Do Something About It

Credit to troywayrynen on flickr.
Credit to troywayrynen on flickr.

Fourteen months ago I wrote an essay that appeared on Gawker.com as a response to the Newtown shootings. I wanted people to know what it felt like to be shot while you were at elementary school, as I was subject to a drive-by shooting at my elementary school in 1995 orchestrated by teenagers—teenagers that actually went to Reynolds High School. You can read the article if you wish, but the general point I tried to make was that if mental healthcare stayed dismal and gun laws lax in this country, you would only see more and more of these events happening.

Sucks that another 2,800+ kids at Reynolds High School may know some of the hell I’ve gone through firsthand. You really hoped twenty dead six and seven year olds would have changed that, but apparently not.

I received the flash alert that the shooting was happening as I boarded the bus to meet up with my former high school teacher. As more and more details came out I knew instantly that despite Reynolds High School’s reputation, this was not a gang-related shooting. Reynolds is two and a half miles away from my childhood home and if the district boundaries weren’t drawn all wonky, I should have actually gone there for high school before I eventually transferred into a school in inner-Northeast Portland. The school I work at now nine months out of the year is eight miles away from them. A lot of our kids are supposed to go an already overcrowded Reynolds, but transferred to our school instead. But when I got off transit and walked towards my alma-matter to meet my former teacher, I had to cross the overpass along NE 12th Avenue. I’ve crossed that I-84 overpass thousands of times since I started high school there in 2000, but I’ve never seen anything like I did on Tuesday. I stood almost fifteen miles from Reynolds High School and I watched as in excess of thirty or so different types of emergency vehicles raced east towards them.

Cops cars, ambulances, fire trucks, SWAT vehicles all coming from different cities and counties.

It was as if the world was ending. For so many of us every time this happens, it feels like it is.

I outed myself to my boss on the night of the shootings and sent her the article describing my battles with PTSD. It was not only terrifying, but was something I never should have had to feel the need to do. I sent her the article and told her if any of the kids needed someone to talk to about this when we all meet up later this summer, I was willing to share my experience.

The day after the shootings I went to the Portland Art Museum because when situations like these keep cropping up, my brain goes primitive real fast.I’ve learned over the years in psychology classes and trainings that it’s a fun feature of PTSD. Everything is ugly; go look at a pretty picture. So I did, and while I browsed in the gift shop I overheard two women talking about the shooting. They were discussing how a small vocal minority was literally running our country now. They talked about many things I spoke about in my Gawker article—that money was driving everything and while politicians were arguing loudly in front of cameras, they were doing very little to fix anything when the lights were off. However, one of the two women proposed an idea—to meet the extreme with the extreme. As long as these zealots continue to defend a right that is not working in its current form, she said parents should send a message instead.

“Every parent in this country who wants this stuff to change should keep their kids home from school. I bet when there are no children to teach and the threat of us having even more uneducated Neanderthals out there, the government will find a solution real quick. They’ll change the laws and actually give the schools the mental health resources they need to deal with kids before they kill each other.”

It’s an interesting proposition. As someone who works in education, I probably shouldn’t endorse it necessarily, but I do really think we are at a point of fighting the extreme with the extreme.

This is not working. Either get on board to help fix it, or we will take whatever measures we have to so you will.

Drunk driving laws changed drastically in America because of organizations like MADD, so maybe it’s time for a similar movement—one that demands we change gun laws in a tangible way and step up funds for multiple mental health professionals in every school.

Along with having a few stiff drinks, I spent the rest of my day thinking about what the hell I would tell the kids I work with when they’re looking for answers for all of this. I’ve opened the door to have to discuss this with them, so I guess maybe I should spend some time hashing out what kind of solace I can actually give them.

I think I have one little glimmer of hope for them. While the chasm was deep and easy for those of us with mental health issues to fall through, it is narrowing. It was so easy to “fall through the cracks” before the Affordable Care Act came through, and it was easy to justify not treating mental health issues when it was completely cost prohibitive. We aren’t out of the woods yet, but it feels like “the crack” is quickly reducing to the size of the Grand Canyon instead of a black hole.

The reality is I don’t think I can just leave it at that. I would love to leave it on a positive note but I can’t lie to them. I think I’d have to tell them that as long as the status quo is allowed to still rule, we will keep having this “motivated by money/disregard for human life” attitude. That isn’t me just slagging off the NRA—that’s me slagging off every level of government for not allocating more funds so we can have trained mental health professionals working with kids.

My job title is “tutor”. I think I spend 30% of any given day actually tutoring. The rest is spent dealing with stuff someone with a Masters in Social Work or Psychology should be doing. Why am I doing it? Because our district can’t afford the proper resources for our students. We are on the Titanic and every staff member, qualified or not, is literally plugging the holes with their fingers while watching ten more open up.

What I would tell them is no one valued my generation’s lives and stopped this fifteen years ago with Columbine, or a few years before when I was on my hands and knees on the floor near the “reading rug” at Powell Valley Elementary.

I would tell them not only to remember Reynolds, but in a few short years when they can legally do something about it, do it. In the meantime, they should let everyone know they are coming, they are pissed and they will not let this go on.

2 thoughts on “Do Something About It

  1. Forgive my lengthy reply, but your response gave me great pause, and plenty to think about.

    First, I read your other essay for context and was really glad I did.
    Second, I am so sorry to read about such a harrowing experience and the PTSD you suffer with.

    “I think I spend 30% of any given day actually tutoring. The rest is spent dealing with stuff someone with a Masters in Social Work or Psychology should be doing.”
    I deeply relate to that.

    When I learned the proverb, “Physician, heal thyself,” I hardly ever thought of it in terms of being conscious of not faulting or correcting others for defects you have within yourself. I also never considered the modern translation, “check yo self before you wreck yo self” as more of the same.

    I took “Physician, heal thyself,” more to heart when I was studying secondary education, got into the high school classroom to do fieldwork and teach, and found myself being mentor and sounding board instead. There were layers of personal wreckage and fears weighing on these students that needed to be hosed off before we could even get to the work of learning. They shared poems and told me about their lives and their troubles at home, and it unearthed my own layers of fear and self-shame. I remembered very keenly what it was like to be a teenager.

    I switched gears and studied psychology instead. From there, I healed myself—my dealings with violence and being bullied in the school, after school, and in my own family. It allowed me to become strong and resilient enough to help others. It made me realize how we need psychologists as much as we need teachers in the schools, perhaps, even in the workplace. And if it weren’t for school counselors and “tutors” like you, I would not have survived.

    The immense pressure cooker within and from without that a young person goes under while they are forming their identity is a known part of growing up. We had recess, we had sports, we had music and arts for expression—these were the outlets to occupy us and let off steam.

    We have less of all three now, including physical education and recess. Kids are less adept and have less access now. They hardly know how to socialize or play together or explore and release tension. They are told to be quiet, kept inside where it’s “safe” and their time is regulated in school and after school. Those without such supervision likely crave the structure and seek attention. In either case, it was bad enough before the advent of technology and the feed, and it’s a whole new game now.

    Any “free” time is often spent in a virtual world where one manicures their social identity and that, I think, creates a disparity between the fictional world of looking cool and the reality of being young, awkward, different, or rejected. That disparity results in even more undue pressure to keep up appearances and stay balanced in those two worlds. This continues on to college campus in the same form of pressure to perform and to succeed.

    When it got bad in the real world, when emotions and frustrations ran high, kids used to fight on the playground, or in the parking lot, or the game field. Now they bring weapons and make a bigger, more terrifying statement guaranteed to hit the social media stream. It’s not real unless it’s as cinematic as reality tv. It feels like the very real cry for help of young adult suicide has morphed into the walloping howl of public homicide/suicide.

    Politicizing the issue strictly towards gun control and access to prevent violence isn’t enough. Our every move in the real and virtual worlds is already under scrutiny and monitoring. Everything is trying to get our attention, sell us something, and make us fit better, especially on sites like Facebook where everyone is supposed to be our “friend.” There’s something deeper here about the way we live and experience our world and ourselves, and I think some healing and helping needs to be done, too.

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    1. Hey Andrea, I do agree with your overall sentiment– this is larger than just one thing (guns).

      First off, have you read a teacher from Reynolds perspective? It’s interesting to hear his perspective on this: https://www.facebook.com/seth.needler/posts/10152305971767933?fref=nf

      Secondly, I recognize this issue is deeply personal to me, because of my experience, and perhaps I am blinded with anger. Honestly, I’m starting to think a good portion of this is cultural for me too. The gun-love in America I think is maddening to me, because I am 29 years old and have spent about 17 years of my life living outside the country. I pretty much have a European mindset towards firearms. Also consider, I had only been in America less than 18 months when the drive-by happened at my elementary school. Sort of a bad start, really.

      Anyway, the culture of violence and dehumanization IS the problem– you’re 100% right. It’s ultimately why we are feminists, right? We are sick of the culture of violence perpetrated against marginalized groups. But like you said, something changed. We fought with our fists on the playground, but now kids bring guns to school. I think we also very realistically have to look at all sides of why things have ramped up to such a drastic statement. Assessing what factors have contributed us to dehumanize each other is SO NECESSARY. But we also have to figure out why the tools used now are so easily obtained, as well. Are they easier to obtain? Do more households have them? Are people less careless with their storage of them?

      We will never get rid of guns in this country– I know and accept this. I guess my issue is this; half the time I can’t trust that the parents of the kids I work with will make a proper choice of (for example) forgoing that extra large vodka bottle for a smaller one (or none at all), so their child can have breakfast. How the hell am I supposed to trust that their guns aren’t readily accessible?

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