I Was a Suspected School Shooter
Rumors of me wanting to go berserk went far and wide, and even made front pages of the local newspapers. I had to go to therapy, and by the end of the ordeal I was having dreams about the Columbine shooters.
The author in high school.
By now, the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting has faded into memory for many people, a horrible event already superseded in the headlines by other horrible events. At the time it shocked me to a degree I thought I could no longer be shocked, a reaction no doubt shared by everyone who heard the news. But it also stirred up some more complicated emotions for me along with the sadness—it reminded me that when I was a teenager, the people around me thought that I was capable of what the Newtown killer did. At one point, I was more of a potential murderer than a potential murder victim.
I grew up in Barre, Vermont, a town with a poverty level on par with an urban slum, a rural pocket of ugliness decorated with halfway houses and abandoned storefronts. The town bred drug addicts, premature deaths, and weirdos, but I was still too weird for it. As a kid, I possessed an eccentric streak and was prone to long periods of silence punctuated by bursts of hyperactivity. On top of that, I possessed a dark sense of humor, and was naturally attracted to outlandish outfits. I tried to tame these tendencies and stay under the social radar in middle school and early high school, but it didn't help. It was like my classmates could smell that I wasn't quite right. I was bullied mercilessly for years, even by my "best friends," in the manner of the worst stereotypes of tween girls. My friends would send mixed messages, being affectionate one moment only to commit spontaneous acts of physical and borderline sexual violence and emotional terror the next. What I wore, what I ate, and who I talked to were all controlled. Imagine Mean Girls only the girls weren't as popular or attractive and were much more vicious. We were probably only friends by default—we were bullied together by the more popular kids, thus we stuck it out together, but we never mistook our forced alliance for love.
The summer of 1997, before my sophomore year of high school, I came to the conclusion that I wasn't going to fit into my current environment regardless of what I did, and was sick of the unhealthy relationship that I was stuck in with my "friends." I was still shy and withdrawn, so my rebellion was expressed through my clothing instead of my words—excessive amounts of eye makeup, dog collars, offensive t-shirts, the whole avant-garde nine yards. This acting out wasn't directed against my parents (they didn't care how I dressed) but toward my friends and the rest of the school. I figured letting my weirdness show regardless of the potential backlash was better than continuing to try desperately to fit in only to be mildly tolerated at best.
There was no goth subculture at my school back then, so I stood out like a black thumb; I was the most bizarre-looking kid in town. My style was met with equal parts disgust and fascination by my classmates, and the bullying predictably escalated—I was verbally and physically assaulted on a regular basis, receiving death threats at least once a month. Teachers not only didn't bother to defend me, they would often chime in with comments about my appearance, maybe in an effort to impress the more popular kids, who were usually the offspring of the grown townspeople with high standing in the community.
The other form my rebellion took was a book of charts and rhymes and short stories I had been working on for a while—by the time I was 15, it was 23 pages long and full of frustration and silliness. I shared it with my friends and it became the source of a bunch of inside jokes. Oh, and I killed some people in it too, people I knew and thought were malicious—I referred to them by surreal fake names and described their deaths in cartoonish detail; most of them were murdered by a disco ball at the Elks Club. Here's how I described it:
"Nuffiunda calmly took a knife out of her pocket and cut the rope. For the kids below, there was no more hope. The disco ball swung uneasily and in a matter of seconds, maybe just four, it was no longer above the dance floor. A loud crash vibrated the room, as several kids below had met their doom."
As time went on, I started to prefer escaping into the private world of writing to trying and failing to impress my frenemies, and that attitude resulted in them banishing me and another girl from the group. We became loners in the truest sense: Only two people signed my senior yearbook and she was one of them. We were really the bottom of the high-school social totem pole, and the girls we used to call our friends were now our biggest perpetrators, starting untrue rumors that we spent our free time having sex with each other and that I fucked a bunch of guys—the usual teenage stuff.
The author posing for a photo that probably made sense at the time.
Then on May 1, just 11 days after the Columbine shooting, my life took a drastically dumb turn.
It began normally enough: My fellow loner and I were waiting for a ride, sitting on the steps of the school. Parked in front of us was the car of the main rumormonger and our chief tormentor. My friend told me to stand guard while she wrote a mean note and put it on her windshield—the note threw around the words "fat" and "whore" and she signed it with the name of one of the characters from my Elks Club story.
"She'll know who wrote it if you sign it with that name," I said. "You can't write that."
She agreed and rewrote it, signing off, "Love, The Trenchcoat Mafia."
I shrugged. "Well, at least she won't know who wrote it," I remember saying. I didn't even think we'd get in trouble. Then our ride arrived and I heard reports about a wave of Columbine copycat threats around the nation on the car radio. I think I let out an audible "fuck"—we hadn't even been sneaky about the note. There were about ten kids who had watched my friend put it on the windshield.
Predictably, the police were called, and school officials wanted to talk to me. But they weren't interested in the note, which I admitted being an accomplice to; they just wanted to see my "death plan." Apparently my old friends had responded to the note by telling the vice principal that my surreal, jokey Elks Club story was a prom murder spree manual and that I was going to kill a bunch of kids at the upcoming junior prom, which was talking place, by sheer coincidence, at the Elks Club. (Not that that was a surprise; everything in that fucking town took place there.) The school had also been informed that I was in the process of building bombs. Now, most people I knew had access to firearms, as it was a big hunting town, but I didn't have any guns in my house, I didn't know how to build a bomb, and weapons didn't interest me at all.
Within a few days, rumors of me wanting to go berserk went far and wide, and even made front pages of the local newspapers. Since I was a minor, my name wasn't mentioned but there was constant mention of a "girl who wrote a short prom killing story."
From the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, May 7, 1999:
"[Principal William] Sullivan said there was nothing illegal about the note, but blamed it and the revelation of a short story allegedly authored by another student for a series of bizarre rumors.... Sullivan said there was no crucifix with a black trench coat planted in the lawn in front of the school, there was no bomb found in the popcorn machine, and no evidence that the school's Bosnian students were plotting revenge for the NATO air assault on Yugoslavia... adding that a rumor a bomb would be planted at Saturday's junior prom was also prevalent."
That same day, the local CBS affiliate began its nightly news broadcast by pairing shots of my high school and the Elks Club with shots of kids running out of Columbine High School with their hands over their heads. "The junior prom," the anchor intoned, "a night for young fun, will have police patrol this Saturday night. Rumors of a threat—a shooting threat—have officials on edge. Kristin Kelly has more on what's put a dark cloud of danger over prom night."
Nobody tried to contact me, the source of this dark cloud of danger. Instead they interviewed random students congregating outside of the school smoking cigarettes. Despite the small-town media frenzy, most sources told reporters that the whole situation was nothing but rumors. A lot of students knew it was probably bullshit, but they also knew that keeping the rumor mill going could keep the school closed for fear of "threats," giving them a holiday.
In a small town like mine, everyone knew that the stories were about me, and more than a few people genuinely thought I was consumed with murderous rage. Even my parents, who worked towns away, were being told how troubled I was by their coworkers. No one tried to hide their fear and hatred of me either. When I walked down the halls of school it was like the parting of the Red Sea; crowded restaurants fell quiet when I entered; students who feared they were on my non-existent hit list dropped out of the classes they shared with me. My house was egged and I got French fries and soda thrown at me when I attempted to set foot inside the school cafeteria.
I spent long hours as a 16-year-old being interrogated by the school officials about my "murder plot book." How many ways can you ask a person if she plans on killing people? I'm sure I heard them all. They wanted to read my book, of course, but I had a writer's normal vanity of not wanting anyone to see an unpolished story, not to mention my worry that I might be labeled criminally insane. It was a lot of pressure—the post-Columbine hysteria was in full swing, every other story on the news featured kids getting arrested for copycat plans, and I was certain that my story was disturbing enough that they would put me in jail for it.
My parents were supportive and took time off work to talk to the school officials, yet they were drained by all the drama. My pariah status was hurting their social standing in the community too. I wanted to fight back more against my accusers, but my parents really couldn't afford it financially or emotionally. They spent a grand hiring a lawyer that I only spoke on the phone to once. He told me that I needed to give the school the Elks Club story and that I could prove my innocence by showing that I had nothing to hide.
I followed his advice and gave the vice principal my book and she and the school therapist read it. Surprisingly, both found it extremely non-threatening—so non-threatening, in fact, that I was harassed until I graduated to hand over the "real version."
Despite complying with the school officials, I was banned from my Junior Prom. The school told me I would probably get shot if I even tried to roll up to the event—crazed parents had apparently informed the school that they would be waiting in the parking lot of the Elks Club with shotguns on the lookout for me.
I was also informed that I was emotionally disturbed and I was ordered to undergo sessions with the school therapist twice a week. I hated him. He was smarmy and condescending, and when I told him I was tired of being harassed he told me that the other kids were just blowing off steam, that their reactions were normal. He also claimed that people probably weren't picking on me as much as I imagined. When he walked me out after that session, two people yelled "psycho" at me in front of him.
My parents eventually sent me to a psychiatrist in a neighboring town who was barely an improvement. She didn't want to hear anything about my experience and the only comment she had about the whole ordeal was that she "heard about it on the news." She always squirmed when I was in the room, and the only thing she wanted to talk about was the fact that I was clearly depressed. She then prescribed me Luvox, the same drug that Columbine shooter Eric Harris was on when he was stockpiling ammunition. I told her that I didn't think I was depressed, that I was an optimistic person by nature. She looked at my black nail polish and told me she was certain that I was battling depression. I reacted poorly to the Luvox, which turned me into an insomniac. When I could sleep, I would usually wake up to five minutes of hallucinations. I got switched to Prozac, and, after a similar reaction, changed to Zoloft. To this day, I don't think I was depressed—I may have had some kind of anxiety disorder, but the drugs only made whatever I was coping with worse. I would obsess over everything, and felt groggier and in less control of myself.
From my diary entry dated October 17, 1999:
"I ran out of school today. I don't even know what happened. I got real dizzy and felt like I was going to throw up. I got in my car and started driving but had to pull over to throw up. Then I went back to school and forgot it even happened. I feel like I can't think straight anymore."
The thing was, my life had become extremely intense, and I really needed to talk about it with someone I trusted. Everyone loved talking about me, I was sure, but no one would talk to me. I was growing more and more isolated. Friends and neighbors who used to spend holidays with my family completely cut ties with us. Senior year came around and I was blacklisted from classes that had my intended "victims" in them or whose teachers claimed to be afraid of me (this turned out to be most classes). The community service learning teacher in particular was disturbed by me—although I was allowed to sign up for her class she refused to speak to me. She supposedly told some of my classmates and teachers that there was nowhere in our community that I could be placed, that I'd never be able to function in society, and that I would probably be dead before college. She called me "gifted" when she knew me back in middle school. But now I was a monster. I dropped her class and enrolled in a vocational program instead.
From my diary entry dated November 3:
"I'm so upset. Today Mr. [name withheld] told my parents about how some teachers told him shit about me. When I tried to sign up for his class they were like, "You don't know what you are getting yourself into" and that I'm mentally ill. Teachers are no better than the students. Mr. [name withheld] didn't listen to it, thankfully. He said I was his best student in the class. Which makes sense because nobody else cares at all. I just want to get through this year without any shit but I also want my revenge."
My parents told me that I could leave the school if I wanted, but I didn't want to. I felt that leaving would be an admission of guilt, and I felt strangely attached to the place and the people I grew up with. They were all I knew and I didn't want to start over. Besides, I began to think, why start from scratch when I couldplay with my newfound reputation as a potentially deadly maniac? It was liberating, in a demented way. I could do whatever I wanted. There was nothing I could do that would make people look down on me more than they already did.
Thus, my clothing and behavior became increasingly bizarre—I felt that upping the ante was the only reasonable solution to the cards I had been dealt. I wanted to create a persona that would help to minimize my harassment, which I figured would be a hyper-real, meaner version of myself. I grew tired of trying to do damage control so I figured I may as well give them what they wanted. Every step I took caused a scene—all I had to do was show up at a school function and people would get visibly upset. I once made a brief 15-minute appearance at a formal dance wearing a short silver dress, and those 15 minutes resulted in weeks of chatter—tales of my "insane" dress circulated until it was said that it had spikes and squares sticking out of it. It was like being a celebrity. A PTA meeting was held, and one of the topics debated was whether I could be banned from all dances and after-school functions.
I started pushing the limit of what I could get away with, and shifted from ignoring people's remarks to ripping posters off the walls in front of them in an attempt at intimidation. On a few occasions I would actually chase people. And they would always run. It was funny. You want a psycho? I'll give you a psycho. That was my logic, and it kind of became a game for me.
In the midst of my ostracism I started to become consumed with hatred—real hatred this time—and began to feel emotionally sick. I would have dreams of Columbine killer Dylan Klebold calling me up on the phone and about an indoor thunderstorm killing people in my gymnasium.
From my diary entry dated November 19:
"Last night I had another dream about lightning killing people, only instead of it being at prom this time it was inside the school. I heard people screaming while they were being killed, but there was also this horrible noise that sounded like the raptors from Jurassic Park."
I could no longer relate to any character in television or films because I assumed that all of them would detest me on sight if they met me.I began to indentify with other school shooters, not because I wanted to kill people, but because their lives were the only ones that I figured were comparable to mine. I felt like the title character in Carrie. Before she murdered everyone at her prom, she felt like the whole crowd was laughing at her. But in reality, it was only a select few that were tormenting her; the rest were repulsed by their behavior. Her view, her entire universe, got distorted, just like mine. I had transformed from a tormented girl to a tormentor of sorts, and actually started going a little crazy. I even wrote "I AM GOD" on my graduation cap.
Today, most people I knew back then are uncomfortable talking about that whole fiasco with me. I've brought it up to a few of my old classmates and it's like pulling teeth. "I don't remember any of that," someone will say, before admitting a few drinks later that she remembers all of it. "How the hell could anybody forget something like that?" she'll tell me. "I just didn't want you to feel bad."
In what I imagine is the process a lot of "weird" kids go through, I found myself being accepted by others once I started college, but there was a residual effect to that year of infamy. I felt like I had emotionally entered a place from which there is no return. Like a drug addict adapts to a narcotic, I had gotten used to all that attention and now required an obscene amount just to feel normal—but more than that, there was a deep-rooted desire for revenge somewhere inside me. Not shoot-up-the-place revenge, but I had a drive to prove something, though I wasn't sure what I was trying to prove, or to whom. It's strange to admit, but I have always felt a void in my life, not having that infamy, even if it was at a small scale.
I got a taste of that notoriety that comes to someone when they do something evil—and, terrifyingly, maybe I got a hint of what motivates a real shooter. When you're stuck in a rut of despair, being transformed into a villain of cinematic proportions can sound strangely appealing.
Gina Tron is a contributing editor for LadygunnMagazine, and the Creative Director for Williamsburg Fashion Weekend, in addition to being the Editor In Chief for the event's magazine. She enjoys drawing morbid cartoons and has published a few of her short fiction works. She is currently in the process of completing a book. Follow her on Twitter: @_GinaTron
Read more painful memories: