Tuesday, April 17, 2007

School shootings and youth violence: Do creative writings hold the key?

Most of you probably know about Monday's school shooting, where Virginia Tech senior Cho Seung-Hui killed 30 people before shooting himself in the face. I've been following it pretty closely, as it reminds me a lot of the Columbine shooting in my own town eight years ago.

Just as with Columbine, I'm noticing the media's tendency to point out "warning signs" and draw connections. With Columbine, they recognized (somewhat) that bullying and ostracization had something to do with why the shooters had developed such a hatred for other kids. Sadly, though, everyone spent most of their energy fingering everyone else for not seeing "the signs."

I'm seeing a similar thing going on with Virginia Tech and Cho Seung-Hui. The media is making a big deal about the "warning signs" -- that Cho was introverted, a loner, etc. The fact that he wrote two "disturbing" plays in a creative writing class is especially getting a lot of attention.

I read both of Cho's plays, "Mr. Brownstone" and "Richard McBeef", and I have to say I don't think they are all that significant. Realistically, they contain nothing worse than what I grew up reading in V.C. Andrews, Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, etc. "Richard McBeef" is a little disjointed, like something he just threw together, but "Mr. Brownstone" contains some rather clever literary devices... And like I said, the imagery is no worse than what is fed to much younger readers on a daily basis. Would someone read these plays and automatically think, "This kid is going to kill lots of people someday"? I don't think so.

The entire situation reminds me of something that happened to me in middle school. Back then I used to carry a spiral-bound journal to school, and I wrote in it constantly. Being rather bullied myself, a couple of girls once thought it would be great fun to steal my journal and read it. Eventually the school counselors intervened (though it took a while, since they were always convinced I was doing something to deserve being bullied).

When the counselors got the journal from the other girls, they wouldn't give it back to me at first, because of a rather dark poem I'd written and attached to the front cover. They thought that the poem signified that I had some rather serious problems (although as much as I was bullied, and at that age, did it really surprise them that I suffered some angst?). I remember being surprised, but I stubbornly maintained that it was just a poem I'd written, and that I wanted my journal back. When they finally returned it, they had removed the poem -- as if holding my writing hostage would banish my feelings of being ostracized.

If, sometime after that incident, I had taken a gun to school and massacred a bunch of other students, those counselors would have told everyone that they "saw the signs," and pointed to my poem as evidence. And perhaps if Cho Seung-Hui had grown up to write bestselling horror novels or screenplays instead of shooting up a school, "Mr. Brownstone" and "Richard McBeef" would have been hailed as early explorations of his natural talents.

Obviously, of course, Cho did shoot up a school. However, from what I can tell there was likely a lot more going on in that kid's life than just writing violent plays. All I'm saying is that let's not forget that in hindsight, we often read meaning into things that simply wasn't there. In other words, let's not start using these "warning signs" to make assumptions any time a kid writes something dark. And before you tell me that won't happen, remember that after Columbine, trench coats were banned in schools nationwide, simply because of Harris and Klebold's affiliation with the (rather harmless) "Trench Coat Mafia."

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