Reflections on VT

I’ve had a few days to think about Virginia Tech. I’ve thought off and on whether or not it would be a good idea to say anything. So many people, so many comments and opinions online already – what can I hope to add?

When I first heard the news, I thought of two things.

One, how horrible it would be to get trapped in Patterson Hall here at the University of Memphis with a shooter going on a rampage. All the classrooms have one door and the windows are not only permanently sealed, but pretty damn thick – I’m not sure someone throwing a metal desk chair would be able to break through one in a pinch. Also, the jump from the 3rd and 4th floors is onto concrete because of the decorative walkway on the 2nd floor. Now the doors are heavy, but Cho apparently forced his way in some doors and shot through others at VT.

Two, I thought of Columbine. And in particular, the Onion’s take on Columbine, which said something at the time that needed to be said more. There are a multitude of factors in these kind of incidents – mental health being the predominant one in this fellow’s case, it seems – but the first cause I always think of is bullying.

I was bullied in middle and high school a reasonable amount. Not as much as others, but more than many. As a result, I don’t look at grades 6-12 as a happy time, not at all. Being a social outcast with no immediate means of changing your situation does strange things to the mind – I wouldn’t say I was crazy, but I was unstable. College was a relief – no one has the time to pester you – and it wasn’t until I was some time into my 20’s, I think, that my self-esteem approached something resembling normal.

Could I have killed someone? I doubt it. I didn’t feel the urge to kill. Hurt, yes, definitely – specific people, most of which have faded from memory, some that still linger. But still nothing beyond a schoolyard thrashing of black eyes and bloody noses, and certainly not random, innocent people.

Accounts of Cho as a small kid indicate he was unnaturally quiet. That was the word everyone used for me – quiet. I still get it that word sometimes, even today, and it retains some sting.

Quiet for me is something that happened around 6th grade – it was a defense mechanism I devised to get through every school day. Being quiet attracted the least attention. In high school I never ate in the cafeteria – I instead found an empty classroom or one of a dozen obscure nooks in various buildings. I almost never spoke up in class. I hate being called quiet to this day because it tells the back of my brain to shut down before it gets a chance to fire up – it reinforces the old pattern.

It was teaching that finally fixed it for me. You have to talk to teach, and repeat yourself almost endlessly. I am a different person as a teacher, sort of like that surgeon with Tourette’s in Oliver Sack’s last book, whose hands calm down for operations.

But I still have that old skill in the back of my head, and sometimes I shut down in a large mixed group out of misguided self-preservation. It’s curious how hard it is to get started up again once I’ve shut down, so to speak. If you’re following the metaphors, I think of my brain as a boiler. It takes time to get up to steam, and the supply of wood is limited – though it is much expanded these days, and I can manage rather lengthy social occasions now.

Cho seems to have built a permanent turtle shell that protected him but locked him inside at the same time. In all the accounts I’ve read he is impenetrable, offering only a few glimpses of a strange fantasy-world. In that world, apparently, it was ok to kill a score or two of innocent people to account for a life spent in solitude.

Where college allowed me to start to open up, it shut him down even further. I’ve been reading a lot of VT teacher’s accounts, and they are full of self-blame. This is natural, I suppose, but I don’t think anyone could have helped this kid save himself. Whatever chemicals danced through his brain, we still live in a world based on free will (whether we have it or not) and thus he bears sole responsiblity for his actions.

He could have committed himself. You can’t grow up in Western society without acquiring at least a rudimentary sense of right and wrong unless you are a full-blown psychotic. There is no sane social system that allows the wanton slaughter of innocents – or the guilty, for that matter – a state of affairs that makes the war in Iraq the blight that it is.

The Columbine kids and Cho both came to the conclusion that the world is insane – that Western society is a lie, that there is more pain and mental anguish in the world than happiness and goodness – and that they were powerless in this bizarre experiment called life. Alas, the only idea they could come up with was a protest through mass carnage and self-martyrdom for themselves – the same kind of desperation with existence that fuels suicide-bombers.

I remember when Marilyn Manson was asked, in Bowling for Columbine, what he would say to the Columbine kids, and he replied, “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.” Terrible documentary, but I recall thinking it was a rather insightful remark at the time.

In light of Cho, though, that remark seems naive. Unlike the Columbine shooters, he had access to the unlimited wonders of college, and he was free of the social crucible of high school. He could have used all that fury for good and accepted some of the attempts to reach out to him. Colleges offer free counseling. The support system to catch him was there.

Instead, he killed 32 people.

Frankly, I really don’t want to know what he had to say. I’ve heard it before. Been there, done that. I already know life is nasty, brutish, and short, that the world is not ideal, and most of my students and people and general will never be as open-minded as I’d like them to be. The rational approach is to hate the damn system, as Lt. Callahan would say, but work within it and promote change.

Not to kill a 76-year-old survivor of the Holocaust for kicks. Cho didn’t show us the world is insane. History tells us that. He showed us that he was insane.

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