I have a student in one of my classes who has been working with gender issues and ideologies for a few terms, through three different classes that she has taken with me. Her name is Rachel Fan, and she is in an Intro to Folklore class now and is rewriting a folktale for her final project. She’s chosen one that is not well known, about a witch who can turn into a white deer and man’s quest to get rid of her. In the end, he shoots the white deer with three silver bullets.  The woman is found dead with those bullets in her. The student’s rewrite turns the witch into a beautful girl, the man into a boy who wants her obsessively, and the story into one which explores why we have kids killling what they can’t have in school shootings in America. She was likening this to “rape culture” a topic that is being brought up repeatedly by young women in my classes these days. Finally. Such great insights into our culture are coming out.  This is cultural literacy in action — some students teaching others in the classroom to see the threads of ideology in popular stories.  This is so important, because we live with injustices by telling stories that justify them.

When she shared her project with the class, I was completely struck by her insight.  (Thanks, Rachel, for the good idea!)  Though I am absolutely for much, much greater gun control in this country, I also realized that the ideology we teach our kids is the root of the problem. We teach kids in this culture to go after what they want, obsessively. To pursue college or careers or whatever else with insane abandon. To seek what is rare and valuable, like the white deer, the thing we can’t have or catch. We also suggest that our kids competitively seek to be the best, to fit in, to find the perfect match, to be perfect. And since most of us can’t and aren’t, (the white deer eludes us) we feel disappointment, frustration, and hopelessness. I guess these kids, these shooters, are driven to kill whatever excludes them. And then they kill themselves, which means they are too hopeless to want to live, or are willing to give up their lives to kill what they can’t have. And though some have suggested that these are just a few deranged kids, it is too common. This leads me to believe it is a sickness, the sickness of wanting, the dark shadow of the desire for fame, a sickness taught by consumer culture and the culture of success in this country. We are taught to chase. That story of the white deer made me see it, that the line between the chase and the kill can sometimes be a little thin, for some people, especially those not mature enough to make sense of it.

What to do?

I personally think that teaching that success isn’t outward, isn’t money, is the great goal for our time — because for emotional, spiritual and environmental reasons, teaching that more is best has become destructive.  Success is doing something good, something worthwhile that at the very least doesn’t harm. This success could be internal, building character, or something out in the world. Having isn’t success. It’s just having. It’s impossible really to teach this when we financially reward violence, the idea of killing the competition on the mild end and the idea of the war industry and the dehumanization of the sweatshop at the extreme end. We can’t teach anything if that doesn’t change. So vote with your feet. Put building your character on par with building your portfolio and your body image. Don’t make money off of violence and don’t teach your children to. Find a good way to support yourself that doesn’t even peripherally harm others. And don’t sugarcoat it or try to pretend business is amoral. It isn’t.   Teach your children through your actions not your words that success is being good and contributing something helpful to others. I know it seems a little less immediate and direct a solution than is really needed.  So push for that gun control bill too.

What about you, what do you think? Why are kids shooting other kids in school and what can we do about it? Please comment.