On adult responsibility

Before I get too far into the meat of this post, I want to say something that will, perhaps, not endear me to some of you. News media have gotten some abuse for using the photograph on the right of this person rather than his post-apprehension mug shot on the left, a supposedly humanizing touch that is never, ever granted to mass murderers when they are people of color.

I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but the picture on the right screams “school shooter” to me every bit as much as the picture on the left. That kid is visibly deeply fucked up; there is nothing at all behind his eyes, and the fact that he’s holding his hands in a posture of prayer, to me, just means that he’s coming from an environment where it’s incredibly unlikely that he’s actually going to get any help for whatever is wrong with him.

I got into a Twitter conversation the other day with someone, and in that conversation made the point that my ability to feel shared humanity with and compassion for terrible people had diminished significantly over the last five years. And the interesting thing about that tweet is that the one immediately before it is about a discovery that I had made about the family of a former student. I had found out a couple of years ago that this particular kid had been locked up for thirteen years (minimum) for armed robbery. Yesterday I discovered that his little brother, who I never had in class but I knew, has been convicted of murder and was sentenced to 75 years in prison.

My student, as it turns out, was also sentenced as an adult. This school shooter, 15 years old, is also going to be tried as an adult.

This kid who, either the day of or the day before the shooting, wrote “The voices won’t stop. Help me.” on a note, a note that led to him receiving no help of any kind. The kid whose parents bought him a semiautomatic handgun for Christmas four days before he used it to kill four people. The kid whose parents are such subhuman trash that upon finding out they were being charged as accessories to their son’s murders, went on the lam and attempted to flee the country.

Imagine that. Imagine that your child is charged with murder and your reaction is to leave him behind and run.

And as angry as I am with his parents, I’m even angrier with the school officials at Oxford High School. Their most important job is to keep their students safe. That responsibility extends to the shooter as well as the other students in the school. The very first thing that should have happened upon this not being discovered is this kid being brought to the attention of mental health professionals and social workers– the first fucking thing, even before notifying the parents. I’m seeing that his mother and father resisted removing him from school. That’s where the “protect everyone else” thing kicks in– yes, you are going to take your son to get some help, and if you refuse to do so, he is not entering this building again. I have not been in this exact situation before but I have been in some that are very close, and schools are absolutely within their rights to refuse to allow a child back on campus until a psych evaluation has taken place. And when a student combines hearing voices with violent imagery and an explicit request for help, it is absolutely criminal on the part of the parents and the administration of Oxford High School that he was allowed to remain on campus.

This is unforgivable. It is a dereliction of responsibility at the highest level and it led directly to four dead kids.

I don’t know what to do with a fifteen-year-old who murders. Part of me is screaming for vengeance the same way it might be had a fully capable adult performed the killings. Part of me is still trying to hold onto the scrap of me that can still see humanity in those who perform inhumane acts. And ultimately as the person who pulled the trigger, the greatest responsibility falls upon him. But the failure of every adult in this young man’s life cannot be passed over. The parents have been charged with involuntary manslaughter; bury them under the jail and let their names never be spoken again.

But it should not end there. Early reports in situations like this are always wrong in some way; it may turn out that my understanding of what happened is flawed in some critical way. But if the events unfolded according to the timeline I’m currently aware of, all of the adults who had a responsibility to keep this child and those around him safe should face consequences for their actions. All of them.

Some quick notes

I went to McDonald’s the other day, as I am still occasionally wont to do, and the gentleman in the first window was wearing a shirt I’d not seen before: Baby Yoda, holding a Big Mac, with the McDonald’s logo floating behind him. I laughed and told him I liked the shirt, at which point he revealed that it wasn’t actually an official McDonald’s shirt– he’d found it on eBay, and apparently the day after he got his shirt the shop that was selling it got shut down. Now, I’m aware that I’m saying this as someone who owns a Wu-Tang Clan Baby Yoda shirt, but pissing off Disney and McDonald’s with a single shirt design is an impressively ballsy business move. Or an impressively stupid one; I’m not sure there’s much of a difference.

I finished Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea yesterday, and I’m issuing it a qualified, but strong recommendation: I was never quite able to shake the feeling that a story about an enslaved person in Saint Domingue before Toussaint L’Overture’s rebellion and in New Orleans right around the time of the handover to the United States was quite Allende’s story to tell, and the book ends on a really strange, incest-is-super type of note, but if you’re able to get past that, it’s a hell of a read. I’m not sure how much of it is based in history and how much is made up– the broad strokes are historical, of course, but I’m not sure if any of the main characters or families are real people– but this is the second of Allende’s books I’ve read and there will be more.

Damn. Ten minutes ago I had a parenting thing to put here too, and it’s gone. Shit. I’ll put it back if I remember later.

#REVIEW: Nightbitch, by Rachel Yoder

I bought Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch for one reason and one reason only: the author is from Iowa. I mean, I had the idea that I would like it, but I don’t even remember where I discovered the book. As I get closer to the end of this current reading project, I’m getting to states where I made it to September without accidentally reading a book from there, so my standards are dropping somewhat for what I’ll order.

That sounds like I’m about to start panning the book. I’m not; I actually put it on my shortlist for my best books of the year list, but … I do not know what to say about this one. See that quote on the cover describing the book as a “feral, unholy marriage of Tillie Olsen and Kafka”? After reading about a third of the book, and before I noticed that quote, I described the book to my wife as the book Kafka would write if he had been a suburban Midwestern housewife. By the end of the book, I’d actually ordered a new copy of Metamorphosis, which I’m going to read after the book I’m reading now. I don’t actually know Tillie Olsen’s name, so I can’t comment on that part, but this is a deeply weird book, and it’ll be interesting to see where my opinion of it ends up shaking out after a couple of months to marinate on it.

The story: the main character is a mother of a toddler, I believe around two years old. She used to be an artist but since having her baby has ceased to make art. Her husband is an engineer who travels for work and he is away most of the time, so she’s at home with the child, who she must clothe, feed, entertain, and worst of all, put to bed every night.

She hates it.

And then she turns into a dog.

This is not a joke.

The character is never actually named. She is The Mother for the first third of the book or so, and after the transformation she thinks of herself as Nightbitch for the rest of the book. It sounds like a superhero name; it’s not. She turns into a dog, abandons her child for a while, runs roughshod across her neighborhood, taking great joy in taking a “colossal shit” in her neighbor’s yard, and kills a couple of things. Then she goes back home and eventually reverts to her human self … at least mostly.

Nightbitch’s doggy nature continues to assert itself in odd ways throughout the rest of the book, particularly when she convinces her son to “play doggy” as well, and does things like feeding him small bits of raw meat and finally solving the bedtime problem by convincing him to sleep in a kennel, which actually comes off as more reasonable than you might suspect just given that description. And while it might sound like there are bits of levity in there, and there are, from time to time, this is really a book about rage and feeling trapped, and there are moments of genuinely shocking violence sprinkled throughout the text.

And the thing is, I can’t tell if the book is horrifying or just insufferable, and it’s entirely possible that it’s both. Like, this woman really is convinced she lives the worst of all available lives, and … well, I’ve had a toddler, although I will grant that I never had to be alone with him for a week at a time much less every week, but I have to feel like there are worse ways to live than being trapped with a toddler and feeling unsatisfied in your career. Maybe that makes me a bad feminist, I’m not sure. But if I had to compare it to a book other than Metamorphosis, it would be The Catcher in the Rye, which might immediately clue some of you in as to why people might find the book insufferable. The tone of the writing even evokes (quite possibly intentionally) Holden Caulfield’s disaffected, alienated tone, to the point where when I read a paragraph to my wife she asked if it had been written in English or if I was reading it in translation. I dunno; I’m inclined to think the book is a bit of a triumph, but I need to sit with it a while and maybe talk it over with some other people who have read it. Maybe you should be one of those people? Let me know if you read it.

A story I don’t know that isn’t mine to tell

Many years ago I had this young man in my classes, we’ll call him Johnny, which isn’t his name. Johnny was in an all-boys’ class, the only one I’ve ever taught, and a group that, in general, drove me insane, because temperamentally I am not very well suited to teaching large groups of boys. I had him in 6th grade. He was a pretty good kid, as it went, but he was prone to getting dragged into shit if shit was nearby to get dragged into. I have described this type of student to parents before as a “kindling kid”– he’s not going to do anything on his own, but if there’s fire, he’ll burn.

Anyway, I was describing his behavior to his mother at parent teacher conferences once, and she was reacting quite a bit more strongly than I really felt like she ought to have, and at one point she looked at him and hissed something at him that I actually had to have her repeat to make sure I’d heard it correctly.

Quarterbacks don’t act like this,” she’d said. And I was immediately of two minds; the first being of course they do, and the second being why are you laying that on your twelve-year-old right now? And let me get to the moral of the story before I tell the rest of it: parents, can we not set our kids up to peak in high school, please, and can we absolutely definitely not set them up so that if they aren’t the star QB they don’t feel like their lives are over before they’ve had a chance to start?

This is the part where I start making stuff up, by the way, because I really don’t have any evidence for any of what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s on my mind.

Anyway, this kid randomly popped into my head this weekend– I found a random little gift that he’d given me in the course of cleaning up, and it had his name on it, and this story came to mind. And I did a little bit of research. Johnny did play football in high school, but didn’t play quarterback, and frankly while he was on the team he doesn’t appear to have played much at all– I was able to look through the box scores of his senior year, because America’s obsession with high school football is genuinely creepy, and I couldn’t find any evidence that he’d contributed to the team in any meaningful way. I didn’t look at every game or anything like that, but it was pretty clear that, at the least, this kid wasn’t the star player.

And then I found a picture of him, from what would have been his sophomore year of college if he’d gone, posted by a local Painters and Allied Trades union. The tone of the caption is celebratory; they’re honoring their newest member. And I honestly can’t believe that they chose this picture to post, because the kid looks like his life is literally crumbling down around his eyes. Johnny grew up getting his head pumped full of stories about how he was going to be the star quarterback, and then he was going to go on to college and then probably the NFL and be a famous football player, and instead he’s 20 with no degree, no sports career, and joining the painter’s union.

This isn’t to say that I look down on these people; I don’t, and as a union member myself I consider the trades unions members to be brothers and sisters. I don’t look down on anybody who works for a living. But Johnny very clearly got raised to believe that there was one way his life was going to go, and it didn’t, and I know I’m reading a lot into it and I haven’t seen the kid in years but the look on his face in this picture is just fucking heartbreaking.

And maybe Labor Day isn’t the best day to post this, either. But fuck it, I’ve been thinking about him all weekend, and I hate it how quickly young kids are willing to cling to sports as what’s going to make them rich and famous when the truest thing I can say to any of them is no, it’s not. You’re not going to be in the NBA or the NFL or really anything else. You might play in high school, but I can count the number of college athletes I’ve taught over the years on one hand. This isn’t any more realistic as a life goal than “I’m going to win the lottery” is.

We’ve gotta stop doing this to our kids.

Some brief and poorly thought-out considerations about religious education

I went looking, and this was the most heinous Sunday School graphic I could find. I’m sure there are worse ones out there, but this is good enough for me.

Some background, before I get to the actual reason I’m writing this: I am, if such a thing actually exists, biologically Catholic. What I mean by that is that my family on both sides is Catholic, and while I was not raised to be religious (and have, in fact, considered myself to be an atheist since about 2nd grade) the type of religion I am most familiar with is Catholicism, and I actually taught at a Catholic school for three years with no particular problems. I can fake Catholicism to a degree that I can’t with other religions, to say nothing of other forms of Christianity.

I also have undergraduate degrees in Religious Studies and Jewish Studies, and a Master’s degree in Biblical studies, with a concentration in the Old Testament.

This means that I don’t believe a single thing about your religion or your holy book and I know more about it than you do. Which is a dangerous combination, frankly.

My wife attended a Catholic school until high school, and went through all of the traditional accoutrements of growing up Catholic. We got married in a greenhouse with my best friend using her Universal Life Church ministry credential to officiate, so it … uh, didn’t stick? And honestly by now she might be more anti-Catholic than I am, to be honest. I’ve mellowed as I’ve gotten older, which seems weird to say but is actually true.

On the way home from his birthday shopping trip yesterday, the boy pipes up that he has a question for us. We agree to hear said question.

“What’s the name of the guy from the Bible again?”

I avoided having a stroke while driving out of sheer willpower, folks. My wife cracked up so hard she could barely breathe.

He meant Jesus, of course.

Christians (and I assume members of other religions, but I live in America, so it’s mostly Christian sources that I see this from) love to pretend that kids are somehow naturally religious and can sort of intuit the existence of God on their own, and my kid has been the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a pure refutation of that idea. He knows nothing about religion. We don’t go to church, we didn’t have him baptized (I was strapped, packed, and ready for that fight with my mother-in-law, and it never happened) and no one in the family is the type to pray before meals. He’s been to a couple of funerals, and I’m pretty sure that’s been his whole and entire exposure to religion, whether Christianity, Judaism or anything else. I think he has a vague conception that Jesus was generally a pretty nice guy but beyond that? He thinks Easter is a bunny holiday (my Mom always got him a basket, but that’s fallen away since she died) and Christmas is when your parents buy you presents. That’s it.

(For the record, if forced at gunpoint to join a religion, I would be a Muslim, but that’s an entire separate conversation.)

Anyway, a long lead-in to a pretty basic question: all of this has me wondering where exactly my responsibilities lie to at least give the kid a basic familiarity with at least some of the beliefs that nearly everyone he encounters throughout his day holds. Like, I’m not religious, and I don’t especially want him to be religious, but I’m also not entirely sure that I want him living in a pit of ignorance about what religion is, at least well enough that he can recognize some of the more culturally relevant Bible stories and maybe sketch out some of the differences between some of the major world religions. And that he doesn’t refer to Jesus as “the guy from the Bible” again. I was fervently hoping that he meant Moses; I don’t think he’s ever even heard of Moses.

(I also don’t want him to get a little bit older and get sucked into some sort of fundamentalist horseshit somehow because he doesn’t have any inoculation against it.)

I’ve always said my parents’ big mistake was throwing dinosaur books and Greek mythology at me before my grandmother got me a book of Bible stories; I couldn’t see why the Bible didn’t mention dinosaurs or why I should take these myths any more seriously than those myths, and absent any parental pressure to the contrary that was it for religion for me. Maybe I should toss a book of Bible stories at him to see how he reacts. I mean, other than ducking and getting out of the way.