Listen to the Music

With the mass murder of 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas gnawing at the national conscience, pundits, parents and practitioners find themselves pondering the question of how children can best be protected from future acts of violence, short of arming teachers and converting school campuses into citadels. Necessary as those conversations may be, they often pay short shrift to a factor that is present in nearly every school shooting: the perpetrator is a loner. In all too many instances, it is our young people who have, themselves, become fortresses.

Expanding mental health programs for at-risk youth is one necessary response to the glut of school shootings that has affixed a black ribbon to the conceit of American exceptionalism. The availability of early intervention treatment options will, however, be for nought lest perpetrators-in-the-making are identified. How, exactly, are we to do so?

For starters, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing might consider making coursework focusing on the identification of early indicators of pathological behavior (e.g., depression, suicidal ideation, preoccupation with violence, rejection, marked aloofness, etc.) a mandatory component of professional teacher preparation programs. The California Legislature might require candidates to demonstrate mastery of such knowledge as a condition for receipt of a preliminary teaching credential. Mandatory professional learning opportunities for existing teachers might also be provided.

Making teachers better equipped to identify possible early warning signs of behavioral pathology may be a good idea, but the people who spend the most time observing young people at greatest risk of perpetrating violence upon themselves and/or others are their fellow students. While we can’t expect students to receive the same training as their teachers, there’s no need for them to consult the DSM-V in order to identify a loner. Listening to S & G should more than suffice.

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone

Who amongst us hasn’t been there? I’m not talking about the unwanted solitude forced upon us by the masked and shuttered world of the pandemic, but of the existential loneliness encountered in our journey through the minefields of adolescence. Who amongst us made it through without ever having visited that deep, dark and lonely place? How many of us managed to avoid feeling irredeemably separated from the one(s) we so desperately wished to be with?

I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate

It’s a common enough coping mechanism. Even Superman retreated to a “Fortress of Solitude” when life became too trying. Unlike the “Man of Steel,” we creatures of flesh and blood are constrained to employ the tools of imagination and will to build the walls that protect us. We close ourselves off, pretending not to see, not to care, not to feel, repeating as necessary as we weave the gossamer cocoons that serve as our fortresses.

I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain

At this point, what could be regarded as coping takes an ominous step in the direction of the void as to live is to expose one’s self to pain.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor

Nowadays, books and poetry have given way to hand-held devices and game consoles. Thanks to the digitization of, well, practically everything, we are increasingly able to approximate living full lives absent the actual presence of others. Keats, Shelley, and Salinger are no match for a plug-and-play gaming console, high end video card, and virtual headset. When real people become intrusive, we can dismiss or delete them with a swipe or a tap.

Hiding in my room safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock I am an island

Ours is, increasingly, a touchless society. Ironically, it is the champions of secularization who have fashioned a new form of Puritanism in the workplace and school. Because some acts of physical contact can be malevolent, or can cause unintended discomfort, any touching is frowned upon. At a time when so many of our young people need to feel a caring hand on their shoulder, the default view of a literal pat on the back is one of instant suspicion. Add to this one of the many perverted teaching of COVID: touching is deadly.

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

Ironically, yet again, this appears to be precisely what disconcertingly large numbers of parents wish for their children. Even though most kids are smart enough to know that their parents’ attempts to shield them from any and all external sources of pain and tears are futile, they still get the message that it’s desirable. Having been weakened over-protective parenting, they are left to wrestle with the regulation of their growing mental agency. Thankfully, most will find healthy ways to cope with the inescapable exposure to failure, disappointment and rejection that inexorably come with social engagement and living in the real world. But some will seek refuge in the building of impregnable walls, and too many of our children have, themselves, become fortresses of solitude.

I’m rarely one to dispense curricular advice, but I’d encourage middle and high school administrators and teachers to consider having their students listen to, analyze and discuss Simon and Garfunkle’s I am a Rock. Yes, I know. In the view of today’s students, S & G are roughly as contemporary as a Greek chorus or a psalm. But the themes disclosed by I am a Rock will ring true to them, because that’s what art does. (And the lesson would be woefully incomplete without inviting students to identify those of their songs that give expression to the same understandings of existential loneliness, human frailty, and self-destructive flight from engagement with others.)

The ultimate goal of such a lesson should be moral and prescriptive. If and when we see signs that a fellow student has become, or appears to be in the process of becoming a ‘rock’ or an ‘island’, we should reach out to him/her. Extend a hand. Invite the person to hang out with us. Doing so may feel counterintuitive, but we know they’re starving for something we have the ability to bestow. Interest. Companionship. Caring.

Most will fail to act on such exhortations, and the overtures tendered by the few that do will almost certainly meet with initial resistance. For this they should be prepared with the understanding that such rebuffs are indicative of a struggle to undo a well established defense mechanism. Fortresses are neither readily nor easily dismantled, but when it comes to breaking through these walls the trick isn’t to try harder, but to try more gently. Again, not every attempt will prove successful. But some will. And who knows? Some of those successes may be life saving. Maybe even multiply so.

We can’t expect our students to be therapists, and our teachers armed guards. But our students can be armed with the knowledge needed to identify a retreat into solitude and apathy, and the moral courage required to breach self-made fortresses with acts of kindness.

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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