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Posts Tagged ‘school’

I’ve been trying to get my mind around murder since I was 10 years old.

We were at my grandmother’s house, about 2.5 hours from our home in Kiln, Miss. The phone in the hallway — the only phone in the house at the time, the phone that, over the years, continually brought horrific news, news of fatal fires, news of shootings — self-inflicted and not — news of heart attacks and cancer diagnoses — the phone rang while we were having breakfast.

It was the principal of the high school where my dad was band director. One of the members of the band’s flag corps had been brutally murdered, along with her mother and father, the night before.

This was in the early 1980s, a time before parents (at least my parents) felt the need to shield their children from bad news. My brother and I were quiet, inquisitive, analytical kids, and we instinctively knew that if we kept our silence and blended into the background we would eventually learn everything there was to know about any topic.

K’s brother had systematically beaten her and her parents to death with a hammer (a sledgehammer, maybe – this detail escapes me). (I call her K because this case is so old that there is no reference to it on the Internet, and I would hate for this to be the only link that shows up in a search.) Another brother survived; he had spent the night at a friend’s house.

I remember being told that the murdering brother had what we would now call a history of mental problems; the term used back then was likely “crazy.” I remember hearing that he had moments when he claimed to be Jesus.

I have long pondered the effect this had on my young psyche, especially when events occur like last week’s shooting at UAHuntsville. Anytime I see news of a multiple slaying, my mind returns to that breakfast phone call and then starts flipping between two questions: How could anyone do this, and how could no one have seen it coming in time to prevent it?

If the multiple murders at K’s home occurred today, there would have been counselors swarming our tiny school the next week. As it was, we were supposed to simply take it to heart that this was an anomaly, something that could not happen to any of us, so long as we didn’t know any crazy people.

The problem that I recognized then and now is that “crazy” is not as easily defined as everyone would have had us think.

I also learned that the “stranger danger” line fed to us after the Atlanta child murders and the murder of Adam Walsh was not the entirety of things we had to worry about. Not that I suspected my 8-year-old brother of murderous intent, but the realization that someone K knew and loved was capable of such atrocity was a game-changer for a pre-teen.

The idea that you might not ever REALLY know someone, that there might always be some part closed off to you, no matter how close you are, was not that foreign to me, but the idea that the closed-off part might harbor such unpredictable anger and violence was alarming.

The world was a little less safe, and for the past three decades it seems to have become a LOT less safe.

School shootings, workplace shootings, murder-suicides … it seems like our closed-off parts are more dangerous than ever.

I couldn’t make sense of it when I was 10, and I’m no closer to understanding it now. I just have to hope that events like this really are anomalies, and that the hidden parts of strangers, friends, associates, and even family members aren’t as dark and dangerous as others have proven to be.

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A chapter in Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People describes the use of childhood nerdiness as an inner defense against a disordered home life. Nugent cites Dungeons and Dragons, a quite orderly role-playing game, as one of the tools used by a childhood friend to cope with the chaos of a dysfunctional family living in a cluttered home.

A chaotic home life wasn’t a prerequisite to D&D play among my small group of friends in the late 1980s, but an acute sense of “otherness” certainly seemed to be. Yeah, yeah, all teenagers get the feeling that they don’t “belong” at some point, but some of us really didn’t blend into our surroundings. Whereas our classmates were content with pegging their jeans and listening to love songs by Chicago, a few of us were striving for hair colors that didn’t exist in nature and digging around for older stuff from the Violent Femmes and the Sex Pistols.

That’s not to say we didn’t have our Bon Jovi moments, but we didn’t get stuck there. We went all out to discover exotic-to-us bands like Marillion, and a couple of us were even accused of being Satanists after choreographing a talent-show dance routine to a particularly dark Depeche Mode song. (Note to accusers: I bet you’re still cretins.)

Our home lives weren’t what you would call chaos, though some might be termed “loosely structured.”

We belonged in our D&D group, our fates determined by our imaginations and dice rolls. To our parents, it was a safe, acceptable weekend gathering (there was just a bit of intergroup dating, most of which ended amicably). It’s probably the No. 1 reason that I have more male friends than female friends to this day – I had so much fun with the boys (there were usually only two girls in the group) that the girl stuff held no appeal.

Not belonging stinks. But when you ultimately find your people, it’s a better feeling than pretending.

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I’m planning a trip to New York City and I am PSYCHED. People who grow up in the rural South usually have one of three reactions to urban life:

  • They are annoyed by crowded sidewalks, brutal traffic and the intricate layout of city streets.
  • They are terrified by the city’s sheer vibrancy.
  • They fall in love with said sheer vibrancy and begin plotting their way to a high-rise office and studio walkup.

I’ve loved city life since moving to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the early 1980s. My family’s home was an easy 20 minutes from the Louisiana state line, which was a mere 40 minutes from downtown New Orleans.

The Crescent City is a troublesome example, because it runs on its own rhythm. All cities do. But it introduced me to a world of close quarters, where strangers lived literally feet from one another, rode buses and streetcars, and many times, heaven forbid, WALKED. It was a world in which people ate dinner at 9 p.m., not 6 p.m., and they certainly didn’t call it “supper.”

It was a world of sophistication far removed from my home in Kiln, Mississippi, where I literally had to drive across a defunct cattle gap to get to school every morning.

I truly fell for city life when I was 21 and went to London for four weeks to take a World War II history class. I barely slept the entire time I was there because I didn’t want to miss a minute of action.

Between the Underground and an extremely well-run (read: on-time) system of buses, I could be anywhere in the city within a half hour. The crosswalks required traffic to come to a standstill for pedestrians to cross busy streets – and we’re not just talking crosswalks at red lights and stop signs.

After a lifetime of being accused of walking too fast, I was a welcome addition to the People in a Hurry on the city’s sidewalks. I learned the true people-moving potential of escalators, and I’ve been uncomfortable standing completely still on moving stairs ever since.

The restaurants, the shopping (note that my favorite destination in any foreign city is a grocery store, and a must-visit destination in any large American city is a foreign grocery store), the population’s ethnic mix … there’s just too much that I love to list it all.

New York has it all: subways, buses, foreign grocery stores, fast-moving sidewalk crowds, world-class restaurants, even non-stationary escalator-riders. And not a cattle gap for miles.

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