The little county seat in a big wide prairie state was supposed to have been a refuge, a safe American place where the people were white but left the rez people next to them alone except for private suspicion and blame which they never admitted and which was often shared by enrolled rez people. More often by those who just missed being enrolled, but couldn't quite pass as white. They could have in the city but weren't quite brave enough to go there.
Her illusion of safety was challenged at the first orientation for new teachers by the administrators, who were clearly football coaches in a previous life and wished they still were. But her eyes weren't really that opened until the kids came back. They weren't kids.
Stratified by the occupations and wealth of their parents, these adolescents had already been veterans of the adult world for many years, since they first realized how easy it was to access booze, cigarettes, and drugs and how reluctant all the grownups were to admit that it happened, that their kids had been corrupted since they got to junior high. If you called that corruption -- maybe it was enlightenment. They understood both gamification and commodification.
But it wasn't until after Halloween -- when there were some mysterious deaths that the law couldn't or wouldn't address -- that her willingness -- indeed, urging -- to let the kids, hardened and cynical as they were (and some were not) begin to talk. Partly it was national mass shootings by what the media called "white supremicists" that gave her boldest class permission to talk. They were very impatient with her for not understanding them. "You don't know anything," they said.
This was a refrain in the town and the school: "We are the ones who KNOW and you don't know anything so you should listen to us." But in fact, what they meant was "we live this status quo and you're not going to mess it up for us." It struck her as more biological than sociological. It was at a very basic level, like gut-level, and was not open to any kind of discussion or argument. Yet it worried them -- there might be something they had missed.
But she didn't interfere with all that. She was beginning to realize she might not be able to stay but it was going to be very difficult to leave. She thought of moving to the rez, only a few miles, but they were infected with the same set of beliefs. It was no longer possible for a white person to live there because the usual malcontents were now reinforced by dogma from the Algerian French resistance, only half digested. At least these village whites hadn't really figured out such a movement existed. They didn't like foreign, even in books.
"Why don't they ask US why these losers shoot people at these fancy little events like concerts and restaurants and upscale churches where everyone goes all dressed up to pray for themselves? We never have those kinds of fancy things to do."
"No, they don't even try to talk to the shooters -- they just drop them in their tracks."
"Well, when you're shooting an assault rifle, people tend not to talk to you because you're already converted to red mush on the pavement and all the mismatched shoes people fell out of are piled up to one side."
"Yeah, and then they go to your house and talk to your parents, if they can find them, and make big theories about this whole thing that happens again and again. They assume that they can figure it out, that they KNOW, but they don't. They just look in front of a camera and read what the teleprompter says."
The force and venom of their talk was impressive. It was entirely beyond anything her generation would produce at that age. They were busy worrying about being bombed to radioactive dust by enemies we didn't know at all, but they weren't individuals -- they were whole foreign nations. Big shots then pointed out that we were headed for this social chaos in this century, quite simply because of economics that had nothing to do with hatred. Simply, the jobs would be obsolete and food would be empty. The social connections in communities, whether churches or bowling leagues, would be broken by the internet and television. None would be replaced by new institutions, except for mega-corporations trying to convert everything into automation to get rid of people. Our German-originated lockstep industrial school systems would downgrade and explode into private schools for those who could afford them.
"Yeah, your generation just shot the President and Martin Luther King, Jr. and a lot of people of color."
The experts didn't foresee the sexual revolution that followed effective birth control, or DNA that could prove fatherhood to make them pay, or the ability to move a person from one sex to the other, and that all this would confuse even the Pope. The people of the past thought in terms of economics, not being able to afford babies and so aborting them as soon as they were detected. They had discarded the precepts of conventions, like family, but kept the longing, the sentimentality.
They simply did not expect that people would be so ignorant of what had changed, so innocently thinking the clock and calendar could be turned back to some mythical time based on oppression and suffering, but just not theirs, which made it all right.
Then the discussion fell apart. They were young after all and couldn't sustain a line of thought or organize evidence. They just exploded with emotion, like mass shooters, settling for the intensity of a moment.
When she began to write, decades later, the fall of the Roman Empire was a popular topic and many people had opinions about why it happened. Maybe it was just worn out. Maybe "empire" wasn't the way to go. Maybe handsome gladiators fighting tigers in the coliseum was not equivalent to daily bread after all. She remembered the twisted face of a boy who didn't say much. "You can't save us," he sneered. "You won't even try. You care nothing about us, just like our parents."