"Hurt kids hurt kids."
A psychologist friend of mine once shared these prophetic words with me and I never forgot them. They came to mind last week while I was reading about the Seattle freshman who brutally murdered classmates before taking his own life. I had to read the article several times, and even then, couldn't make rhyme or reason from the text. How? Why? Is it us, them, the times?
A few days later, the Washington Post ran a headline saying the second victim had died, and again, the story was rehashed, this time suggesting Jaylen Fryberg's rampage was directed at friends and family members.
The murders seemed all the more senseless coming from someone described as a "golden boy,"and recently voted freshman class homecoming prince. I found myself drifting miles away from the actual story, wondering about all those left behind. What would become of them? So many layers of grief, sorrow and suffering. Collateral damage. Lives forever changed.
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How many more of these heart-breaking shooting scenarios was I going to have to read about in my lifetime, I wondered. With five grandkids of my own, the thought of it all terrifies me. Schools have always been a safe haven, a mecca for learning, a place where young people grow and thrive.
This newest atrocity brought back memory of Columbine, which happened while I was still working in education. Before that unthinkable day, April 20, 1999, my job focused on media relations and sharing the accolades of student achievement. Kids doing great things. The Science and Mathematics Fair. Academic Decathlon. Young Authors Faire.
My position morphed dramatically and I soon became an expert on crisis communications and disaster planning, attending countless workshops and training seminars on what to do in the event of school shootings, campus suicides, anything horrific requiring an Emergency Action Plan. A new mantra circulated the nation. "If it can happen in Columbine, it can happen in (fill in your own city)."
We continue scratching our heads in search of the whys. Is it their hard wiring or DNA? Are schools to blame — disenfranchising young, vulnerable minds? Are students too pressured, too privileged and over-stimulated by media and the violence of television and video games? Are we so busy closing the achievement gap that we're opening up Pandora's Box and breeding some new strain of mental illness? What's making these young people snap?
I got to wondering about "hurt" and the vast ways it eventually rears its ugly head. It got me thinking about the hurtful things people say to each other, sometimes unknowingly, other times more purposeful with intent of malice.
At any age, words and actions can mortally wound and leave deep scars. As a writer, I expose myself each time I press the send button and a column gets submitted for publication. I've told many of you how terrifying this is, even now after all these months of writing and sharing myself in public. It's probably the wrong gig for me. I bruise easily. A bad review or harsh letter to the editor can level me.
My husband tells me I need to be thick-skinned, but that's impossible. I still carry the childhood goo from name-calling that minimized my self-worth. Fat twin, Dirty Armo, Big nose. I was called all of these things. When someone hurts me now, it shoots straight to that (not-so-sweet) spot created decades ago.
So in my world, the childhood rhyme "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me," doesn't hold much truth. Instead, it pulls me deep into a vicious undertow of self-doubt and insecurity.
I confessed this recently to a close friend, who was saying something along the lines of how glamorous it must feel to be a published author and columnist. When I told her how it really felt, we talked about what each of us can do to soften life's rough edges. They were simple things like thinking before you speak, holding your tongue before spitting out venom, counting to 10.
When Abraham Lincoln felt the urge to tell someone off, he composed what he called a "hot letter," spewing all his anger onto paper, then setting it aside until his emotions cooled down. I did that not too long ago after receiving a note from a reader undressing my prose. Last week when my 8-year-old granddaughter had a bit of a tantrum, I quieted her with a hug and then handed her pen and paper.
If it were only (always) that easy. But we know it's not. It's brutal and harrowing out there. While experts work on unraveling this recent tragedy, the rest of us need to step up our role as vigilant guardians of the world's most precious resource — our children.