Tag Archives: failing

Guns and Reunions

Sometimes being a writer is a pain in the ass.

I had several ideas for this week’s post, but when it came down to it all I produced was something I didn’t want to think about, remember or write about at all. I tried to stop and go back to one of my original ideas, but no matter where I went I ended up in the same place.

I’m old enough to know it’s much easier to ride the horse in the direction it’s going, so I’m writing the damn thing, but I want you to know I’m resentful about it.

Two seeds contributed to this piece. The first is that my partner will be attending his fiftieth high school reunion this summer, and deciding whether or not to accompany him has been a thing for me.

The second seed is the latest (as of this writing) school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, and the story about the girl (who was killed) who allegedly rejected the shooter and how that may or may not have been part of the motive.

I don’t know what happened between these two young people, of course. I certainly don’t believe everything I read. Perhaps the shooter was bullied. Perhaps he wasn’t. Maybe the girl simply said no, and some people interpret that as bullying. Maybe he refused to take no for an answer and the girl was trying to get the message across with ever-increasing force. I’ve been in a position like that myself. I don’t know, and for the purposes of this post it doesn’t matter.

I think we all can agree that we have a problem with school shootings in this country, even if we don’t agree on the causes and solutions. I also think all the data gathering, debate and problem solving around this issue is extremely important. Along with everybody else, I have my own opinions about how we got here and what we might do about it, but my opinion isn’t part of this post, either.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

The reason I’m writing about it (the shooting, one of the alleged triggers for the shooting, and the entire problem of school violence) at all is because of the way it makes me feel.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

These are the same feelings I’ve had about the entirely trivial decision about whether or not to attend my partner’s high school reunion.

My days in high school were a black time I’ve worked hard to forget. I led a strangely reversed life then, like a photographic negative. My real life was the volunteer fire and rescue work I was doing, my family (including many animals) and reading, the frame around the central core of school. The fire and rescue work often took place at night, of course, and I well remember the fellowship, the macabre hilarity, the practical jokes, and the heartbreak, terror and death we saw on the highway. There were impromptu middle-of-the-night meals at Denny’s after delivering a patient to the hospital, when we were stinking of gasoline and had glass splinters in the knees of our jeans. I was the baby, the youngest, but I was trained and certified and did everything I could to pull my weight.

It was the first time I ever felt I belonged anywhere, or was of any use to the world.

School days, by contrast, were endless bleak hours of clocks, bells, the metallic slam of lockers, figuring out what was necessary in order to maintain straight A’s (which thankfully did not involve much attendance in most cases), and fatigue.

I can’t remember eating a single school lunch in either junior high or high school. Isn’t that strange? I must have, but I have no memory of doing so, or of the cafeterias. What I do remember is the high school library, where there were rows of study carrels — remember those? They were 3-sided square boxes on the desks so that each student was cut off and private, in his or her own little undistracted and unobserved space. I had one particular favorite, the farthest away from the librarian and activity, out of sight, out of mind. It was where I slept. I wore an old hand-me-down men’s quilted navy blue coat that I cherished, and I wadded part of it up as a pillow, pulled the rest over my head and slept for long stretches through lunch and classes.

I was (and am) very organized. I knew what my teachers expected. I always showed up for tests and did all my homework. Papers and projects were planned and completed well before they were due. I did all the reading, homework and classwork. If extra credit work was available, I did that. When I could take AP classes, I did. I never ditched AP English, which I loved. I also went to Latin, another favorite. German was fun, too. I was never any kind of a problem, in class or out of it. Most of the time, I was numb with boredom.

I wished only to remain invisible and maintain a 4.0 grade average. The invisibility was for myself. The grade average was because it was expected of me, and it was easier to just do it than to rebel. Also, I wanted to be finished with school as soon as possible, and the quickest way out was to pass all my classes.

Most of the teachers and all of the students were alien species. I moved among them like a ghost, a wisp of fog. I hardly opened my mouth. I occasionally raised my hand in class for the teachers who required participation for an A, but I’d learned in grade school not to volunteer too many answers, even if I did know them. I dawdled over my tests so as not to be the first one finished. I took pains to keep most of the teachers at a distance so as not to be identified as a “teacher’s pet,” another lesson from grade school.

I was never bullied, though I saw and heard bullying every day. I was adept at blending in and attracting no attention, positive or negative. I didn’t hate the other kids. I didn’t think much about them at all. I didn’t hate the teachers. I even respected a couple of them. I was angry all the time, but it wasn’t focused on anyone in particular, and I only recognize it in retrospect. I didn’t blame the teachers, the kids or my parents for the hell I was in. It never occurred to me there was any other option. Everyone had to go to school, period. My parents were busy people with lives of their own. There wasn’t anything they could have done and I saw no point in whining and complaining.

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

The school day was bracketed by a 40-minute bus ride morning and evening, and I did my homework on the bus, which effectively shut out the noisy horseplay, teasing and other socialization that happened on it. I always chose a window seat somewhere in the middle and immediately set to work, never looking up from my notebook and books even if someone sat down next to me. If I had no homework, I read.

When I was a senior I finally learned to drive, somewhat unwillingly. I’d seen too much trauma on the highway by then to be enamored of driving. In the end, though, I learned and sometimes I drove our old Chevy truck to and from school, a battered tank of a thing that could cope with any kind of weather and wouldn’t crumple like a tin can at the slightest bump or ding. It was a faded brick red. If I had the truck, I abandoned the library and stretched out on the seat to sleep after parking on a quiet side street, cracking the windows and locking the doors. It felt very safe.

I do remember, as a great treat to myself, buying lunch in town when I had the truck, either at McDonald’s or a little health food store that made wonderful egg salad sandwiches.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

I remember one student I graduated with. One. I think I remember him because he was also a friend of my brother’s, who was a year behind me, and he was on the summer swim team with me. He was in my AP classes and became a scientist. He wasn’t a friend. He’s just the only one I remember.

On the other hand, I remember the fire station very well, and the rescue barn. I remember the smell of exhaust from the ambulances and big trucks. I remember the little offices where the phone and radio sat on the counter. I remember the meetings, the folding chairs, the scarred tables and the pancake breakfasts. I remember the battered coffee urns and the stained sinks, the water fights, the endless and hilarious practical jokes, the laughter, the weekly meals at the local diner, the parties, the trainings and the people. I later married two of the men I volunteered with in those days (not at the same time, of course!) I remember running up and down ladders for training, the impossible weight of portable water pumps (we called them Indian pumps) for fighting brush fires, the eerie sight of burning trees crowning in a blossom of flame against a dark sky and watching a house burn to the ground. I remember the sour smell of cooling “hot spots” after a brush fire. I remember the live feeling and weight of a charged firehose, enough to knock me over, and the way it peeled the shirt off you during a water fight.

For this treasured, meaningful part of my life, though, there was no acknowledgment. Rather the reverse. It wasn’t quite nice, a teenage girl running around with a bunch of older boys and rowdy, often bawdy volunteers, never mind that I took First Aid, CPR, EMT and IV training and loved it all. It also meant that I occasionally showed up in the company of the police at wild parties where someone got hurt or overdosed, which did not endear me to my high school peers. Not to mention that the first dead body I ever saw happened to be one of my schoolmates. I’ll never forget the broken-doll look of him as he lay on the highway, the glass glittering in his hair under the emergency lights. The only reason it was possible for me to do that work was that my mother did it too. She was quite a good paramedic, in fact.

My experience with high school took place in the late 70s and early 80s. We had a completely open campus. Certainly, things are different now in terms of security, at least. I wonder, though, how many kids are sitting in public schools across the country this very minute who are largely unseen, unheard and simply trying to survive.

Every time a shooting happens we get hours and hours of interviews, social media posts and videos of parents, teachers and students and their perceptions of the perpetrators, and I always wonder — did anyone, does anyone, can anyone really know their student, brother, son, teammate or classmate? How well does a high-school-age kid know him or herself? How much perspective can they have, how much experience in the amazing ways life can change over time? What has been their experience of connection with themselves and others? What is the level of their willingness and ability to communicate? Have they ever, in their whole lives, been given a reason to believe that asking for help or telling the truth helps, rather than making everything much, much worse?

My family cared about me. I remember going to counseling once or twice, both in school and out of it. Do you know what happens to kids who get in-school counseling? They get pulled out of class, right in front of God and everyone. Every single student and teacher in that class knows where they’re going. Not exactly a help when you’re trying to remain invisible. Also, the counselors are just as worn-out and frayed as all the other adults in a school, with an endless array of troubled kids, emergencies, difficult or distraught parents, and they’re trying to support the teachers as well. I was ashamed to be part of their burden and take up any of their time.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

We say some of these at-risk kids who become shooters are identified and “in the system,” and I think many components of “the system” have an honest desire to make a positive difference and work usefully with young people. That doesn’t mean the young person is able to avail him or herself of the support, though. I trusted no one at that point in my life. I wouldn’t have ever told the truth about my private thoughts and feelings. I’d already learned the danger of rocking boats, and I also knew that I was privileged because I was smart, we were comparatively wealthy and I had a family that loved me. I had nothing to complain about, and I didn’t. Nothing would have induced me to shame my parents and my extremely intelligent, talented and much more normal and attractive younger brother.

Now, thirty years later, kids are dying, and teachers, and school staff, as well as an occasional parent. We’re trying to understand. Some are trying to find someone to blame, as though that fixes things. But the parents of the shooters aren’t killing these kids. Neither are teachers or security personnel. Bullies and peers aren’t killing these kids. “The system” isn’t killing them, either, or the NRA. The one who pulls the trigger is the killer. I think it’s important to be clear about who’s ultimately responsible. The question is, what came before the trigger was pulled? What are all the intricacies and complexities that led to that moment of choice, and how do we begin to explore that terrain without the input of the shooter, who might or might not survive, and if alive, might or might not tell? If we can ever fully understand, how do we make changes in the roots of parenting, emotional intelligence (or lack thereof), public education (so-called), and our culture’s broken sense of connection and ability to be authentic?

If my school records could be magically produced, what would they show? Straight A’s. Honors student. Maybe a counseling note or two: Isolated, frequent absences, no behavior problems, no sign of abuse or cutting, not a danger to self or others,

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

People, that’s a paper doll, not a person. I’m smarter than most people I know. If I’d been a danger to self or others, do you think I’d have told anyone? Come on. I know we have social media now, but how much of what shows up on a teen’s social media is Truth? Teens compete, exaggerate, dramatize and make stuff up, just like the rest of us. Often there are clues, but they’re a lot easier to see after the fact, and that’s not much help, is it? It takes years to develop self-knowledge and insight, even if we’re willing to.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

I’m a parent. When my two sons were teenagers, I worked at the same school they attended. It was a small school and I knew every student, every staff member and most of the parents. I had a whole reality in my head about who my kids were and how they were doing. I loved them with my whole heart. I absolutely trusted them. I frequently knew when they were ditching school, smoking weed or leaving the house in the middle of the night. I didn’t bail them out of consequences or micromanage them. I was a single mom, working desperately hard to keep us afloat and trying to deal with my own experience.

I knew I wasn’t okay, but I wanted to believe they were. I was doing the best I could, loving them as hard as I could and making sure they knew it.

They did know it, just like they knew I wasn’t okay. They weren’t okay, either, but they knew I was doing my best, they didn’t want to burden me and they didn’t really know what they needed for things to get better anyway. Exactly the same position I’d been in two decades earlier.

The truth is, given the right circumstances, either of my boys could have been victims — or shooters. So, in fact, could I. That’s a hard thing to believe and a harder thing to write, but it’s true. Every single one of us has a snapping point, whether we admit it or not. High school can be a place of prison and torture, a place of no hope, an infinite incarceration, a daily experience of humiliation or fear. It can be a nihilistic experience, a daily exercise in powerlessness, in making oneself small, in concealment, in survival.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

And then there’s the other side of high school. Some amazing people in every class go to endless work and trouble to keep track of their classmates and plan and organize class reunions. For someone like me, this is both astounding and appalling. When my partner told me about his reunion this summer and asked me to come with him, it took me a minute to understand he was serious. Sure, and then can we go get our legs chopped off with a dull blade? Please, oh please?

But I know many people have great memories of clubs and sports teams, teachers and classes, proms and homecomings. My partner has lifelong friendships from high school. Imagine it, 50-year-old friendships! I met my closest friend when I was 30. What would it be like to have that kind of history with another person, that kind of intimacy? What would it be like to know someone liked you enough to be friends with you for 50 years?

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

High school. Guns and reunions. Looking for quick, inexpensive, politically attractive fixes. Heated debates. Demonstrations and walk-outs. Active shooter drills for schools and law enforcement and mass trauma drills for hospitals. Blameshifting, fear, mistrust, profiling. Blood, vigils, funerals and graves. Bullying, mental illness and lasting trauma. Lost kids. Disconnected kids. Dead kids.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

The cacophony of debate, press conferences, social media, opinions, interviews, political maneuvering, nonstop news feeds and raw videos goes on and on, and somewhere in the center of the maelstrom is the core of the problem — the young people who shoot, who die and who witness. Some of them have been swept into the hurricane, but I wonder how many are simply sheltering in place, trying to survive another bewildering, hopeless, pointless day of tech, teachers, rules, grades and peers. I know they’re there, because I was one. They could tell us a lot about futility, despair and disconnection. They’re keeping painful secrets. Are we willing to hear their truth? Do we deserve their trust? Do we have time or energy for them? Can we change anything for the better? Or would we tell them to get over it, that everyone has to do things they don’t want to do, that high school will be over one day? Do we paste a neat label on them and write a prescription? Do we insert them into a “system,” because that’s the best we have, and turn away to deal with our own jobs, responsibilities, stresses, scar tissue, labels and prescriptions?

I’m back where I started.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

Photo by Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

The Tyranny of Trying

This week’s blog is suspended between two stories. The first one is the old Greek myth of Sisyphus.

Sisyphus was a crafty and deceitful king who craved complete power. In his pursuit of power, he offended many men and gods and was eventually punished by being sent to the underworld and forced to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. The boulder was enchanted, however, to roll back down the hill (over Sisyphus, in some versions) just before it reached the top. Thus, Sisyphus was doomed to repeat the same unending and futile task forever.

Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

Sisyphus has captured the imagination of many writers, philosophers and artists, and there are several variations and interpretations of his story. If you’re interested, you can follow the link to to Wiki and read more.

Sisyphus is on my mind this week, not only because his story suggests to me the inevitability of rising and falling cycles, but also because his punishment was to forever try and fail.

His punishment was to forever try.

Huh.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

I’m a product of a culture that taught me certain core truths about life. One has a responsibility to help others. Everyone has to do things they don’t want to do. One must never give up. One must try one’s best. We’re all in a train behind a little engine that puffs, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” and that’s the right place to be, the admirable, ethical, moral, adult, acceptable, responsible, side-of-the-angels place to be. Good people try and try and try. They don’t despair, they don’t give up and they don’t say it’s too hard, I can’t or, most unforgiveable of all—I won’t.

No is not an option.

The truth is one of the things I least like about myself is that I can always be counted on to try my best. I don’t mean work hard. I mean try hard. Trying is certainly hard work. It’s sucked up most of my life in terms of time and energy. A lifetime of trying, though, has produced less of value to me, and I suspect to others, than an hour of work at writing, dancing, gardening, making love, playing with a child or even scrubbing the kitchen floor.

In the last ten days, I’ve been living right alongside Sisyphus. In the last ten days, I’ve meticulously gone through headlines, articles, links, petitions, news and requests for action in my email, not once but two or three times a day, because I want to help. I want to do something that matters. I want to make a difference. In the last ten days, I’ve intentionally and consciously been present, engaged, interactive, interested in what my partner is thinking and talking about, which has been largely political news, because I want to be a good partner. I want to demonstrate that I’m brave and strong and intelligent enough to be part of the conversation going on in the world.

In the last ten days, I’ve privately and quietly despaired, lost sleep, felt inadequate, lost my center, lost my peace, felt gnawing anxiety and been deeply ashamed of who I am.

I’ve tried so hard.

I’ve failed so hard.

It’s not working. I can’t live like this. I’ve been pushing that rock up the hill as bravely as I can, but it just keeps rolling back down. I’m exhausted, bruised, battered, my fingernails are torn and I’m quickly losing any desire to be engaged with life.

However, oddly, one thing is working.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a self-defense class at a local community center. The activities director happened to be there, and on an impulse I introduced myself and asked him if he’d be interested in working with me to start a community dance group. We fell into conversation, one thing led to another and as I write this, advertising is in process, flyers are getting printed, and somehow, I’m scheduled to start up a dance group in March, a thing I’ve long wanted to do in order the create the kind of healthy, inclusive community I’m starving for.

I didn’t try at all. It just kind of happened and I went along for the ride. I’ve spent hours and hours building dance playlists, but that wasn’t trying. I wanted to do it. I loved doing it. Music instead of current news? Lead me to it!

So what is it with this trying thing that’s driven so much of my life? I can’t remember a single time trying hard resulted in an outcome I wanted. It seems to me whatever happens, happens. Things always and inevitably turn out the way they turn out. I may have occasionally bought some time. I may have kept things glued together with my frantic trying longer than they would have otherwise, but was that a good thing, or in the end did I just make the cost higher for myself and everyone else?

All the really good things I can remember in my life just happened. I didn’t plot, plan, manipulate, force or otherwise try. I was just living my life.

And what about the punishment piece? Sisyphus, by all accounts, was not a nice man, and I don’t waste much pity on him, but what about me? Endless, futile trying certainly feels like a punishment. Why have I always accepted that? Why haven’t I been able to choose to stop?

The truth is that I try so hard because I feel like I have to make up for what a difficult, noncompliant, hypersensitive, disappointing, needy, dramatic, sensual person I am. I know I’ll never please or get it right, so all I have is knowing I tried as hard as I could. The world is filled with talented, creative, loving, generous, kind people. They don’t have to try to make the world a better place. The world is a better place because they live in it.

I’m not like them. I’m broken.

It’s not like I can just not try to make up for being broken!

If I don’t try, then what is there?

Which leads me to the second story, which I can’t find this morning, but I know is here somewhere in my library!

A student approached the master and said, “I work with disabled children and their families. Master, there’s so much difficulty for these people! I want so much to help, to make things better for them! What should I do? How can I best relieve their suffering?”

The master replied, “With no thought of help.”

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted