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February 2, 2013

Memories of an angry young man

By Emily F. Popek
The Daily Star

---- — Since hearing about the latest school shooting, I’ve been thinking a lot about a guy I used to know. I’ll call him “Sean.”

Sean sat next to me in freshman English. I wasn’t exactly friends with him, but we hung out with the same people. In the parlance of my high school, we were both “freaks” — a catch-all term for any kid who dressed, acted or talked in a way that didn’t jibe with mainstream culture.

Sean was an angry guy. He would lash out for seemingly no reason at anyone around him. I didn’t understand why until my mother confided in me that he had been horribly abused as a child. Sean also didn’t do well in school. He was smart enough, but rarely turned in his homework and often got into trouble for acting up.

Sean liked to shoot guns. He used to talk to me about this gun or that one. It was pretty meaningless to me, since I didn’t know the difference between an AR-15 and an AK-47. But I could tell it was important to him.

And Sean got picked on. A lot. He got shoved and tripped in the halls. Kids would yell insults at him, or even spit on him. This kind of thing happened to a lot of us “freaks.” Some of us shrugged it off, but it really seemed to make Sean angry. One time he shoved one of the kids back, and things escalated from there. He wound up with a black eye; the other guy had a bloody nose. Both of them got suspended.

I don’t know if Sean ended up graduating. A lot of my friends didn’t. They dropped out, or got kicked out. Some of them wound up in alternative school, or got their GEDs somehow. Others didn’t.

I thought of Sean when I heard about the school shooting in 1998 in Springfield, Ore., where a 15-year-old named Kip Kinkel killed two people and injured 37 at his high school in Springfield, Ore.

As I read the description of Kinkel — a “troubled” boy who had recently been expelled from school and who tortured animals; who was described as a “goth,” often wearing black — I could think only of Sean.

I thought of Sean again after the 1999 shootings in Columbine, Colo., where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people. Harris and Klebold allegedly sought revenge on “jocks” who had bullied or teased them.

And I’m thinking of Sean again after the recent shooting in Taft, Calif., where 16-year-old Bryan Oliver had compiled a “hit list” of students and threatened them with death. Oliver shot at two students, injuring one, before a teacher talked him down.

I know that no single factor — not a psychological profile, not a background of abuse, not a history of bullying, not an affinity for guns and violence — can predict what turns an angry kid into a school shooter.

I do know there are plenty of Seans in high schools across the country, for whom adolescence can seem intolerably difficult. And I wonder if it is not easier for someone to become like Kinkel when he is continually told, not only by his peers, but by teachers, shopkeepers, police officers and maybe even his parents, that he is a freak, an outsider, someone who doesn’t belong.

I wonder if it is easier to contemplate taking away someone else’s future when you feel you don’t have one.

We are in the middle of an important national conversation right now — about guns, mental health care, security and the rights of the individual. These issues are vital to understanding why school shootings keep happening. But I hope we can find room in the conversation to talk about people like Sean; young people who do not have a place or a voice in society, whose demons threaten to overwhelm them.

I hope we can continue to fight bullying and abuse in all its forms, and to remember that bullies are not just our children’s peers, but sometimes also the authority figures around them. I hope that somehow, even amid an era of drastic budget cuts, our schools can find creative ways to to be havens rather than hostile environments for all students, not just the ones who excel academically and athletically.

Oh, and Sean?

I looked him up online. He’s married to a girl I went to elementary school with; the two of them just had their fourth child. As far as I can see, he never made the police blotter of the local paper for as much as a traffic ticket.

EMILY F. POPEK is assistant editor of The Daily Star. Contact her at epopek@thedailystar.com.