The big story never seemed to quite make it to the front pages or the TV talk shows. It wasn't whether the Net is a place for hate-mongers and bomb-makers, or whether video games are turning your kids into killers. It was the spotlight the Littleton, Colorado killings has put on the fact that for so many individualistic, intelligent, and vulnerable kids, high school is a Hellmouth of exclusion, cruelty, loneliness, inverted values and rage.
From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Todd Solondz's "Welcome To The Dollhouse," and a string of comically-bitter teen movies from Hollywood, pop culture has been trying to get this message out for years. For many kids - often the best and brightest -- school is a nightmare.
People who are different are reviled as geeks, nerds, dorks. The lucky ones are excluded, the unfortunates are harassed, humiliated, sometimes assaulted literally as well as socially. Odd values - unthinking school spirit, proms, jocks - are exalted, while the best values - free thinking, non-conformity, curiousity - are ridiculed. Maybe the one positive legacy the Trenchcoat Mafia left was to ensure that this message got heard, by a society that seems desperate not to hear it.
Minutes after the "Kids That Kill" column was posted on Slashdot Friday, and all through the weekend, I got a steady stream of e-mail from middle and high school kids all over the country -- especially from self-described oddballs. They were in trouble, or saw themselves that way to one degree or another in the hysteria sweeping the country after the shootings in Colorado.
Many of these kids saw themselves as targets of a new hunt for oddballs -- suspects in a bizarre, systematic search for the strange and the alienated. Suddenly, in this tyranny of the normal, to be different wasn't just to feel unhappy, it was to be dangerous.
Schools all over the country openly embraced Geek Profiling. One group calling itself the National School Safety Center issued a checklist of "dangerous signs" to watch for in kids: it included mood swings, a fondness for violent TV or video games, cursing, depression, anti-social behavior and attitudes. (I don't know about you, but I bat a thousand).
The panic was fueled by a ceaseless bombardment of powerful, televised images of mourning and grief in Colorado, images that stir the emotions and demand some sort of response, even when it isn't clear what the problem is.
The reliably blockheaded media response didn't help either. "Sixty Minutes" devoted a whole hour to a broadcast on screen violence and its impact on the young, heavily promoted by this tease: "Are video games turning your kids into killers?" The already embattled loners were besieged.
"This is not a rational world. Can anybody help?" asked Jamie, head of an intense Dungeons and Dragons club in Minnesota, whose private school guidance counselor gave him a choice: give up the game or face counseling, possibly suspension. Suzanne Angelica (her online handle) was told to go home and leave her black, ankle-length raincoat there.
On the Web, kids did flock to talk to each other. On Star Wars and X-Files mailing lists and websites and on AOL chat rooms and ICQ message boards, teenagers traded countless countless stories of being harassed, beaten, ostracized and ridiculed by teachers, students and administrators for dressing and thinking differently from the mainstream. Many said they had some understanding of why the killers in Littleton went over the edge.
"We want to be different," wrote one of the Colorado killers in a diary found by the police. "We want to be strange and we don't want jocks or other people putting us down." The sentiment, if not the response to it, was echoed by kids all over the country. The Littleton killings have made their lives much worse.
"It was horrible, definitely," e-mailed Bandy from New York City. "I'm a Quake freak, I play it day and night. I'm really into it. I play Doom a lot too, though not so much anymore. I'm up till 3 a.m. every night. I really love it. But after Colorado, things got horrible. People were actually talking to me like I could come in and kill them. It wasn't like they were really afraid of me - they just seemed to think it was okay to hate me even more? People asked me if I had guns at home. This is a whole new level of exclusion, another excuse for the preppies of the universe to put down and isolate people like me."
It wasn't just the popular who were suspicious of the odd and the alienated, though.
The e-mailed stories ranged from suspensions and expulsions for "anti-social behavior" to censorship of student publications to school and parental restrictions on computing, Web browsing, and especially gaming. There were unconfirmed reports that the sale of blocking software had skyrocketed. Everywhere, school administrators pandered and panicked, rushing to show they were highly sensitive to parents fears, even if they were oblivious to the needs and problems of many of their students.
In a New Jersey private school, a girl was expelled for showing classmates a pocket-knife. School administrators sent a letter home:
"In light of the recent tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, we all share a heightened sensitivity to potential threats to our children. I urge you to take this time to discuss with your children the importance of turning to adults when they have concerns about the behavior of others."
This solution was straight out of "1984." In fact, this was one of the things it's protagonist Winston was jailed for: refusing to report his friends for behavior that Big Brother deemed abnormal and disturbing.
Few of the weeks? media reports - in fact, none that I saw - pointed out that the FBI Uniform Crime reports, issued bi-annually, along with the Justice Departments reports (statistical abstracts on violence are available on the Department's website and in printed form) academic studies and some news reports have reporters for years now. Violence among the young is dropping across the country, even as computing, gaming, cable TV and other media use rises.
Unhappy, alienated, isolated kids are legion in schools, voiceless in media, education and politics. But theirs are the most important voices of all in understanding what happened and perhaps even how to keep it from happening again.
I referred some of my e-mailers to peacefire.org, a children's rights website, for help in dealing with blocking and filtering software. I sent others to freedomforum.org (the website Free!) for help with censorship and free speech issues, and to geek websites, especially some on ICQ.com where kids can talk freely.
I've chosen some e-mailers to partially reprint here. Although almost all of these correspondents were willing to be publicly identified - some demanded it - I'm only using their online names, since some of their stories would put them in peril from parents, peers or school administrators.
From Jay in the Southeast:
"I stood up in a social studies class -the teacher wanted a discussion -- and said I could never kill anyone or condone anyone who did kill anyone. But that I could, on some level, understand these kids in Colorado, the killers. Because day after day, slight after slight, exclusion after exclusion, you can learn how to hate, and that hatred grows and takes you over sometimes, especially when you come to see that you're hated only because you're smart and different, or sometimes even because you are online a lot, which is still so uncool to many kids?
After the class, I was called to the principal's office and told that I had to agree to undergo five sessions of counseling or be expelled from school, as I had expressed ?sympathy? with the killers in Colorado, and the school had to be able to explain itself if I ?acted out?. In other words, for speaking freely, and to cover their ass, I was not only branded a weird geek, but a potential killer. That will sure help deal with violence in America."
From Jason in Pennsylvania: "The hate just eats you up, like the molten metal moving up Keanu Reeve's arm in the ?The Matrix.? That's what I thought of when I saw it. You lose track of what is real and what isn't. The worst people are the happiest and do the best, the best and smartest people are the most miserable and picked upon. The cruelty is unimaginable. If Dan Rather wants to know why those guys killed those people in Littleton, Colorado, tell him for me that the kids who run the school probably drove them crazy, bit by bit?.That doesn't mean all those kids deserved to die. But a lot of kids in America know why it happened, even if the people running schools don't."
From Andrew in Alaska: "To be honest, I sympathized much more with the shooters than the shootees. I am them. They are me. This is not to say I will end the lives of my classmates in a hail of bullets, but that their former situation bears a striking resemblance to my own. For the most part, the media are clueless. They're never experienced social rejection, or chosen non-conformity'Also, I would like to postulate that the kind of measures taken by school administration have a direct effect on school violence. School is generally an oppressive place; the parallels to fascist society are tantalizing. Following a school shooting, a week or two-week crackdown ensues, where students? constitutional rights are violated with impunity, at a greater rate than previous."
From Anika78 in suburban Chicago:
"I was stopped at the door of my high school because I was wearing a trenchcoat. I don't game, but I'm a geekchick, and I'm on the Web a lot. (I love geek guys, and there aren't many of us.) I was given a choice - go home and ditch the coat, or go to the principal. I refused to go home. I have never been a member of any group or trenchcoat mob or any hate thing, online or any other, so why should they tell me what coat to wear?
Two security guards took me into an office, called the school nurse, who was a female, and they ordered me to take my coat off. The nurse asked me to undress (privately) while the guards outside the door went through every inch of my coat. I wouldn't undress, and she didn't make me (I think she felt creepy about the whole thing).
Then I was called into the principal's office and he asked me if I was a member of any hate group, or any online group, or if I had ever played Doom or Quake. He mentioned some other games, but I don't remember them. I'm not a gamer, though my boyfriends have been. I lost it then. I thought I was going to be brave and defiant, but I just fell apart. I cried and cried. I think I hated that worse than anything."
FromZBird in New Jersey:
"Yeah, I've had some fantasies about taking out some of these jerks who run the school, have parties, get on teams, are adored by teachers, have all these friends. Sure. They hate me. Day by day, it's like they take pieces out of you, like a torture, one at a time. My school has 1,500 kids. I could never make a sports team. I have never been to a party. I sit with my friends at our own corner of the cafeteria. If we tried to join the other kids, they'd throw up or leave. And by now, I'd rather die.
Sometimes, I do feel a lot of real pure rage. And I feel better when I go online. Sometimes I think the games keep me from shooting anybody, not the other way around. Cause I can get even there, and I'm pretty powerful there. But I'd never do it. Something much deeper was wrong with these kids in Colorado. To shoot all those people? Make bombs? You have to be sick, and the question they should be asking isn't what games do they play, but how come all these high-paid administrators, parents, teachers and so-called professional people, how come none of them noticed how wacked they were? I mean, in the news it said they had guns all over their houses! They were planning this for a year. Maybe the reporters ought to ask how come nobody noticed this, instead of writing all these stupid stories about video games?"
From ES in New York:
High school favors people with a certain look and attitude - the adolescent equivalent of Aryans. They are the chosen ones, and they want to get rid of anyone who doesn't look and think the way they do. One of the things which makes this so infuriating is that the system favors shallow people. Anyone who took the time to think about things would realize that things like the prom, school spirit and who won the football game are utterly insignificant in the larger scheme of things.
So anyone with depth of thought is almost automatically excluded from the main high school social structure. It's like some horribly twisted form of Social Darwinism.
I would never, ever do anything at all like what was done in Colorado. I can't understand how anyone could. But I do understand the hatred of high school life which, I guess, prompted it.
From Dan in Boise, Idaho:
"Be careful! I wrote an article for my school paper. The advisor suggested we write about ?our feelings? about Colorado. My feelings -what I wrote -- were that society is blaming the wrong things. You can't blame screwed-up kids or the Net. These people don't know what they were talking about. How bout blaming a system that takes smart or weird kids and drives them crazy? How about understanding why these kids did what they did, cause in some crazy way, I feel something for them. For their victims, too, but for them. I thought it was a different point-of-view, but important. I was making a point. I mean, I'm not going to the prom.
You know what? The article was killed, and I got sent home with a letter to my parents. It wasn't an official suspension, but I can't go back until Tuesday. And it was made pretty clear to me that if I made any noise about it, it would be a suspension or worse. So this is how they are trying to figure out what happened in Colorado, I guess. By blaming a sub-culture and not thinking about their own roles, about how fucked-up school is. Now, I think the whole thing was a set-up, cause a couple of other kids are being questioned too, about what they wrote. They pretend to want to have a 'dialogue' but kids should be warned that what they really want to know is who's dangerous to them."
From a Slashdot reader: "Your column Friday was okay, but you and a lot of the Slashdot readers don't get it. You don't have the guts to stand up and say these games are not only not evil, they are great. They are good. They are challenging and stimulating. They help millions of kids who have nowhere else to go, because the whole world is set up to take care of different kinds of kids, kids who fit in, who do what they're told, who are popular. I've made more friends online on Gamespot.com than I have in three years of high school. I think about my characters and my competitions and battles all day.
Nothing I've been taught in school interests me as much. And believe me, the gamers who (try to) kill me online all day are a lot closer to me than the kids I go to high school with. I'm in my own world, for sure, but it's my choice and it's a world I love. Without it, I wouldn't have one... Last week, my father told me he had cancelled my ISP because he had asked me not to game so much and I still was. And when he saw the Colorado thing online, he said, he told my Mom that he felt one of these kids could be me'I am a resourceful geek, and I was back online before he got to bed that night. But I have to go underground now.
My guidance counselor, who wouldn't know a computer game from Playboy Bunny poster, told me was Dad was being a good parent, and here was a chance for me to re-invent myself, be more popular, to ?mainstream.? This whole Colorado thing, it's given them an excuse to do more of what started this trouble in the first place - to make individuals and different people feel like even bigger freaks."
From Jip in New England:
"Dear Mr. Katz. I am 10. My parents took my computer away today, because of what they saw on television. They told me they just couldn't be around enough to make sure that I'm doing the right things on the Internet. My Mom and Dad told me they didn't want to be standing at my funeral some day because of things I was doing that they didn't know about. I am at my best friend's house, and am pretty bummed, because things are boring now. I hope I'll get it back."