someone say “I wrote myself a letter about high school when I graduated, because I knew it was likely that in the future I would look back on that time with rose-colored glasses. I’m glad I did, it helps me to remember how bad that place is.”

Yes, “depression,” granted. But depression isn’t one-way. It’s not only causal, it’s also caused, and the high school experience certainly kindled my years of depression just as much as the depression made high school worse. High school shouldn’t have to be a thing that young people must survive. Even if nearly all of them do manage it.

I have a friend a couple years younger than me with a complicated relationship with Columbine. After the shooting, life in school got significantly better for [them]. Because now other social gangs were far more reluctant to engage in abuse of [their] social group. It feels disgusting to say anything that can be mistaken as an implication that Columbine was justified. Murder is monstrous. How fucked up is the situation in our high schools if an act of terrorism can make life better for a significant percentage of students?

Among all the calls for gun control and mental health services, no one is saying anything about what it is that breaks a lot of people. No one mentions this environment, which many people have to spend untold dollars and many years of therapy recovering from once they escape. No one talks about what could drive someone to pick up that gun and lash out in rage at the place and the people they view as responsible for their pain.

I know, this isn’t the only cause of school shootings, nor the only type of shooter. And even for those who may fit this template, there are many inputs that lead to this, from our American history of violence, to social contagion, to personal psychological pathology, among dozens more. Yet high school remains horrible and torturous for many young people. And it should not be this way.

I don’t have much faith in my society to fix this. We’ve known for at least a decade that simply pushing back the start time of high schools leads to improved mental and physical health for teenagers, as well as improved education outcomes. And yet we can’t even manage to take that first, simple, step. Instead, our schools become more and more like prisons every year, with stricter security and greater authoritarian control. Things are trending the wrong way.

But for the first time in my life, I think I am at a point where I can actually say this sort of thing out loud, rather than just emotion-dumping on a blog. Our schools must stop being places that damage those people we force into them.

  6 Responses to “Two Decades”

  1. That is horrible. I decided to become a teacher after school because I liked going to school (well, I liked the holidays more but after 6 weeks in summer I was somewhat glad to go back and meet my friends again, most of whom I hadn’t seen during the holidays). Sure, there are good teachers and bad teachers and there are teachers the students like and those they don’t like (those are not the same categories.. we were kinda afraid of our math teacher in 8th grade but in hindsight most, if not all of us agreed that he was awesome… think of experiencing Quirrel backwards in time or something).. anway, I guess I digress.

    My point is that sure, we have subjects we don’t like as students (because they are difficult to learn and we think they are sorta useless, like german and french in my case) and we have subjects we don’t like for other reasons (I did not like art because of the deadlines when we had to hand in stuff and I was slow to work on the projects.. and I wasn’t good at it, which wasn’t helping) but there was always someone who felt the same and not being alone in that helped. And other subjects we might even look forward too (like physics, biology, chemistry, math, computer science in my case.. and sports, even though I wasn’t really good at it, it was still fun, like enforced playing or something).
    I think I had two big advantages: My school started at 8:05am and going there by foot took about 25min so it was enough to get up at 7:00. Other students had to get up way earlier because they had to take trains. And other schools start earlier, like at 7:30 is the earliest I heard about. If I had to get up at 5am for 8 years I might have hated it more too.
    The other big advantage was that I was sorta smart I guess and didn’t have to put much effort in it. The only things I really had to sit down and learn was french.. and english at the beginning, until I understood enough to play video games in english and read Harry Potter (the one by J. K. Rowling) in english. After that that wasn’t really necessary any more.

    I’ll have to ask my brother who did his 11th grade (in germany first grade starts at the age of 6 and then you just count upwards and back then the Abitur, which is basically the certificate that you finished your Gymnasium education, which is a kind of school.. it has nothing to do with sports, it’s just that after grade school, at the age of 10 you either go to the Gymnasium or the Realschule or the Hauptschule, based on how good you are at learning. Gymnasium is for the ‘best’ students and about half of the students go there.. it’s up to the parents to decide where to send the kid, but if you’re not that good at learning it makes more sense to do the Realschule and then later add 3 years to get the Abitur, since that’s easier but takes longer or not get it at all, depending on what you want to do).. I digress again I guess. Well, I’ll have to ask him how he experienced one year in Highschool in Tennessee.

    I don’t know what makes school shootings so much more common in the US than in germany. Obviously there’s differences in gun laws but the number of people with access to guns alone would not explain the difference. The US has more school shootings in a year than germany had since 1900 and that is weird. Unexplainable with what I know, I mean.
    USA: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_shootings_in_the_United_States#2018
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:School_shootings_in_Germany Total deaths: 69 since 1900.
    In germany there are roughly 30 guns per 100 residents, in the US it’s 101 guns per 100 residents. (I thought both numbers would be lower, the german one especially). Still, that means, since you have about 4 times the population and 3 times the number of guns per capita there should in theory be roughly 12 times as many school shootings. If that were the only deciding factor.

    Our societies don’t seem that different on the surface:
    https://www.hofstede-insights.com/product/compare-countries/ (Just enter germany and united states)
    Main differences: USA are a little more individualistic, USA have a higher indulgence value meaning they are more likely to allow people to do what they like. Germany is a lot more long-term oriented and has a little higher value for uncertainty avoidance.. I guess we have a bit more of a social safety net, maybe?

    I don’t know the situation that school shooters are in. The one from Winnenden, Germany (which is about 20km from here) apparently was suffering from depression and might have experienced school as something bad, as you described.

    I think our society might just be less violent or something. If you shoot an unarmed burglar in germany who doesn’t try to attack you then you go to jail. The whole german police force fires roughly 150-200 shots outside of practice per year (we have ~240,000 policemen, assuming each of them work for roughly 40 years that means the chance that a given police officer fires a single shot outside of practice during his career is roughly 3%), about 100-150 at people and the rest as warning shots. The number of people killed by police per year is roughly 10.
    Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Police_firearm_use_by_country#Germany
    I wouldn’t want to live in the US because the chance of being killed by violence is so high. 5 in 100,000 per year, while in germany it’s 0.8 per 100,000. Again I thought the difference to be greater, but still, that’s 15,000 people per year (assuming 300,000,000 population). In that light I don’t see why islamic terrorism is such a big deal, you basically have 3 9/11s every year. We need 8 years for one 9/11 (but it’s unfair since we have only a quarter of your population, so let’s say we have the amount of deaths as if we had a german 9/11 every two years).
    And yes, we’ve had our share of violent deaths 70-80 years ago so if you include those the numbers would probably be way different. I didn’t include them because they’re not relevant for either the felt nor the real safety from violence today.
    I guess I digress again.

    I think that this is way more of a factor than how school is perceived by students. Gun violence is just not viewed as an option by most people.

    But you are right. These problems are probably not connected, they just seem connected because their interaction causes school shootings. If students don’t view gun violence as an option and there are no more school shootings that’s great but it would be way nicer if they didn’t feel bad enough to start something like that in the first place.
    This school shooter survived, right? That got me relatively excited because I think they usually either get killed by the police or commit suicide. I really want to know why he did it.
    Other than whatever he says, I think there should be mandatory talks between a teacher (the homeroom teacher I guess or one that the student can pick, which might be a better option) and a student every 6 months or so, about how it’s going, their plans and how to achieve them, what kind of problems they have and things like that. On the other hand, I don’t know if a student would talk about problems like that but it might help to make a situation not look as hopeless as it would otherwise look, if they get some outside perspective. Obviously that would cost money because it’s additional work for teachers (let’s say half an hour per meeting between teacher and student, that’s 1 hour per year per student..apparently you have 5 million students per school year, let’s say that’s done for the last 6 years in school, that’s 30 million hours per year… let’s say a teacher costs $40 per hour, that’s 1.2b per year for all of the US). And since money for education is apparently short enough that teachers have to take a second job in Oklahoma to make enough money that leads me to the conclusion that you might have your priorities wrong. (Source: https://boingboing.net/2018/02/07/this-is-not-ok.html – 4-day-school-weeks because money)
    Just find one yellow square that you would allocate to that and you’re good: https://xkcd.com/980/huge/#x=-10176&y=-3968&z=4

    I’m not sure if you can change your society to be less violent. I read that article that you linked, that David Wong wrote, about why people vote for trump and this is a part of that. If owning a gun and defending your land with it is an important part of roughly 50% of the population it will be extremely difficult if not impossible to change that short-term. Good luck with making schools more tolerable instead, I hope you can somehow do that.

    • Thank you for the thought-out reply!

      US culture is definitely one that admires the “right” type of violence. Even if many people wouldn’t admit it, much of our entertainment carries the implicit message that if good people are simply violent enough at the correct targets, bad things can be prevented. Violence is accepted as a useful tool in the social toolbox, and that leads to it being used too much. Especially because it seems so simple and effective at first blush. I think “Bowling For Columbine” does a good job of explaining this culture and it’s roots, but to summarize, much of it comes from America’s early history as a slavery-powered nation and the foundation of violence that all such societies must be based on. That sort of origin has deep and long-lasting effects on a culture.

      Also — thank you for becoming a teacher! :) Despite my overall high school experience, I always loved the learning part of it. Teachers who did a good job teaching made every day significantly brighter and better. I also wanted to become a teacher when I left school, but I dropped out of college early, and at that time you couldn’t really get a job as a teacher without a degree. I’m glad there are people like you still doing your best!

      • I actually failed to become a teacher, I wasn’t good enough at teaching biology.. I still get mails from parents of children I tought asking me for tutoring in math though, so I can’t have been that bad there. I’m studying computer science and working at a company that makes web applications now.
        It’s also kind of a harsh job because you can’t really make a perfect lesson but investing more time usually improves it. It’s an asymptotic function I guess, getting ever closer to the best kind of lesson you could prepare. And I constantly had a bad conscience because I was always thinking I could have done more .. but after a while you just don’t have the energy and that doesn’t help the conscience at all. It just means that whenever you spend your free time on something else you have a nagging feeling that you should be preparing more and I guess that might have been bad for me long-term. I really, really like coming home and knowing that I don’t have to work any more until the morning of the next day.

        On the topic of happiness in school:
        I’ve thought about it a bit and decided that I might have been lucky with the people we had in our class/school. I don’t remember any conflict that we had that we did not all think was kind of a joke at least two days later. Sure, not everyone was friends with everyone but there were no hostilities the way they’re often pictured in these typical highschool scenarios depicted in cartoons and movies. There was mobbing but I think there was only one case in our class and the boy acted way superior to us (imagine Draco Malfoy alone in a normal school with nobody knowing who he is and no training or feel for situations). I think it was some religious thing, but I’m not sure. We had one really weird kid too who acted as if his hand was a spaceship a lot of the time (and commented on a volleyball bouncing off him in PE with “shields at 80%” or something and he called one pillar in the building the Warp Core) and I don’t think that there were any hostilities towards him.
        Everyone had at least a few friends they would spend the breaks with and do group assignments with or organise LAN-Parties with (LAN = Local Area Network. basically gaming) or whatever other people spent their time with.

        School shooters often had a few friends too, though. So that alone might not be enough. I still haven’t found anything about the motives the Florida shooter had. He’s probably not confessing yet, so we’ll have to wait until it’s proven that it was him or something. I really hope he’ll give enough insight into what went wrong that led to him doing this and I also hope that it leads to the people in power changing the situation. I think it’s likely that he’ll give us his reasons or motives eventually but honestly I think it’s unlikely that anything major will change.

        I mostly wrote this comment to tell you that I did plan to become a teacher and spent about 8 years with that but that I’m now doing something else because I failed. Maybe I’ll go into teaching of math or computer science again eventually, but not in the next 10 years or so. :-)

  2. This is very dispiriting, because I think you’re right. It’s hard to look at American culture from the outside and not see that your school system is somewhere beyond “failure” and into the realm of words like “travesty” and “disaster.” Not that education is all that much better here, but even so. And yet the political climate right now is, it seems, that we need more bullying, more authoritarian imposition of Order, more guns in schools. Maybe I’m just being too pessimistic, but the outlook really doesn’t seem good at all.

  3. Your experience matches what I’ve heard from many other people (plus or minus some details). For what it’s worth though, it doesn’t match my experience of high school. I had a great time in high school, really enjoyed my classes, made a lot of good friends, met my first girlfriend (we broke up after 6 months but are still close friends almost 20 years later), and learned a lot. I look back on it as one of the best times in my educational arc.
    I say this not to gloat, but to point out that we, as a society, are able to make and run good high schools with a good learning environment. We choose not to in most cases.
    In my case, what made the high school so good was that it was a specialized public high school in a large city. Students opted in to applying, and admission was competitive with only about 1% getting in. Students there wanted to be there. Everyone was at sufficiently similar levels that classes could be challenging and interesting instead of slow and dull. Even within the school they had (varying by department) 2-4 levels of tracking so they could make sure everyone was in classes that would be hard enough to be interesting for them.
    My city had a wide variety of other specialized high schools with lower cut off 98%-99%, 97%-98%, etc. in addition to subject based schools focusing on things like arts, journalism, health care, etc. In college and in life I’ve met many folks who went to these other schools and they generally had a good time as well.
    To make a system like that work, you need a large population base and transit so kids can get themselves to school, so you could only really have the full system in a major city.

  4. Fuck, is Columbine the reason why bullying was cut way down? I went to high school in the early aughts. Yes there were still fights and whatnot, but straight up bullying was kept to name calling and bumping/knocking books out of hands in the halls. I don’t know of anybody who was ever swirly-ed or any of the other stereotypical bullying type behaviors. I do specifically remember comments made about other students like “let’s be nice to that guy so he doesn’t kill us when he snaps”. It was also just before social media and smart phones took off so cyberbullying wasn’t really a thing yet, though we did all have dumb xanga and livejournal accounts where some proto-cyberbullying happened.

    For me, middle school was way worse than high school. I made a point to never wear clothes with a visible logo so as not to be teased for liking this or that brand. I couldn’t let people know I was in boy scouts or choir, because that would out me as “gay” (even though I’m not). A group of people referred to me as “weird kid”. I remember getting stuff stolen from me or my locker. I was in some advanced classes and had a heavier homework load than other kids in the neighborhood, so I could rarely play with them anymore. It was awful psychologically, though again, not too physically violent.

    I now live in a small rural town, and have a son who will be starting kindergarten in the fall. We haven’t decided yet, but are 90% sure he will be attending public school. I’d like to hope that he will be safe, but there was literally a shooting at the next town over last year (nobody got hurt thankfully, the badass gym teacher tackled the gunman). So this shit can happen anywhere. I’m not even sure if private schools are any safer. I do know that private schools have more flexibility in what they teach, and many of them end up pushing fucked up creationist bs, so that would be a deal breaker.

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