This is about a school shooting that didn’t happen. It’s very hard to figure out how to write about it since it was partly dumb luck, partly imaginary, partly only potential, and an example of how I failed. It happened over a decade ago, not in this town and not on the rez, but close enough that people will know where I live. Not many read blogs, esp. the long-form ones like this.
A boy was transient, genetically attached to an oil field laborer who may or may not have married the long-gone mother. He was not in foster care. He was small and furious, not in any of my classes. One lunch time, after most of the students had left, he began pursuing boys and kicking them in the crotch as hard as he could. I wasn’t on monitor duty, but I collared him and took him to the office. He didn’t quite dare to kick me, but he argued profanely at the top of his voice. He felt very righteous about the whole sequence of events. Everyone fell back ahead of us and got as far to the sides as they could when we passed.
The principal was a woman who grew up in a right-wing community. She despised me, partly because I’d taught on the rez, partly because she had been an English teacher with poor skills but high pretensions and knew I had a reputation for writing, partly because the superintendent had hired me over her wishes. He hired me in the mistaken belief that because I had taught on the rez I could handle rough boys in a class that regularly drove off teachers because they figured their athletic skills made them more valuable than any teachers — and they were right.
The principal didn’t know what to do with this boy. He denied that he had ever kicked anyone. (The kicked boys, who may have been bruised at least, were only concerned that their parents didn’t find out and that the other guys wouldn’t make fun of them. They wouldn’t give me their names.) She almost believed him. She would have liked to kick me.
This hard to write about because I sympathize with all parties involved from THEIR points of view and life dilemmas, including my own. I had come back rather recently, having been assured of a job with a local newpaper — which was sold within months and disappeared. I had been hired because the owner didn’t want to make an enemy of a local when he sold. I considered myself a local. From then on I was an enemy. He hadn’t expected that. He didn’t count the rez as “local.”
This boy had had a toxic reaction to a situation others were surviving more happily. For instance, one boy’s parents had divorced and the mother left, the boy stayed on in the house with the father and the second much-younger wife, but then the father left for a better job and the younger wife — who was really quite kind to the boy — got bored and also left. The boy was now in the house by himself and had a big steak for every dinner because it was the only thing he knew how to cook, thanks to barbequing. He wanted to stay because he was one of those athletes.
Teachers who have signed contracts can be sued if they quit before the end of the year. I was saved when a boy jerked off in class. I quit then. The school board did not want to sue because it would have made a lot of things suddenly public. Also, because they were Christian and thought that I’d been a minister of the Christian kind, so they assumed that I quit because of prudery over the “indecent” act.
I was concerned about what “bad wiring” caused such bad judgement on the part of the second boy. (It was a seductive single mother. He was the image of his terrifically powerful and charismatic father. The other kids explained it to me. When I finally observed that man from a distance, I saw what they meant. He never contacted me.) I went to Child and Family Services in that county, discovered that the director was the mother’s best friend, and finally drove to the nearest big city to discuss the matter with the state office when they wouldn’t respond to the phone. I have no idea what happened after that. The boy went off to college and that’s the last I heard.
The mother, who had been doing a little work for the superintendent, was afraid of me and my criticism but we did talk. By now, the superintendent, the principal, and the coach have all left. It was years ago.
(Today the story about Nikolas Cruz is reporting that his neon signals of trouble — talk of shooting, torturing animals, bragging about alliances, “cutting” himself — were all known by the kids and had been reported to all possible authorities. from police repeatedly responding to his step-mother’s house to the school suspending him to complaints to the FBI. They had become habituated.)
After I left teaching, the crotch-kicker came to school with a gun in his backpack and was expelled. The father moved away and took him along. The school didn’t take state that year, but it wasn’t the fault of the kids not trying.
Once I had decided to quit but hadn’t left yet, I let that class of troublesome boys talk while I listened. They were impassioned. They told stories, they drew diagrams to show the dynamics of the town and how much they hated them. In the end they did know they were being used, exploited, for the reputations of the town fat cats. They talked violence and indignation. They didn’t want parents to know because parents are childish and easily hurt and they might get so upset that they divorced which would ruin everything.
All authority figures were stupid and negligent. Their interventions were clumsy and off-the-point. What counted was the other guys and the special relationship with an indulgent girl who would mother them. If that girl threw them over, they considered suicide.
What to do with all of this? I started a novel called “Prairie Gladiators” but my own innards were still too unsettled. I did find comfort in the image of Russell Crowe brushing his hand through the glowing heads of wheat. This is wheat country. While the shrinking towns of rural Montana were wrestling with the problems of power, success and relationships, the rez folks were coming to life, growing. Gangs and drugs were part of it, the Town of Browning was disincorporated, but things were happening.
I read once about how caterpillars turn into butterflies. They don’t just switch parts around as though they were having a sex change. For a while they are only a soup of molecules re-forming and unrecognizable. I hope this is a legitimate way to understand our shifting and often lethal society.