The Most Important Thing I Have Read Today

Or will read for many days to come. Commenter rossaforbes, on a post over at John Hayden’s blog (which seems to keep changing its name 🙂 ) responded to my remarks about the Sandy Hook school shooting — which has been talked to death everywhere, but usually with little insight — by contributing a link to a terrific essay about this type of event. The writer shares my gut instinct about mass killings committed by bright, isolated kids like Adam Lanza: simply, as a nation we treat our bright young people so badly (or at least do so little to prevent their ill-treatment), we value them so poorly, that it would be surprising if things like this didn’t happen. Leave aside, for now, the immediate glaring issue of how easy it is to get your hands on a firearm; enough people are talking about that. When I was eleven years old and being hounded and harassed to the brink of tolerance by classmates two years older than I was — because I used “big words” and liked Brahms symphonies better than the Beatles and would rather do Yoga than play kickball — I had an ace card some kids don’t: I might have been a four-eyed geek, but I was also, in my imagination, John Henry and Brynhild and the miner in the Sixteen Tons song, and when I blew my stack, six heckling little eighth-grade bitches ended up in the nurse’s office. Ordnance wasn’t as common in 1966. But beating the shit out of people does, sometimes, at least get you respect.

I’m looking at you, President Obama. It may sound profound to stand up there with your bare face hanging out and talk about “unimaginable evil,” but let’s take some time to think about the unimaginable evil committed every day when smart, sensitive kids are thrown into the dens of hyenas that we call kindergartens, elementary and middle schools — barely distinguishable from prisons in which the “sisters” and bullies actually run the social order, while the wardens, excuse me, teachers and administrators, do little more than keep the inmates warehoused and jumping through the prescribed hoops. Let’s think about the holocaust of human potential that occurs on an ongoing basis, instead of just wringing our hands about bright kids who “underachieve” or about the ones who melt down entirely. And let’s ask, for pity’s sake, what the hell is wrong with a nation that so hates and fears intellectual agility.

Here is the full essay, linked in three parts at the Daily Beast.

“We have a love-hate relationship with talent in American society. Certain forms of talent we easily respect: talent at athletics, talent for entertainment. Unfortunately for people like me, intelligence isn’t a talent American culture respects. At all. Even our supposedly pro-geek culture today isn’t born of love of intelligence, but of love of the money generated by intelligence. Did anyone appreciate Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs before they got rich? The one TV show that deals (insufficiently) with what it’s like to be an outcast – Glee – takes care to ensure that all of its protagonists possess a talent that is completely non-academic. It says something that our politicians go to great lengths to portray themselves as regular folk writ large, even when they’re demonstrably not, rather than as smart and/or capable leaders. Those who portray themselves (or get portrayed) as capable rather than relatable … lose.”

The implications go a long, long way beyond school shootings. Because when capable people lose, we all lose.

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10 thoughts on “The Most Important Thing I Have Read Today

    • Gladly done. The only thing I wish the writer had mentioned was the responsibility that *everyone* bears when parents are not as well meaning as he seems to hope they are: not “refuges” but active sources of misery for a kid who goes on to be persecuted in school. Sometimes having a kid with “a problem” is the crackerjack life strategy for a parent who can’t bear to be seen as having any flaws. “Of course I drink! Look at what the kid puts me through!” “Of course I melt down and scream! That kid is more than anyone can handle!” Never mentioning, of course, that this one was drinking industrially years before having kids and that one was a tantrum-throwing tyrant long before parenthood set in. Been watching out for someone in that pickle myself for the past few years, not sure how much good it’s done, but some. I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen it.

  1. I’ll definitely read that. I have said more than once that I was very lucky not to have grown up in a household or community where there were guns. Most of my adolescence from ages 11-16 were spent fantasizing about killing people in exactly the way that school shooters tend to do–indiscriminately, with no compassion for the “innocent.” To me, every single person was responsible. I don’t think that, at bottom, I’m actually a violent person; what I do think was that I was disempowered in a way that was unforgivable, and that this fantasy with the gun was the only means I could imagine to reclaim any power. This dream of violence was primarily about killing myself, but it absolutely involved taking as many people with me as I possibly could.

    By the time I was old enough to purchase firearms, I no longer wanted to do that. But if I’d had access as a kid … something Columbine-esque would have been in the news a decade sooner, and in a different location.

    • I think we’re about twenty years apart. It was shockingly rare, in my school days, for people whose occupation didn’t require it to own firearms — at least where I lived. A kid showing up at school with a gun was something that happened exactly once when I was in high school, and it was unloaded, but all of us were speechless and appalled that he had done it — a member of the Young Americans for Freedom who had abstracted a handgun belonging to his father for reasons no one ever quite understood.

      I might have spurned the idea even if it had been more possible — I always felt that fighting lost something when it became possible to do it at a distance. 🙂 No, seriously, I also had a whole stump speech about how guns had made it too easy to go to war or in general hurt people. But they got me to the point I *wanted* to feel those blows land. I didn’t hurt anyone badly enough to need more than a Band-aid or an aspirin, but you can imagine the ruction, and of course it was all supposed to be about my “problems” and not about the people who had been systematically making my life hell for the past three or four years. They sent me off to a shrink of some sort, who was about as much use as a rubber shovel, except to make me consider the critical issue: that if I did something like that again, it would give people an excuse to *fuck with my life.* And I wasn’t about to let that happen, not when the most important thing on my horizon was getting to a place where as few people as possible could tell me what to do. No idea what might have happened if I hadn’t had that motivation.

      But a corner of my mind will be bitter forever. People throw their young into those school hellholes like someone throwing chum to sharks.

  2. Very interesting. I’ve always thought that the popularity of things like Harry Potter and superhero stories is partly because they are ways for tormented youth to escape into a fantasy world where if they only had the same powers they could settle some scores. If that’s true, given the popularity of these things, there are a lot of ticking timebombs out there.

    • And the energy that primes those timebombs is the same energy that should be sending us all to the stars, or simply to a future of possibilities and insights… if we could abort the envious, destructive social construct that designates smart and eccentric young people as legitimate prey.

      BTW, I highly recommend the work of John Granger (HogwartsProfessor.com) for a dissection of the Harry Potter novels. Granger is a committed Christian — something I emphatically am not — and interprets HP from that perspective, but unlike a lot of Christian apologists, he groks life as a school inmate.

  3. This post is just…it gives me a lot of feelings. Mostly I feel sad, for myself and for all of the other “weird” kids I know who are considered “weird” because they are smart but don’t hide it, or because they have interests considered esoteric, or because they can’t haven’t quite learned that it’s not cool to be enthusiastic about things, or any number of things. We as a society claim to value things like independence, critical thinking, inventiveness, passion, intelligence, but ask anyone who has ever actually exhibited any of those traits and I’m sure most of us will have similar stories about how we were made to feel like there was something terribly wrong with us because of these qualities.

    Of course now that I’m a grown-up who has learned to assimilate (kind of) I find myself way more accepting of “weirdness,” especially in kids and teens, just because I can’t bear the idea of contributing to the mentality that made me so miserable when I was a little thing.

    • Yeah, I make a kind of guerilla project out of affirming young people who I can see are in those crosshairs; they appeal to my emotions just as the majority of children make me want to run the other way. “Not cool to be enthusiastic about things:” god, yes. Unless approved by Tiger Beat and Mattel, or whoever sets out to create priorities for a given generation.

  4. So much of the reaction following Sandy Hook is meaningless noise about gun control and school safety planning, etc. (OK, gun control and school safety are valid subjects.) It’s a relief to find deeper issues raised and discussed here. The difficulties faced daily by some (many) children are overwhelming. It overwhelms me just trying to organize them in my head.

    The issue of individual suicide has been almost ignored. For every school shooter, there must be hundreds or thousands of young people who take their own lives in similar circumstances. I wish we could convene a council or establish a college to study the challenges faced by growing children (and their parents and teachers).

    It’s not only the highly intelligent and eccentric children who are tormented or ostracized. Those who are slow, or disabled or different in any way also suffer.

    To be fair, the exceptionally intelligent or talented often gain special treatment. In many school systems, they’re identified early on and placed in programs for the “gifted and talented.” In high school they take advanced-placement college prep classes, and sometimes have little contact with “average” students. They get into the best colleges. Once they survive freshman year, their prospects of financial and career success far exceed the average.

    Many states have also made good progress in special education for those with learning disabilities.

    But woe to the exceptionally intelligent or talented child born to middle-class or poor parents and sent to the typical public school. Once in a while, they’re lucky enough to find a mentor among the faculty. But even a dedicated school counselor or teacher can protect a “different” child for only a few hours a day.

    Social trends conspire to make childhood more dangerous than before. Like some of the others who’ve joined this conversation, I grew up in a time and place when guns were rare. The few adults who owned a gun were often embarrassed about it, and kept it hidden. Nearly every child in my working-class neighborhood had two parents. Children were never far from adult supervision. (Most adults seemed responsible, but not always loving or enlightened.) Anything more violent than a half-hearted fistfight or a scraped knee was exceedingly rare.

    I’m at a loss for any generalization or conclusion. I have a sinking feeling that there’s some fateful flaw in the American society or psyche. Many other countries, regardless of wealth, have more civility, better education systems and far less gun violence.

    • You have an important point about the transformation of the childhood landscape; part of it is the economic imperative — a specially wretched piece of fallout from our bottom-line culture — that makes it nearly impossible for a family to have any security on one income (two is hard enough), so that neither parent, I don’t care which one, is in a position to form a normal sort of community engagement with parents of other young people and teachers and who-all have you. It just makes the children more isolated within their age group; Lord of the Flies.

      I’m not that sure about gifted and talented programs. America luhhhvs its retarded kids, as I’ve remarked elsewhere not so long ago; theyre not threats and will do what adults tell them, so they’re adored and people bend over backwards to create spaces for them in school and protect them and hoorah about the Special Olympics and make what I think are ridiculous fusses about what they’re called. Once upon a time you heard simpleton, slowcoach, natural — pretty descriptive. Then people got medical and coined the precise terms moron, imbecile, idiot — if you don’t know, those corresponded to specific IQ numbers. Then people didn’t like that and it had to be “mentally retarded;” OK. Now you are not supposed to say retarded because someone’s feelings might be hurt — and I think it’s mostly about the parents’ feelings, but how many words can you coin for the same thing? Eventually they’ll all carry the same connotation. No one likes to admit that deficient is, well, dammit, deficient. I just got into a shindy elsewhere on the Net about this, and the dog-pile of people responding with abusive language and wishing for something bad to happen to me because I had offended their sacred social group was downright frightening.

      When I was in seventh grade, the only thing resembling a “gifted and talented” program was a part-day seminar that I was disqualified from because I was… too young. Hello? The whole point about being gifted is that you’re very smart and inquiring when you’re very young. At the same time, there was a complete and separate all-day “MR” class. Someone had the smart idea I should come and sing to them once (I could play a guitar and had a large original repertory). They couldn’t have cared less; I might as well have been banging on pots. It was a waste of everyone’s time. The lights were on and no one was home — but they had a whole class to themselves. Smart kids? I had to wait until my senior year of high school for an “advanced” world literature class. Now we do have AP placements, at about the same age. At that point, to hell with it.

      And I still believe that someone I loved very much – a pre-med student when she killed herself — is dead largely because she watched her mother coddle retarded kids (and force her to help coddle them) while ignoring her as she sunk into depression. Imagine the Adam Lanzas of the world making similar observations.

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