In December, a New Jersey schoolboy was arrested for drawing in class.
In the post-Sandy Hook rage to blame anything (guns, video games, internet-addicted youth) the easiest thing to blame is always the kid who fails at the blankly inoffensive ideals of childhood. This 16-year-old drew a glove shooting flames. The police searched his house. They found the sort of gutted machines that hint at a proclivity for engineering. He was arrested on December 18, and was still in juvenile hall when papers ran the story on the 28th.
A few weeks later, 17-year-old Courtni Webb was thrown out of school in California. A teacher searched her bag, and found a poem she had written for herself, that showed too much empathy for Adam Lanza. When you're underage, your property isn't private. Neither are your thoughts.
I think of these kids because I was one of them.
When I was 12, I was thrown out of school for, among other crimes, drawing headless cheerleaders during English. It was the cherry atop a year of being hauled before earnest adults concerned about my future. I was an at-risk girl. No one would ever say at risk for what.
My dad's girlfriend nicknamed me "little black smudge." I was arrogant and scowly and awful. I'd been an antisocial child. Many a Thanksgiving with the Puerto Rican half of my family began with them hauling me out of some book-lined hiding spot. I read when I walked to avoid making eye contact. When I messed up a drawing (and I messed up most) I'd weep till I couldn't breathe. Concerned guidance councilors called home about my poetry. Conversation made me choke.
By 12, I'd grown tits and found myself in line with the zeitgeist. The 90s were the decade of angst. The Craft's black lipstick Wicca. Courtney Love wielding her guitar like a cock, all hot sex and rage. Kurt Cobain as a martyred imaginary brother. A tween mind could misinterpret clinical depression as sadness over the universe's jocks. The 90s meant grunge and zines and riot grrrl. I may have had no scrapbooks of friends, but Spin magazine was my family album.
In a bit of sympathetic magic, I burned every photo of myself I could find when I graduated high school. But I remember looking much like I do now. The year I was thrown out of school, I wore band shirts and thrift store jeans. I had dyed black hair and skin too pale for a mixed race kid—skin that made teachers call home in concern. I pierced my ears to the cartilage with safety pins, and drew ankhs on my eyelids with ballpoint pen.
I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be darkly beautiful and have brilliant dangerous friends and spend afternoons reading alone. But I was 12. Being that age means surveillance, the world seen only through supervised activities that mediate between you and all that's interesting. I couldn't make friends. I couldn't stay awake during class. I failed to be what I should have been. All the strictures of childhood prevented me from becoming what I wanted to become.
When I see a kid getting tattoos, listening to violent songs, smoking weed, or playing games shellacked in gore, I see a kid trying to find their own place in the world. Some place authority, however kind or cruel, hasn't touched.
I rebelled because I was a child and I wanted to be human.
It was a few years before the internet had spread beyond the geek elite. Books and music were all that let us know we weren't alone. Brats in shredded black made few friends. Especially not when they're convinced that they're made of superior stuff. Classmates threw Coke cans at my head. After a day of getting punched in the face, I'd turn on Trent Reznor till the bass drowned out my brain. Staring at the ceiling until it went white, I doubted I'd ever be done with childhood.
I was the only kid who wouldn't stand for the pledge of allegiance. The teachers had me wait outside the classroom, where my heart pounded with the adrenaline of minor disobedience. I wrote to the anarchist prisoners whose zines I found through Factsheet Five. During class, I devoured the antiauthoritarian canon—Marquis de Sade, and Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, and Revolutionary Suicide. Books hid neatly under my desk. Teachers didn't like when I read during lectures. Their first punishments were in-school suspensions: a day staring at the walls of a windowless room, no books allowed. When your brain isn't occupied, minutes expand to centuries. You can hallucinate a universe in your thumbnail.
Soon, it wasn't just teachers who didn't like me. It was the school itself.
Our principal, Dr. K, was thin and unctuous and admired how Japanese students bowed to their teachers. Bowing wasn't my thing.
I wanted to be as bad as Dr. K said I was. I wanted to be hardened and unafraid before authorities to whom I was supposed to defer. Anything I know about swagger, I learned as a twelve-year-old in a room full of adults who'd labelled me profoundly troubled. Don't give them satisfaction. Keep your back straight. Meet their eyes.
When I remember that year, no stereotypical adolescent crimes stick out. I didn't fight or get caught shoplifting, and I never had enough friends to score drugs. Instead I refused to change out of an anarchist T-shirt. I painted my palm green before a presentation. I had a bottle of White Out. I read War and Peace during math class. When I didn't bring sweats to gym, I told the teacher that to make excuses would imply I that I cared about her opinion. I drew violent pictures in the ballpoint style of Babygoth Baroque.
In the guidance councilor's office, Mrs. S would emote at me, eyes moist with false concern. She'd ask me why I was so angry.
I was angry because I was 12.
The right way for a white girl to be angry is to turn her anger inwards. She should be a victim, like the patients in Reviving Ophelia, a psychiatrist's late-90s textbook on broken girlhood. She should starve or cut or blow boys who treat her badly. A crusading shrink should scoop her up, and return her to good grades, tasteful clothes, and happiness--heart and hymen intact.
Like many smart kids, I had age dysmorphia. In my head, I was ready for adventures. In the world, I couldn't hang out alone at Starbucks. What the guidance councilor didn't want to remember is that childhood is helplessness. Schools, sometimes benevolently, sometimes not, have power over their students that most American adults will never experience unless they are in a hospital, old age home, institution or prison.
In The Medicalization of Deviance, Peter Conrad says that what was once conceived of as sin, then crime, became illness. School kids are labelled with all three. Brown kids in broke schools are seen as minicriminals. Police detain them for doodling on their own backpacks. In religious areas, queer kids are sinners.
For white kids in decent schools, adolescent rebellion is something for psychiatrists to treat. For them, school is taken as a hard-wired part of evolution. You're broken if you can't sit in class.
I wonder now what would have happened if I had seemed to them less like my Jewish half, and more like my Puerto Rican one. Race in America is a complicated mix of one's heritage, physical appearance, and how well one matches ideas of what a minority should be. When I was born, my brown grandfather proudly shouted "Blanca!" but not reading as Puerto Rican had as much to do with clothes and class. In US schools, white kids who can't fit in are seen as having problems. Kids of color are often seen as being the problem. The school wanted to shove me full of pills. They never put me in jail.
In the era of Adderall, one must have a diagnosis. By spring, I got mine. For three hours, a beige man asked me questions in his beige office. The verdict? Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Officially a mouthy brat. The school suggested lithium. My overwhelmed single mom sent me to therapy. During my weekly visit, the therapist would try to peer into my emotional guts. Instead, I'd talk about books.
At the end of seventh grade, school threw me out. My mom sent me to live with my father. After a year of being called away from her job because of my Nirvana book covers, she'd understandably had enough.
Columbine happened when I was 15. American schools are driven by externals rather than root causes. After Columbine, guns didn't kill people. Black trench coats did. According to David Cullen's book on the massacre, Harris was a sociopath, but the media played the shooting as goths versus jocks. Suddenly, every freak was a future mass murderer. By then, I had an older boyfriend to fuck some perspective into me. Better able to hide my desires, I was left mostly untouched.
I graduated early. Nothing as an adult, no brokenness, no breakups, no illnesses, was as bad as childhood.
It seems beside the point to write about one's angsty youth. Doesn't the president make "It Gets Better" videos? Isn't Lady Gaga head of an antibullying campaign? Weren't we all fucked up in middle school? Then another school shooting happens, and weird kids are scapegoated again.
School shootings are terrifying because they exist at a locus of public and private breakdown. Afterwards, talking heads debate guns, bloody video games, the mental health system. Beneath that lurks a fear that nice white boys in nice white suburbs are just waiting to explode. So they say these boys were deviant and different all along.
No one school can disarm America. No society can identify every future murderer. No free society should try.
In 2002, a man tried to blow up a plane by setting his shoe on fire. Americans have shuffled barefoot through airports ever since. Security theater is the only security we know. Of course schools target drawings or poetry or trench coats.
What they destroy when they do so are the frail life preservers that carried kids like me through childhood. We needed our black clothes, our art, our angry anthems. We needed things that were as jagged as we were. Take them away, and you might provide the illusion of safety. But you steal the small safe spaces we built for ourselves.