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School shootings: Why now, not then?

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001

Life does not always come in the proper order.

Girls sometimes reach motherhood before womanhood, boys become fathers before they become men. Sometimes we bear the weight of the world's meanness before we learn that its goodness can carry the load for us.

And sometimes death comes to interrupt rather than punctuate life.

Nothing illustrates life's tendency toward disorder more than that litany of individual tragedies we familiarly call school shootings. (So familiar have we become that the proper term now seems to have evolved into another school shooting.) Young lives en masse are irretrievably altered or ended, some by the shooter's bullet, others by death close enough to feel for the first time, and many more by the fear that suddenly clouds their existence.

Another one happened last week in El Cajon, Calif.

Rumors of the possibility of another one on Monday brought heightened security and ended the day at Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport.

Those of us who are far past our school years keep looking for easy answers to a problem we never faced. We stick more police officers in schools. We install metal detectors. We survey hallways and school grounds with cameras.

Then another outcast, picked-on child opens fire and we start looking for easy answers all over again. Why now and not then, we wonder. Children have always picked on other children. Children have always ostracized other children. Why then have school shootings only recently become familiar?

For some of us, though, that question becomes a little more personal:

What kept me from turning Morven Rosenwald Elementary School into Columbine?

When I heard a friend of Andy Williams, the boy arrested for shooting schoolmates in Santee, Calif., describe him as a small-town boy self-conscious because his clothes didn't fit in at his new school, I saw a little of myself.

When I read that Kip Kinkel, who staged a similar assault on his Oregon school after killing his parents, was a loner, or that this or that young shooter had a defect that was targeted by other children, I see myself. I can still remember the trepidation I often felt getting ready for school knowing someone would see the cardboard covering the hole in my shoe, that somebody would say something about the patch in my pants, that someone in some thoughtless way would say something stupid about my lazy eye.

I can remember how painful those days were, how much resentment accumulated against those I saw as my tormentors. I wanted them punished for their transgressions against me, and like the shooters in most of the school tragedies, I didn't define "them" too narrowly.

Anyone who made wisecracks or laughed when others did, or failed to chastise others when they did, put themselves in that large group of them.
But I don't remember ever having to fight the urge to pick up the .22-caliber rifle -- that fired 16 times as quickly as you could pull the trigger and always stood propped against a corner of the kitchen -- and blow them away.

And I wonder why.

There is a strong avenging facet to most of the shootings, a "Take that."

What is it that kept me, and all those other picked-on kids of my generation, from taking that giant step from wanting to see them punished to becoming the instrument of that punishment?

The pat answers come first: Supportive family, good values, respect for life, ambition. Many of the shooters didn't have all of those staples of stability.

And even though those staples may have been the handrails that kept me from going over the edge, they did not take away my desire to see some justice served. I was just fortunate enough that I was able to administer it in ways that didn't involve guns or bombs.

My revenge came with baseballs and books, and anything else I could turn into competition. I was blessed with athletic and academic ability that allowed me the much wanted "Take thats" without any bloodshed. Strikeouts worked. Acing tests worked. So did winning at chess, checkers, Scrabble, table tennis, even marbles.

Besting them in competition left my tormentors with only one weapon to use against me: Their taunts. And those, coming from the mouths of the vanquished, come across as shallow. Eventually the teasing stopped and was replaced by a degree of reverence.

I survived those years with little more baggage than an obsession with winning (which some people see as a fault) that is really an asset that promotes focus and attention to detail.

But many of my brethren, the outcasts of those early years, were not so lucky. Many left school before they learned enough to compete in the world beyond the farms and factories of rural south Georgia, their lives permanently stifled because they wore the wrong clothes, or came from the wrong family, or brought cornbread in their lunch sack, or had a physical feature that made them different.

Some were not blessed with the tools to handle life thrown at them in the wrong order, but they were also not equipped to take retribution against those who made their lives miserable. Rather than shoot up the world around them, they withdrew from it.

Now the picked-on child is surrounded by a world that advocates through repetition, a more confrontational resolution of problems. The norm, as described by television, music, art and virtually every other aspect of our culture, has become rude, profane and violent.

Why would we not expect schools to adhere to the norm?

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail

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