Littleton: After Some Reflection

Maybe opting out should start with high school

Littleton's tragedy shook me to the core, as I'm sure it did you. I wanted to wait, and reflect on it, before I said anything here. And what I say, I'm going to keep brief; I think there's been enough said already.

Coincidentally, this summer is my 20-year high school class reunion, and so I was thinking about high school anyway before this happened. Those years are summed up for me in the word "miserable."

Teenage wasteland

Most of what I learned that is useful in life I learned either in the earlier grades or after I left school entirely and headed out into the euphemistically termed Real World. The socialization I got in high school was a course in cynicism under intense pressure to conform. The four years I spent there were very nearly wasted, scholastically and socially. I know I'm not alone in this; I can feel heads nodding out there.

From everything I have heard from students today, it's only gotten worse. The single best thing that has come out of Littleton has been the flood of young voices, especially on the Internet, reminding us what's really going on in high school--as if us older folks have all somehow forgotten how awful it really was for most of us. Jon Katz has written a bunch of articles for the "nerd news site" Slashdot on the Littleton tragedy; this one is especially worth reading because it includes many of those "front line" accounts from kids. But I get the feeling not many people are listening.

What's the point?

The point of high school then and now seems to be more about scoring social points and simply proving that you can survive the system than learning anything. What I want to know is, why do we force our teens to endure that? Because it teaches them something? Somebody please explain to me what, and if it's really what we want them to learn. Or is it because we had to?

I talk a lot on this website about "opting out" of the mainstream culture. Staying home when the pressure is on to be an economically productive unit is a form of opting out. Turning off your TV is opting out. Attachment parenting your children is opting out. Living frugally is opting out. Putting your family's interest ahead of your employer's interest is opting out.

In this same vein, it's time we either rethink the entire high school experience, or start opting out of it too. And you know what? In my lifetime, I don't expect any serious rethinking of school, public or private.

12-26-05: Digging through old off-line Diary entries, I found this letter and my response and thought I should append it to this essay. If memory serves, the letter came a few days after the original essay was posted in 2000.

Here's some email I received today from Gina:

You seem to be very opinionated about the nonexistence of teen violence and while everyone is entitled to their opinion the facts speak for themselves. Just yesterday, a high school teen (male) from (I hate to admit) MY town took a gun to a rival school 20 miles away and fired two shots into the building but (thankfully) didn't injure anyone.

Since your children are homeschooled I don't believe that you have the authority to speak as vehemently as you do emphasizing that teen violence is not a problem in these troubled times especially since a lot of these outbursts are happening at public schools during class hours. I do agree with you that the root of this violent behavior stems from family relationships (or lack thereof); but the fact remains that this is a real problem and must be dealt with immediately for the sake of all of our children, public or homeschooled.

Gina, the facts certainly do speak for themselves, and they say that violence in schools in the very year that the Columbine massacre happened was STILL down 40%. Because troubled boys like the one in your town are turning to more and more extreme methods of getting attention doesn't mean that more and more boys are troubled enough to shoot someone or something. It just isn't so.

The government and schools are all too willing to perpetuate the fear of children, for reasons that are increasingly clear: It's a great excuse to crack down on nonconformists, those pesky kids who might need more than a simple rubber stamp through the system. As they say in Japan, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down," and all this "protect the children" nonsense is serving as that hammer.

There is profiling going on in American schools these days, even though Secret Service studies of assassins and school shooters shows they're difficult to profile in advance and they sure don't fit the stereotype of who violent kids are. They are not the kids wearing black trenchcoats. They are not the kids listening to Marilyn Manson. They are not the kids playing Doom or Dungeons and Dragons. They are not the hacker kids fiddling with programming. They are not the kids who don't get with the school spirit. But these are the kids who are being singled out.

And as to whether I have the "authority" to speak out like this because I homeschool my 2 1/2-year-old daughter, as long as my taxes go to support this mess popularly known as public education, you bet I do. In fact, it's my civic duty. Diary is the one area of the site where I rant freely and with glee. You're free to disagree with me, in fact, you're free to get your own website and rant some yourself--I encourage it! Just trust yourself enough to do your research first. One of the first things I learned as a reporter many years ago was not to rely on anecdotal evidence; it's often wrong.

Don't give in to the fear, Gina. It will paralyze you, and that's what they're counting on.

TNH Editor Lynn Siprelle is behind this site.