I heard about the Newtown shooting about 20 minutes after getting off the phone with my best friend from college, who was on a flight home after her first semester of medical school. I called her about an hour later during her layover in LAX. “I’m not sure if you’ve heard this, but while you were in the air, a gunman shot up a an elementary school. They say he shot up the kindergarten classroom.”
She had already seen the news on CNN, so we began to talk about it.
“Have you been to a kindergarten classroom lately?” she asked. “The kids are so tiny. They even have, like, smaller chairs...” Her voice trailed off.
I hadn’t really thought of that before, but her words transported me back to my kindergarten and first grade classrooms in a sleepy upstate New York town about 10 miles over the state line from Newtown, Conn. I remember the rectangular graphite in thick wooden pencils modified for easier handling by chubby, clumsy fingers. I remember writing in what I now estimate to be 28-point-font on rough recycled paper, and I remember the dotted line through the middle that reminded us to give the big letters their due height. I recall that I wrote my lowercase B's and D’s in two strokes. I would draw a vertical stick, then attach a lollipop circle — below the dotted line, of course.
If you made a mistake, you could only cross things out (neatly) because these pencils had no erasers, so as to say that there were no such things as a mistakes in this safe space. Since I illustrated my world in Crayola’s 24 colors, the distinction between Cerulean and Robin’s Egg Blue were meaningful to me. A connoisseur in my own right, I could educate you on the finer merits of Green-yellow versus Yellow-green — or, even better, Yellow-orange versus Orange-yellow versus Macaroni and Cheese.
For the nation and the world, it was difficult to fathom how children, teachers, and all of this could be shot at close range last Friday morning.
I’m open to the idea that my memories are fantastical and old school. Maybe there’s an app for all of this, and now kids use iPads to learn penmanship. Let me not even pretend to know what school is like for a child born in 2006, the year Zinedine Zidane headbutted a dude and the year I begged my parents for an LG Chocolate phone. But, I still think I can be upset that that the special safe space where I was graded on a star system rubric and held to obedience by promises or pizza parties was shattered by something so as ugly as gunfire.
As a former first grader, I can be horrified by the shootings, but as a young adult I’m most disturbed by fact that these mass shootings are carried out by my peers, people under 25. Aren’t we supposed to be the future? Just a fraction of the last year alone — a 22-year-old shoots 20 unsuspecting victims at a Tucson, Ariz. supermarket. A 24-year-old student shoots 70 unsuspecting moviegoers in Aurora, Colo. A 22-year-old shoots three unsuspecting holiday shoppers in Portland, Ore. A 20-year-old with a sharp shot kills his mom, and then heads to an elementary school to kill 25 unsuspecting young students and faculty.
While I can’t claim to be a white male who exhibits particularly odd social behavior, I do go by all three names, sometimes. Like them, I am a college-aged millennial. Unfortunately, these shootings have become milestones in my short life, and the lives of my fellow millennials.
I remember my class giggling through the newly created “lockdown drills” in fourth grade the week after Columbine because it meant the lights got turned off and we had to go under our desks. Nearly to the day eight years later, during my first accepted students overnight college visit in my senior year of high school, the Virginia Tech shooting occurred. I had been feeling cooler than cool sitting in on my first college engineering lecture in Morningside Heights at the same time a 23-year-old gunman was killing 30 unsuspecting students and esteemed professors in an engineering department building in Blacksburg, Va. By that afternoon, my host student and many other students in the dorm had changed their Facebook profile pictures to the now iconic black VT ribbon: “Today, we’re all Hokies.”
I appreciate this renewed call for gun control debates, as I don’t really understand why there are reportedly already 90 guns for every 100 Americans. I especially do not understand why the lawmakers representing the greatest opposition to tighter gun possession restrictions come from states with less than 80 health insurance plans for every 100 constituents, and less than 75 high school diplomas attained for every 100 students in their school systems. There’s a tragic love triangle between low educational attainment, poverty, and violence. Why liberate guns for people most likely to use them to resolve interpersonal conflicts and most unable to afford the damages guns cause?
As the past shooting have made parents clutch their children and ask what can be done to protect these angels from such heinous acts, the Newtown shooting also poses equally important questions. What can parents do to prevent their angels from committing these acts? Above that, since permanent and lasting reform takes a village, what role has greater society played in not supporting these parents trying to raise their children to play safely? I believe that the recipe for these mass killings called for equal parts machinery and equal parts madness. We can take the machinery away, but are we ready to contend with the madness?
In some ways, America has become a crockpot of sorts for this violence, allowing this type of madness to boil and fester largely unchecked until it’s too late. Frankly, it’s very difficult to keep young people in check because they can get what they need to be destructive with our without their parents. I’m not suggesting any causal relationship, and I don’t have evidence that we’re a more violent generation, but I do know that our choices about self-expression, communication, and confrontation are contextual functions of both our environments and uniquely millennial upbringings.
My generation has grown up without care safety valves. Never mind that 1 in 4 American adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, what does it mean that the most uninsured demographic in America is made up of men and women between the age of 19 and 20? For those who think it's okay for emergency rooms to be the first points of medical attention, let’s not hope the mentally ill are being treated in the ER along with the other people they’ve put bullet holes into.
I don’t feel qualified to discuss mental health in this country as a umbrella for many complex psychiatric conditions, but I do feel qualified to discuss the peculiar non-clinical madness that is unique to my generation and will therefore cause outbursts that are unique to my generation. It is a madness that the 112th Congress, average age 56.7 years, and Senate, average age 62.2 years, must accept that they will never understand. Since millennials inherently populate their decision-making matrices differently than these lawmakers, the dialogue for drafting reform legislation must be an inclusive and intergenerational one.
Our nation’s lawmakers and our parents cannot relate to my generation’s primary modes of communication and confrontation which govern our interpersonal interactions with our peers and across generations. We’re the first generation that has spent more time texting each other than talking to each other. Not only do many of us parse our worlds in 140 characters strings, we were the first generation to have endured and sometimes succumbed to a new genre of cyber-bullying that took hurtfulness to new heights. The sticks-and-stones-may-break-my-bones rhyme was an absolute fallacy for us and it ought to be retired. When a child’s Facebook account is hacked then littered with homophobic slurs and images, I pity the well-meaning parent who tries to relate the anecdote of when his nose was bloodied on the back of the school bus. It’s the first generation where it has been easier to engage in cybersex with a stranger than to ask your junior high crush out to the dance.
Despite being the most socially-networked generation and the first to have hundreds of Facebook friends before graduating from high school, we are the first generation since Alexander Graham Bell unable to recall the telephone phone numbers of three friends from memory. Not getting invited to the the most popular sixth grade girl’s Friday night was painful in 1978, but count on it to be even harder to endure when the party is being live-Tweeted and Instagrammed all over your newsfeed. For every friend of yours in her late 20s or early 30s still stalking photo albums from that June destination wedding she didn’t get an invite to, imagine her 11-year-old self trying to work through the same.
Apart from the way we communicate and confront, our nation’s lawmakers and our parents cannot identify with this generation’s early exposure to violence and insatiable appetite for it. The research is out there and it’s quite solid. Children who have been exposed to violent media are more likely to resolve conflicts in their own lives aggressively. Even though a 14-year-old can download a violent R-rated movie on his laptop (before it’s even released in theaters) with his parents’ high-speed internet plan, an older sibling’s ID for a VHS rental and a ride to the local Blockbuster was necessary to afford even our youngest congressperson that same thrill.
While Adam Lanza’s mom is being villainized for allegedly supporting her son’s target practice, my generation was the first to grow up on realistic first-person shooter simulation game series such as Call of Duty and Halo which continue to top the list of all-time best-selling video games. Do you know what your 8 to 18-year-olds are doing with the average 13.2 hours per week they spend playing video games? The parents who allow their 10-year-olds to spend their after-school hours behind cross-hairs practicing massacring human-like avatars absolutely cannot be throwing the first stone.
Again, I can’t say I know much about mental illness and motives, but I do believe that choice is the most powerful element of our actions. 27 Newtown residents died on Friday not because of mental illness, but because of a young man’s choices. While these cases are dissected and prosecuted, those in positions to limit re-occurrences of such incidents must recognize their duty to help Americans, of all ages and at all levels of society, make better choices.
Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations, once said, "No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifeline. It is condemned to bleed to death."
This inclusion goes beyond conversations about gun control, to those about mental health, health insurance, and even education policy reform. As I said earlier, the recipes for these mass killings calls for equal parts machinery and equal parts madness.
Let’s recognize that more often than not, it’s been troubled young people behind the madness of massacres from Tucson to South Side Chicago, Aurora to Anacostia, DC, Portland to East St. Louis, and Newtown to Compton. Let’s have an honest conversation about the true ingredients that have concocted such heartbreaking situations around the country so we can keep these ingredients in check. Let’s include young people who can contribute culturally-competent and age-relevant input into the national dialogue.
Let’s challenge each other to make better choices, before this nation bleeds to death.