Sunday, August 23, 2009

Columbine & Earl Greyer


"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places."
- Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms


Recently I was working at the bookstore and one of our regular customers approached me.

"Do you have the new Lucy Cousins book?"

This particular customer is a whiz when it comes to kids' books. He knows everything new, usually before we even know about it. Thankfully this time we happened to have the exact book he was looking for.

I love helping Mr. Enthusiastic, as I have dubbed him, because he is... um... enthusiastic.

"Look!" he said, "I have to show you this page..."

He flipped to a section of the book that told the story of Little Red Riding Hood. There, in this brand new children's book, written by the creator of Maisy, was a picture of a wolf getting his head chopped off with an axe.

"GEEZ!" I exclaimed.

"I know!" he said, "Isn't it fantastic?"

I started to tell him about an article that I recently read about fairy tales. About how in the good ole days, children's stories weren't all roses and sunshine. They were scary, graphic, terrifying, usually involving diseases and orphans and murder. Think the fire in Bambi (I still get a little shaky thinking about that) times one-thousand. The article argued that stories like this were important for a child's development. When introduced to concepts like violence and death at an early age, children, apparently, are able to process these things more easily later in life rather than being completely blindsided by them. They SHOULD learn about these things as children in a safe way rather than being raised to believe that in life, everything is tied up in a nice little bow.

It was at this point that he looked at me and said "Yes... in real life, there is no happily ever after."

It struck me as more than a coincidence that this encounter occurred while I was reading Dave Cullen's Columbine - a book that I had been eager to read for months.

I know exactly where I was when I found out about the shooting in 1999 (which, Cullen argues, was actually a failed bombing meant to kill hundreds). I was in my grandmother's living room, sitting in her big leather chair that is now my big leather chair, watching the footage on her television that was as old as stonehenge.

I remember seeing all of the images, now burned into our consciousness, for the first time. Children running with their arms above their heads. Heads thrown back in sorrow. The boy in the window.

Almost immediately, the media (as we liberals like to call it) started providing answers to the collective American question mark surrounding the horror. "Oh, they were bullied." "Oh, they listened to Marilyn Manson." "Oh, they were nazis." "Oh they were goth kids." "Oh, they were racists."

Then the heroic stories started to pour out. Cassie Bernall declaring her faith in the face of death. A modern day martyr. Then came the songs, the sermons, the books, the testimonies.

Guess what? None of these things actually happened.

Cullen's book, rather than being an exposé on the inner-workings of twisted, bullied, outcast kids serves as a means to show the world what they really were - kids. One introverted, lacking self-confidence, with a desperate need to feel loved and accepted. The other, a textbook sociopath. Both were popular, well-liked, and intelligent. They were desperate to go to prom, to get dates, to fall in love. Both had close friends that were Christians and minorities. Neither of them were goths or racists.

But this just goes to show what we as Americans are trained to do when a tragic, unimaginable event takes place - we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and find the moral. Find the lesson learned. Find the happily ever after.

When I was about to turn 13, my older brother passed away. I thought that if I could find the lesson that this event was supposed to teach me (we Southern gals and our "sposed ta's"), I would be healed. If I could wrap it all up in a big bow, make it all make sense, it would be as if none of it had ever happened and my pain would vanish.

I took the standard "Well, if this had not happened to me then x and z would not have happened, either, so really, it was a good thing," approach. This made me feel "fixed," like I wasn't screwed up anymore, and didn't have to deal with all of the scary questions. I could now be the brave girl with her life completely together, better and wiser than she was pre-tragedy. At that age more than any other, you see the world in black and white terms. There is an answer to every question. Doubt is not okay. Doubt equals weakness.

Turns out, I'm just as confused now as I was then. The only difference is that now I'm able to admit it.

Later, I found an old brown paper bag with some of my brother's last wishes written on it. "Tell Amanda that it's okay to ask questions," it said. Only now do I fully understand what he was trying to tell me.

Usually when I blog about the books that I've read, I try to describe a moral or lesson that I've learned from them. But the very point of Cullen's book is that there aren't always morals. Trying to tie up all of the loose ends can sometimes cheapen the experience and nullify the humanity. It serves only to provide us mental relief - "okay, we've learned what that was about and now we can move on." But who wants to see their lost loved ones reduced to a lesson or a microcosm? What high schoolers want to see their school reduced to a symbol for what is wrong with young America? The truth is that truth - life - is more complicated than that, and reducing everything to something that you would read on a sampler doesn't do truth, or life, justice.

Our role as humans is to examine, to pursue, to use our minds and wrestle with what life hands us. Sometimes, there are no answers. Sometimes, there is no black and white. And only through embracing and accepting the question marks, the grey, can we see ourselves as we really are - complex, terrifying, beautiful, irrational creatures.

Like Ms. Stevie Nicks says, "Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? I don't know."

I don't know. And guess what? That's okay.

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