31 January 2005

Single...With Children: Victims Of School Shooting More Than Those Killed, Wounded

Victims of school shooting more than those killed, wounded

Single ... with Children

Publication Date: 03/14/01

The column I had intended to write today was on a completely different subject, but after what has just occurred at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., I find I can't quite write about the silly exploits in my multipet, multigenerational home. I always thought a sense of humor could transcend just about any subject, and as I've listened to and read each news update with emerging details about this latest school shooting, I have come to the conclusion that it's just about the most unfunny thing imaginable. The only phrase that seems to apply is "senseless tragedy."

In my column, I have written many times about my own two teen-agers. I never print anything without their OK, and I must say I have been blessed in that they are most generous in allowing me to share our family life in my writing. When my kids learned of this latest shooting after arriving home from school, both immediately ran to turn on the news and learn exactly what had happened. My daughter was particularly upset.

Katie shared with me some of what she was thinking. She talked about how the morning of the tragedy, those two young men who were shot to death got up just like she did, probably wishing it wasn't Monday morning and feeling about as excited at the prospect of going to school as she did, which wasn't very much at all. She spoke of how they must have had their favorite classes, special friends and that they probably even enjoyed listening to the same music she did. She shook her head and, looking over at me with tears in her eyes, whispered, "but they never made it home."

I graduated from high school in 1978. My classmates and I weren't any more enthusiastic about school than teen-agers are today. We complained about a lot of things my own kids deplore - homework, tests, projects and cafeteria food. I find I can relate to many things my kids talk about. There are, however, a few things that I have absolutely no point of reference for when comparing my experience in secondary school with theirs. I can honestly say that I never had a fear of a classmate spraying bullets in the hallway during a change of classes. I never worried that a fire drill might be a plot by a student-turned-assassin to get people out of the school in order to take aim at them like ducks in a carnival shooting gallery. My high school experience didn't include routinely posted security personnel, a reminder that things can turn dangerous in a place that is supposed to be safe. I went through four years of high school without ever seeing anyone fear for his life.

When the casualties were tallied a few days ago, it was reported that 13 people were wounded and two lives were lost. That's not quite true. In fact, a whole student body was wounded, though not necessarily in the physical sense. When something like this happens, the damage extends far beyond the campus, the community and even the state. I believe the pain can be felt by every parent who sends his or her child off to school each morning. Going to school didn't always feel like a potentially dangerous concept and the families of those teen-agers wounded and killed in Santee fully expected to see them return home just as they left. They found out all too painfully that this isn't always the case.

When I think about the teen-ager alleged to have fired those bullets randomly in the corridors of his high school, I have to wonder what kind of maelstrom was going on in this young man. How did he arrive at the decision that would allow him to commit such an outrageous act of violence? What was the source of his anger? Did he feel unloved? Were his feelings similar to that of a young child who purposely misbehaves because negative attention is better than no attention at all? Were there signals and, if so, what were they and how can we learn to recognize them in our own community?

So many questions arise and so few answers appear to be forthcoming. Certainly we know that the teen-age years are very complicated to navigate. Physically and mentally, our kids are undergoing a multitude of changes. Many times I hear people reminding kids that "these are the best years of your life," but I always wonder if the folks saying this have amnesia. How many of us remember having a completely easy passage through middle and high school? I remember feeling lots of things such as confusion, insecurity, awkwardness and, occasionally, loneliness.

As my kids have grown older, people always ask what I do with my spare time now that I don't have small children to watch over. Sometimes I feel that society assumes that parents of teen-agers can quietly switch into autopilot. I've never bought into that for one second. Of course, as children grow older they're allowed more freedom to roam, and bikes are eventually replaced with cars.

We, as parents, have to work to stay involved in our teen-agers' lives. That means we actively keep the lines of communication not only open, but fully operational, and our radar has to be even more sensitive. It means letting them know that we still find every single facet of their lives interesting, every accomplishment important. Rather than ease up, we must become even more vigilant because the consequences are so much more serious than a skinned knee of a broken arm. The result of arms-length or passive parenting can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Don't wait for an engraved invitation requesting that you take an active part in the life of your teen-ager. Don't be dissuaded by their complaints that you ask too many questions. Care enough to find out the answers. Be prepared to accept some perfunctory protests and perhaps even step on a few toes. For all the aggravation your child may profess, our charges take comfort in knowing that we're willing to take a certain amount of static to remain involved. Teen-agers, by virtue of their blossoming independence, naturally try to stretch their boundaries. It's our job, as parents, to make sure those boundaries aren't stretched so far that they snap.

Readers can e-mail Susie at Susiewrites@gmail.com or write to her c/o Amarillo Globe-News, Features Dept., P.O. Box 2091, Amarillo, TX 79166.

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