My dad is a postal worker and the term “going postal” was a joke in our house growing up, a way of diffusing or reclaiming a phrase that perpetuates a hurtful stereotype that postal workers are crazy and violent or that the post office is somehow a dangerous place. Less than a year after my parents moved away from my hometown and my dad transferred to a post office out of state, a woman walked into the facility where he used to work and murdered six of his former coworkers. The woman was an ex-employee, someone my dad had worked with years before. He remembered her as seeming not quite right.
I was a senior in high school when Columbine happened. I remember finding out about it after school on a warm spring day a couple of months before graduation and thinking, cynically, that it wasn’t surprising. There had been quite a few school shootings in the years leading up to that, everyone had seen Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video a few years back, and the shootings always seemed to happen in places I assumed were oppressive–cookie-cutter suburbs and rural backwaters. I felt detached from it all and annoyed with the media for repeating the phrase “trenchcoat mafia.” I don’t remember ever feeling unsafe at my school, like anything like that could happen there. High school sucked, but mine didn’t seem to have a particularly exclusive culture. There were athletes and goths and hippies and no clear popular group to make any “type” or weirdo feel like the only one on the outside. I’m not saying there weren’t outcasts; it just wasn’t an environment that seemed likely to drive outcasts to revenge or insanity. I think we were all pretty privileged to know there was a lot more to life than high school. This is what I remember, anyway.
The charter school I teach at shares a campus with a large, comprehensive high school. Our classrooms are hooked up to their intercom system, which they say they can’t disconnect because what if there was an emergency? Every day, we have to listen to the other school’s announcements and their students being called to the attendance office. We usually talk over it, me shouting the homework or instructions for the beginning of class. This morning, there was a lot of commotion in class, kids bustling to find papers, turn things in, etc., so I could only hear snippets of the announcements, including the other school’s principal saying, “There are things on the news that make us want to cry.” I thought, “Well, yeah, now that you mention it the budget crisis does make me want to cry.” She went on to say something about “peace and love,” which was unusual but I didn’t think too much of it. My student teacher was teaching that period, so I left to go to the bathroom and make tea before sitting down at the computer in the corner of the room and opening up the news to learn of the school shooting in Connecticut. I sat there in a daze while class went on. When I was a teenager, these events didn’t surprise me, but as an adult, each one arrests my heart for a second. Watching the news feels surreal, like I’m watching a dystopian horror film, warning that this is what America could come to. I listen to news analysis that goes on and on about guns, mental healthcare, and media–all of which are relevant–but it is my belief that mass shootings are a virus or a symptom of one, a sign that the society we live in is seriously ill. I do not believe that this kind of crime occurs in a society with a moral compass or in a culture that lives by a value system in which all human beings are treated like they have equal and inherent worth. Mass shootings, I am sure, only happen in a society where people feel alienated by a lack of meaningful relationships and a lack of meaningful work, in a society where the only power available is brute force. Let’s be clear: guns, mental healthcare, media are not roots of anything. These are products of our culture, just like killers are. What do they say about the values we live by? About how and to what we assign worth? I’m not talking about the values we say we live by. I’m talking about where we put our money. Where we put our time. Where we put our eyes, our ears, our energy. What that says about us. We’re all part of this.