Originally posted Feb. 15, 2008
It happened again. Another campus shooting. This time, in our own backyard.
The moment I heard the news last night I tried to push it away. I didn't want to let it sink in. I looked away, and even scrambled to turn the channel. But it was on the next channel, too. And the next and the next, so I listened. As of this writing five students at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb have died. They were killed by a lone gunman, a former graduate student who suddenly appeared in their classroom wearing black clothing and a blank expression. Without a word, he shot up the lecture hall and then took himself out.
No shooting is 'just another' shooting anymore. Even if we think that we're fortunate enough to live in a 'safe neighborhood,' the fact is that these days, just going to school or even to the mall can be fatal.
This morning before school I turned on the radio, as I often do. Sometimes we dance or sing as we rub the sleep out of our eyes and move through our early morning routines. We also brushed our teeth, pulled on socks and shoes, packed lunches and hunted for mittens and library books. The usual. It's comforting and familiar. Today I learned that I dropped the ball by failing to wash the right pants for Noah to wear to school. The sour note passed and I made a mental note to teach him how to do his own laundry. I was a tad peeved, but managed a moment of gratitude that our frustrations are so small. We're blessed. But then a radio announcer burst our illusory bubble:
"Six are dead. The motive for the shooting is not known at this time," she soberly reported. I hustled to hit the tuner button but was too late.
"Is that near here?" Noah asked. "Do you think Brittany is scared?" he added, wondering about our babysitter, a college student. Translation: Am I safe? And I'd be scared if I was Brittany, which means This kind of freaks me out, too.
What can we say to our kids when they hear about this stuff? Sure, we can limit their diet of bad news and reassure them with Happy Meals, consistent routines, warm snuggles and fairy tales, but what else can we say? What can we do to prevent this from happening to them? Can we?
We may never really know the full impact of our efforts, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make one.
For starters, be kind to each other, people. Know that everything you do and say to others has impact. When we tear each other down we become part of the problem that gives rise to random acts of violence like this. Surprised? I believe that we are all responsible for creating this problem and that we can all be part of the solution. It may seem too simple and saccharine, but it's true.
Empower your kids with this awareness: Tell them, over and over again, that they really do have an impact on those around them. When they choose kindness over ridicule, when they heed that little voice that tells them to avoid the temptation of piling on when the other kids are choosing to bully another, and when they bravely choose to stand firm and speak up on behalf of someone who doesn't have a voice, they are having a hand in the solution. We can feel helpless and impotent at times like these or we can look at our own little corners of the world and recognize how powerful we are to change it. Start small, with your own little ones.
Refuse to be part of the problem and teach your children well, and things can get better for all of us.
Show your kids how much they count. It's simple. Use the mobile over the baby's bed or drop a pebble into a puddle to illustrate your point. When you tug on one of the fish on the mobile, the others are affected. Show them that the others react. And when you drop that pebble, ripples of water, of energy, move out to places you didn't directly touch. The same is true of our thoughts, feelings and actions. We are not helpless to change things. Even small children can 'get it.'
Just think: how many times have you heard about a gunman being slighted by someone or suffering some disappointment, who in his suicide note points to that incident as having been the 'last straw?' Whether or not he has a documented mental illness or predisposition for one, the cumulative effect of these disappointments and slights proves to be more than he can bear. Taken one at a time, these slights might not seem so insurmountable. But left unchecked, they can be. Remember the 1993 movie Falling Down? The film, starring Michael Douglas and Robert Duvall, is a fictionalized portrayal of the random acts of violence perpetrated by one man fed-up with alienation and disappointment.
We may never know the specifics of the NIU gunman's motives. We may never fully comprehend what caused a beautiful, innocent baby boy to grow up and grow rageful enough to perpetrate this Valentine's Day massacre on one of the colleges our kids might someday or may already attend.
But what if you could know - that a smirk at a fashion-challenged passerby, a derisive comment to a telemarketer who may not have any other work prospects, or that a missed opportunity to offer a kind word to a lonely neighbor - would have that 'last straw' effect that leads to tragedy? What if a person's 'rage meter' was as plain as day, like a thermometer stuck on his forehead? What if you could tell just how close he was to blowing his cork? Would you still do it? Would you still be lazy and not think before you speak, act or fail to act? Would you want your kids to see you harming another? Do you?
I'll risk a cliché and invoke a 'random acts of kindness' challenge to you and your kids. Call it whatever you want. You don't have to spend a dime or even be a goody-two-shoes and collect canned goods and gently-worn clothing. You just have to be nice. It matters.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.