For most of my career, I worked at a TV station not far from the high school where a student stabbed nearly two dozen classmates Wednesday. That news station was the first on the scene Wednesday morning. My best friend from those days at the station has grandchildren who were in the school during the attack. They are OK. Physically, at least.
As it happens, I taught a university class that night to students of Media Arts and Journalism. For three hours, we talked about what happened, how the breaking story was covered and whether the young attacker’s name should have been released.
We explored the reasons this school violence keeps happening. My students, mostly juniors and seniors who were preschoolers when Columbine happened, grew up during the two decades when school violence was emerging as an almost predictable part of the news cycle. Some of them were able to name the perpetrators in the most notorious attacks.
I stood up there in front of the classroom, looking at these smart and eager students. In our many, many hours together in that room, hammering out the intricacies of word choice and punctuation, I have come to have great affection for all of them.
And so I asked them: Could many of these attacks be by young people who feel they have no hope for the future? That their adolescent problems – the sort of misery that teenagers have always suffered – now seem insurmountable. And, unable to see to the other side of a bad year, some students choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
“Do you guys feel hope?” I asked them.
The 11 of them looked at me as if I’d finally snapped my cap. One girl in the second row raised her hand.
“I am in college because I have hope,” she said. She’s a volunteer firefighter – the daughter of an emergency worker. In her first essay assignment, she wrote about getting her new fireman’s helmet, and the smoky smell of her firehouse locker as she first suited up.
That, I guess, is hope – the belief there are things she can do that might improve life for other people.
The girl sitting next to her, a good writer with a sweet nature, raised her hand next.
“We have to remember that people get over illnesses now,” she said. “Used to be that a virus or something would kill everybody, and now there’s medicine that cures us.”
A young man back in the corner picked up on that theme.
“There used to be bubonic plague, and one of every three people died a horrible death,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about that now.”
As the students shared their thoughts about school violence and about their futures, I saw my hours of class preparation evaporate. We never would get to all the editing lessons I’d planned.
But that’s OK. The class was edifying for me, and I think the students welcomed the chance to talk.
A student in the front row raised her hand.
“I don’t know about everybody else, but there are so many places I want to see. Pretty places with interesting stories, and I want to go to all of them,” she said. “I think the future is good.”
Good – even though a 16-year-old slashed as many of his classmates as he could reach. And even though the attack will bring all schools – my kid’s included – to a new and cold realm of metal detectors and wanding and bag searching.
Maybe the reality of that isn’t as horrific for the young people who grew up hearing about school violence. Maybe my students are as worried as we parents and teachers are.
But that night, they were talking about hope.
Beth Dolinar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.