I’m not the kind of blogger who blogs a lot about current events and issues in the news … a little too frivolous for that … but some reflections from last week’s shooting at Dawson College in Montreal have been nibbling at the edges of my brain for the last few days. Coupled with the fact that I’m currently reading Martha O’Connor’s disturbing novel about three self-destructive teenage girls, The Bitch Posse, I can feel a blog coming on about the dark side of youth culture, and how we “grownups” relate to it.
It’s horrific that the phrase “another school shooting” can exist in English or any language, but there it is: there was another school shooting this week. What really drew my attention with the Dawson College story, though, were the revelations about gunman Kimveer Gill’s disturbing blog posts on a goth website.
“Likes: Crushing my enemies’ skulls.” Images of himself in a trenchcoat holding a semiautomatic rifle with the caption: “You will come to know him as the Angel of Death.” An image of his own name on a tombstone, captioned: “Lived fast died young. Left a mangled corpse.”
I’d like to say this stuff shocks me, but honestly? I’ve taught high school for twelve years; I have a degree in counselling; I work in an adult-ed program for “at risk” youth. Nothing shocking here. Out of the 600,000 users on this particular goth website, I’ll bet at least 555,000 of them have similar statements and images in their blogs. And that’s not intended as an indictment of goth culture specifically — that’s a statement about youth. There’s always been a dark side to youth culture. The internet has made it a little more public, perhaps, but it was there when I was a teenager and it’s very much there in the lives of my students.
600,000 internet-using alienated goth young people on that one website — and only one of them took a gun into a school and shot twenty-one people, killing two: Anastasia DeSousa … and himself.
Why? What’s the tipping point here?
You might think that now that I work with a particular population — young people who have had trouble finishing school — I’m more likely to be exposed to this kind of thing, and less shocked by it. Yes, there’s probably a higher proportion of depression, pre-occupation with death and violence, suicidal ideation, etc etc etc, among my students now than among the more “mainstream” students I taught in public high school, or at a private Christian school. But the dark side was definitely there in those places as well. Maybe a math teacher or a science teacher could miss seeing it, but anyone who teaches English and Creative Writing is bound to get smacked in the face, sooner or later, by the dark side of the adolescent mind.
My first job was at a Christian boarding school populated almost exclusively by middle-class kids from churchgoing families. It was there that a girl in my writing class read a story she’d written about a girl very much like herself — the description was clearly a self-portrait — who dresses up in trampy clothes and goes out at night to hook up with random guys in a city park … and murders them. With great pleasure.
Was I shocked, as a naive young teacher, when I read that story? A bit, yeah. (I was also impressed with the quality of the writing). Did I rush to the principal and the guidance counsellor and say that I thought little Suzie was at risk for committing violent crimes? No. Should I have? I’m still not sure, but I don’t think so. I took the story as a piece of creative fiction, that girl’s way of exploring her own “dark side” on paper, which I think everyone has a right to do. Maybe if it had been part of a larger pattern of behavior I would have worried more. Twenty years have passed and I’m pretty sure that girl has not gone on to murder anyone. In those years I have only once recommended a student get counselling on the basis of concerns raised by the writing he produced. And I’ve read a lot of dark, disturbing stuff.
Kimveer Gill apparently wrote “Life sucks, work sucks, school sucks,” on the same website where he posted his disturbing pictures and captions. This, too, is now being quoted as evidence of what a disturbed young man he was. Heck, I had a Grade 8 student who wrote “Life sucks, school sucks” as his journal entry over and over every day for a semester. The kid’s dad had died over the summer and I personally thought he was writing the most honest journal entry he could manage to write during those months. And he grew up to be a fine, upstanding, non-gun-toting member of society, by the way.
Exploring your darker feelings in words, art, music — that’s a valid part of growing up. Even I, who had the most normal and well-adjusted childhood and adolescence you could imagine, could show you a pile of moody teenage poems about how lonely I was and how nobody understood me … I doubt there’s a writer alive who couldn’t produce a similar sheaf of early works. Obviously some people go much farther, and to a much darker place, in both their writing and their lives. That exploration of the dark side isn’t limited to teenagers — many kids who grow up to become artists and writers continue to mine the darker vein of human experience. (Look at Stephen King. Look at nineteenth-century Romanticism. Look at the Psalms!) It’s so easy to second-guess, to look back and say, “Why didn’t somebody raise a red flag when Kimveer Gill was posting dark, destructive messages on the Web?” Hindsight is 20/20, and all that — I’m not sure sounding the alarm every time we see images of death and destruction in a young person’s writing is the answer.
Is there an answer? I guess before I work that one out, I have to figure out exactly what the question is. As I tease through the jumble of thoughts I have on this issue, five questions emerge:
1) What moves a “normal” teenage exploration of negative feelings, etc., across the boundary into something much darker and scarier?
2) For those who cross that boundary, what’s the catalyst that pushes someone from destructive thoughts and imagery, into destructive acts?
3) How concerned should we be about young people’s writing, art, websites, etc., that explore destructive and self-destructive subjects?
4) What can I do as a teacher and counsellor, as an adult living in the same world with young people, to help kids who are walking on the dark side, to draw them back from crossing that boundary?
5) Most important, what can I do as a parent to help my own kids as they approach adolescence — to keep them “in the light” as much as possible?
I don’t have answers, of course. But I do have some thoughts on each of those questions.
1) I really don’t know what causes anyone to cross the boundary from “normal kid adjusting to growing up, with a few bumps” to “troubled kid.” It’s easy to look at family dysfunction as the key element, and there’s certainly a lot of that going around. But I can tell you that I have met an awful lot of “troubled kids” with loving, involved parents who seemed to all appearances to be doing their level best … just like I’m doing with my kids. Certainly what happens at home is important — but well-intentioned parenting is no guarantee of safety; I’ve seen enough to know that. It’s horrible to think of, but behind almost every atrocity committed by a young person is a parent as puzzled as Kimveer Gill’s mother.
2) I don’t know this one either. Very few kids end up murdering people, no matter how disturbed they get. But we lose far, far too many young people by the wayside — kids who go into the dark side and never come out. They may not become murderers but they may get lost in a life of pettier crime, or lost to addictions, or suicide, or a lifetime of poorly treated mental illness that leaves them unable to function. I don’t believe many people are inherently evil. I believe a lot of bright, creative, potentially strong and beautiful young people get lost and the blame for that rests at least partly with society.
3) As a society, then, how do we respond when we see evidence of the dark side of youth culture? Should teachers blow the whistle every time a student writes a poem suggesting life’s not worth living, or a story in which someone carries out a violent act? I think there’s a fine balance here — it’s better to err on the side of caution, of course, than to ignore red flags. But there’s also a danger in being too alarmist, in stifling free expression. Parents are beginning to be horrified by what they find on their children’s MySpace pages — sometimes with good reason. But I wonder if “horrified” is the most useful reaction?
I caught the tail-end of an interview with writer David Grossman today on the radio. I didn’t hear the context in which he was making the statement, but I heard him say that people are afraid of darkness, especially of the darkness in their own children. Of course we’re afraid of it. My kids are six and eight, hopefully many years away from writing depressing poems about how nobody understands them. But if they do write those poems (and I pray that’s the worst they ever do), I will feel scared, because those poems will suggest that my children are in danger and that I have somehow failed them. If I can get past that fear long enough to stand beside my children — not in condemnation over them, but beside them — and look into the darkness with them, talk with them about what they see there … well, I would be acknowledging, as an adult, that the world is a dark and scary place and sometimes you feel alone, and it’s OK to express that. And that would be a good time to remind them that I’ll always love them.
I didn’t blow any whistles on that girl who wrote the violent short story 20 years ago, and maybe the fact that I accepted her, and her story, was a positive thing. But I could have done so much more for her, if I’d been willing to take the risk to really get to know her, to learn about the darkness inside her world out of which that story grew. “At-risk youth” don’t need adults shaking their heads over the shocking content of their blogs; maybe they need someone who can help them stare down the darkness.
4) How do we, as adults, do that for young people? What does caring for youth look like in real life? In response to the Montreal shootings, controversial Montreal clergyman Reverend Darryl Gray said, “We’re not passionate about saving these kids. We’re really not, to be honest….Maybe Anastasia’s death was a wake-up call, that we have to start paying more attention to these kids.” (I could get into a whole tangent here about labelling — there’s something very dismissive about saying “these kids,” and even the term “at-risk youth,” which I use myself, tells only part of the truth about a very complex group of individuals. But I’m going to try not to get too off-track here).
If there’s one thing in life I am passionate about, it is “saving these kids.” I agree society as a whole needs to do more for marginalized young people, but from where I stand, and work, I see whole communities of adults who are giving their lives to helping young people. There are such deeply committed teachers, counsellors, social workers, etc etc, out there doing their best. There are fantastic people developing programs to get marginalized kids into sports, music and theatre programs. And I do see them — us — making a difference, often in small ways.
It’s still not enough. Kimveer Gill’s blog demonstrated hatred and contempt for all authority figures. In Martha O’Connor’s The Bitch Posse, the failures of teachers, counsellors and psychiatrists are central to the characters’ downward spiral. Despite the best intentions of the best adults in the world, kids are going to the dark side and not finding their way through it to the other side.
I used to be younger and more naive. I used to believe I could “save these kids.” Teachers and counsellors who believe that burn out fast. I now believe that out of the dozens of teachers, coaches, counsellors and other authority figures my students will encounter in their lives, I can be one of the good ones. I can be one voice of hope, encouragement, support, standing against the many negative voices they’ve heard. I can listen honestly to their stories (and poems, and blogs) of the darkness they live in, and say, “I’ve heard you say this, and I want you to know I think you’re a valuable person — and if you want, maybe I can suggest a few things that might help you deal with this darkness.”
If enough of us — not just those in direct “helping” professions but also neighbours, employers, friends — believe this, maybe the chorus of voices telling kids “Yes” will grow a little louder than the chorus of voices telling them “NO!”
5) I am, indeed, passionate about my students — but that’s only a fragment of how passionate I am about my own children. Who are still small, who still have their innocence almost completely intact. I don’t mind telling you I am terrified about adolescence, about releasing them into the wild of junior high, and though that’s a few years down the road I see how time is flying and I know it will be upon us all too soon.
I know that no matter what Jason and I do, sometime during those years our children will yell that they hate us and want us to leave them alone forever. That they will feel we don’t understand and don’t care, that they will struggle to distance themselves from us and our values. That will hurt, but it’s normal; it’s what they’re supposed to be doing during those years, and if a little bad poetry gets produced as a result, no lasting damage will be done. But how to prevent them from crossing over into darkness completely — into the world I’ve seen so many young people inhabit, where they’re alienated from family and school and society and from all the good in themselves — no, I don’t know how to protect them from that.
I know we are doing everything right that we can, right now. Giving them a loving home with parents who care about them unconditionally. Giving them discipline and boundaries. Giving them a foundation of faith that I hope is firm without being harsh or narrow. Letting them know they can talk to us about anything that happens to them. Giving them a wide variety of experiences and building their senses of self-esteem and self-efficacy. Making sure they eat vegetables and don’t watch too much TV.
And hoping, and praying. Trusting that when they have to move away from us a little to establish their own sense of self, they will bump into other adults who are caring, and responsible, and trustworthy. I’ve tried to be one of those adults for other people’s kids all my life, so I hope some will be out there when my kids need them. Until then, we’ll all keep doing the best we can, never knowing whether it’s enough.
R.I.P. Anastasia deSousa, 1988-2006.
R.I.P. Kimveer Gill, 1981-2006.
Afterthought: Two hours after I first posted this entry, I’m still debating whether it was right to post Anastasia deSousa’s and Kimveer Gill’s names there togther. I’m not suggesting that the murderer and his victim are equally victims, or that Gill is not to blame for deSousa’s horrible death. In some ways I agree with the sentiments of the blogger who wrote that Kimveer Gill is no victim and I don’t mean anything I said to be taken as diminishing individual responsibility for crime. But I do think the kids and young adults who turn to violent crime are to be pitied, and I do think that in many cases — I obviously don’t know if Gill was one such — the right kind of intervention, somewhere along the line, could have prevented a tragedy. So I do see these two deaths as two tragedies — one the death of an innocent victim, one the death of a person who made terribly wrong choices and hurt others along the way. I’m leaving both names up. There’s a link to a lovely memoriam page for Antastasia deSousa; there’s no such page for Kimveer Gill. That, to me, seems to fairly sum up the difference in their fates.