My original post for this week is being postponed, due to my inability to hold back on current issues any further.
It’s All About the Kids: Part I
As I’ve mentioned before, I was a teacher for three years.
I don’t think I’ve actually mentioned any of the benefits I experienced while teaching, though…
One thing I’m grateful for is having the opportunity to teach in a school with an incredible principal and mentor. I was so absolutely fortunate to teach under someone who truly cared about her kids – even the ones who drove her to Happy Hour every Wednesday – and who would do anything in her power to see them succeed, both educationally and personally.
This principal made her priority very clear to the faculty and staff: the children come first, always.
She especially made her expectations known to those of us who were apathetic to students’ lives beyond our classrooms; to those of us who couldn’t understand why in Jesus’ name so-and-so couldn’t sit down and at least (if nothing else) STFU; to those of us who were better at sending our students to the office rather than developing a relationship with them.
Our principal emotionally and irrevocably exclaimed that school was the only safe-place for many of our students.
She drilled into our stubborn, unforgiving brains that the kids with “behavioral problems” were the same children who had absent parents (emotionally or physically), who had no parents at all, whose super awesome role models (drug dealers, meth cookers – ?, strippers) were molding their lives, who had at least one parent in jail
(The list goes on and on, my friends)
She explained, to those of us too frustrated to consider the circumstance, that there are kids whose only meal comes from the school cafeteria at lunch (and from the school’s nutritional fruit-loop breakfast in the morning, if they’re lucky), so no wonder they can’t concentrate.
A sense of guilt floods over me with every thought of tears falling down our principal’s face, realizing now what I should have understood then.
And now, in a time of grievance for a school that could have been my own, I think, the Nikolas Cruz’ of the world could have been, and still can be, avoided.
A Story About a Boy
There was a boy my second year of teaching, who was having a lot of problems paying attention, getting his work turned in, and subsequently staying on his sport’s team. He was trouble for most teachers (even the ones who usually had their shit together) – constantly talking to whomever was around him, interrupting instruction, and failing every assignment.
His mother finally requested a meeting with his teachers, the principal, and the school counselor to figure out why and how he was performing so poorly. She begged and pleaded for us to do what we had to do in order for him to academically qualify for his extra-curricular activities. She confessed his depression at home, and how he felt he didn’t have any friends. She swore staying active in sports was the answer, and she hated to see his social interactions deteriorate any further than he claimed they already had.
We told her she was being played. We told her he was failing for lack of trying. We promised that by the constant chatter in our classes, there was no way he didn’t have friends. Essentially, we told his mom – who was the only advocate for her child – that he was lying to her – lying about feeling sad and lying about feeling lonely.
I can’t remember what came out of that meeting. I know he switched out of my class and into a remedial English class – a class better suited for his level of learning (and probably for a nicer teacher, one who didn’t have a “hard-ass” attitude all the time). I must have checked out at that point – unconcerned about a student whose permanent absence in my class was more of a relief for my sanity than a concern for his mental health.
Fast Forward One Year
I’m a little weary about giving the details here, because I’m hazy on them to be honest (and they really don’t matter for the context of this post).
What I’m not hazy about is the threat he gave another student about taking his own life in the parking lot of the high school. I’m not hazy about the actual gun he brought to school, and the rumors blazing through the hallways, the classrooms, and the administration offices. I’m not hazy about the guilt I mentioned earlier, pushing me into a state of shock and disbelief. I’m not hazy about the flashbacks of the meeting with a concerned mother and some frustrated teachers.
This student was not a Nikolas Cruz. Thankfully, the teachers and administration did not ignore the text messages or the other students’ concerns for his life.
Another meeting of teachers telling his mom he’s a piece of shit, or a scenario where his one and only advocate passes away (as Nikolas Cruz’ did), or someone ignoring the text message that said he was going to take his own life? That could have very-well turned him, and I think this is the same for many emotionally troubled teenagers out there.
Maybe he wouldn’t have killed seventeen people, but maybe – in an outcry for help and attention (and a hormonal imbalance not uncommon in teenagers) – he would have.
He was into guns. He was diagnosed with autism. His father died around age nine, his mother died less than four months before the shooting (age 19). He liked to see animals in pain. He was a trouble-maker. He stopped seeing professional help a year prior to the shooting. He made threats on social media that were ignored.
According to National Autism Association, “Autism impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills, and cognitive function. Individuals with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.”
Now, I’ll just go ahead and copy/paste the signs of Autism directly from the website. I’ll underline and annotate (in bold) the signs that, from my research, describe Cruz to a T.
A person with ASD might:
- Not respond to their name (the child may appear deaf)
- Not point at objects or things of interest, or demonstrate interest
- Not play “pretend” games
- Avoid eye contact
- Want to be alone(described as a loner by classmates)
- Have difficulty understanding, or showing understanding, of other people’s feelings or their own(Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner here! I’d have to say someone who just shot up an entire school, or someone who tortures animals, probably has some difficulty with comprehending feelings)
- Have no speech or delayed speech
- Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
- Give unrelated answers to questions
- Get upset by minor changes(Someone’s mother dying goes above and beyond a minor change)
- Have obsessive interests(guns and weapons, maybe? Hm………………..)
- Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
- Have unusual reactions (over or under-sensitivity) to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel (refer to #10)
- Have low to no social skills (described by peers as being “weird” and “quiet”)
- Avoid or resist physical contact
- Demonstrate little safety or danger awareness Reverse pronouns (e.g., says “you” instead of “I”)
Yes, Cruz had been known to cause trouble in the neighborhood. He became ill-tempered quickly (a solid sign of autism, if you didn’t grasp that), and obsessed over weapons (again, autism awareness, people). That didn’t make him a murderer. But can we mix this with the first stage of grief – grief for the one person who apologetically and endlessly advocated for this “weird loner”?
He went from having a loving mother who stood up for a misunderstood misfit, to living with a family of a friend. He had no one left except for his brother, who from my understanding did not go with him to stay with the new family who graciously took him in (when no one else would).
The First Stage of Grief: Denial. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s description of the first stage of grief: “the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on.”
Seems like a legitimate mindset of a teenage boy who just lost his mom, right? What about one who lashes out, “numb” to the “meaningless world”?
I mean, I could go on and on connecting the denial stage with autism and with any depressed teenager’s thought process, but you can probably do that yourself at this point.
Mental Health, Guns, and the Cold, Hard Truth
This tragedy isn’t about guns, this tragedy is about mental health. This tragedy is about a boy who was overwhelmed about his entire life being uprooted in the time it takes to suffer from the flu, and who has difficulty communicating his feelings.
And now, because this boy was overlooked and ignored after the most serious outcries I’ve ever witnessed, there are seventeen families who have an empty seat at the dinner table.
Hundreds of students have lost three great teachers – the ones with the same mindset instilled in them as my principal; the ones who care more about their kids than their own lives, the ones who never send a student to the office, because they have actually developed teacher-student relationships.
Seventeen families now have to figure out how to cope with their own losses, and seventeen moms and dads never get to kiss their forever-babies goodnight again – all because we, as a community, failed to notice and react to very, very obvious signs (if you still don’t know what I’m talking about, read an article about his social media presence – his cry for attention is sickening)
I do not own a gun.
I am not an advocate for anti-gun laws.
I am as anti-Trump as the next person.
(and I think our president is an idiot with his ideas about “fixing” this school shooting epidemic.)
We are the Issue
This shooting would have happened, gun laws or not. Guns are not the problem here, and I think it’s important to stop pointing a finger at an inanimate object, and start noticing the three fingers that are pointing back at us.
Not the teachers. Not the administrators. Not the neighbors who claimed Cruz to be “trouble” but did nothing. Not the police who turned a blind eye to Cruz’ threats in the beginning of all of this. Not the dumb president who thinks an ex-military person (turned teacher) will save all future tragedies from happening. Not Dick’s Sporting Goods for selling this kid a weapon. No, not one of these alone.
The collective us. The community. This country. This WORLD.
Technology has turned us all into neighbors, and it’s our responsibility to take advantage of that. No one had to live in the state of Florida, even, to witness these threats and do something about them. You only need to be human to understand the grief Cruz was going through, and the loneliness he must have felt when the one stable person in his life “abandoned” him.
(reminder: this post began with admitting the crimes I, too, committed when faced with a situation involving a sad, lonely, misunderstood child. I think we are all guilty, in some way or another, and it’s important to start acknowledging our mistakes, so we can accurately do something).
The Cold, Hard Truth
Cruz didn’t walk into a school, guns blazing, on his own. As much as we’d like to blame the ease of walking into a store and buying that gun, he’d still have found a weapon. As much as we’d like to blame his “troubled” history, there wasn’t just one thing that set him off the edge. And as much as we’d like to blame everyone else but ourselves, everyone is responsible for this tragedy, because mental health is real – and what’s more is that it is really, really ignored.
It’s All About the Kids: Part II
I applaud the family who invited Nikolas Cruz into their home and gave him shelter and kindness. I applaud them above anyone else, because they showed this boy what everyone else was too busy, too selfish to do themselves. I applaud the mom for hugging Cruz after a mental breakdown – resulting in holed-out walls and a police visit – as she refused to press charges, because she understood his grief. He needed that love – he needed much more of that love (in addition to a lot of psychological help). Maybe then our nation wouldn’t be so devastated for so many families.
I applaud the teachers whose lives were taken saving their students from gun fire. Without heroes like these, there would be even more families affected by this terrible catastrophe. May they be remembered for standing up for the students who still stood a chance, and standing up to a student whose chance was a few outcries too late.
My heart breaks for the families of the murdered 14 children and three teachers, and I hope to the gods that our community’s eyes are finally wide open to the poor victims’ grievances.
Love and kindness goes a long way in this world. Once we realize fighting guns with guns will not solve a gun problem, and fighting guns with gun laws might just make killing sprees easier, we can start figuring out ways to actually fix the problem, rather than trying to put a Band-Aid over a bullet wound.
Be the Change