The hell of high school

Parkland school shooting

I could have been a school shooter. Which is to say that when I was in high school, I was the despised outsider who gets headlines when an attack happens, but sinks back into receiving basal levels of harassment otherwise.

My parents sent me to a church school, despite knowing that I had escaped their religion in eighth grade, and I have never been one to shrink from controversy. I was also the kind of child who read books rather than playing football or arguing over the finer points of sports cars. This made me thus both a nerd and an infidel, a double mark of Cain in secondary education in a religious institution.

That latter label requires some explanation for those of my readers who were not raised in a fundamentalist society. For believers in the one true religion, a child who sins out of carnal desire is a fine thing. Prodigals are the subject of a parable and are always welcomed when they burn out their torches of appetite and come crawling back. But someone whose rejection of their doctrines comes from argument on the basis of evidence rather than out of a will to enjoy the fruits of evil is an existential threat.

Except when the popular kids want to put together a winning trivia bowl team.

Humans are a gregarious species, and ostracism is a poison to the psyche. I must express one measure of gratitude here. Would I have come to appreciate George Orwell and Pink Floyd in quite the same way without those years? Is it necessary to live in Airstrip One or to be mocked for one’s lack of submission to indoctrination to feel 1984 or “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” down to the roots? Perhaps, but in any case, those things offer an escape, a message to the dispossessed that there are others in the world who get it. (In full disclosure, I owe Roger Waters double thanks for allowing me to use some of his lyrics in my novel, A Draft of Moonlight.) All was not crushing gloom, however. As H. L. Mencken said, “Imagine the Creator as a low comedian, and at once the world becomes explicable,” and the master of turning this bit of wisdom into narrative was Douglas Adams. No one did apologize for the inconvenience of high school, but the idea that someone ought to do so allowed me a sense of vindication.

Actually, I did get one apology, and I have held on to it for a long time. One of the tortures of the twelfth grade was a trip to a state park for Senior Survival. Now I have nothing against wandering in the wilderness, but the event was an opportunity to remove teenagers from “The World” and place them at the whims of the Bible teacher. I mean no pædophilia here, unless that word includes rituals of religious obeisance that sounded like worshipping the teacher — my friends had reported to me that students were told to bow to him, among other silliness.

In any case, I objected to this compulsory trip — citing the aforementioned work of Orwell and the story from the Book of Daniel in which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, thereby fulfilling William Shakespeare’s prophecy that the Devil can cite scripture to his own ends. Nature (I will not say divine intervention, I will not say divine intervention. . .) was on my side, though. This was the year that an encephalitis outbreak had the State of Florida in a panic, and the school’s administration decided that a week in the woods would tempt the Good Lord’s patience too much.

But the threat faded by spring, and it was decided that we would go on a truncated foray. The principal announced this to the whole class in the auditorium by saying, “Hang Greg Camp, we’re going on Senior Survival.” This led the Bible teacher to seek me out later — not in front of a class gathering, I must note — to apologize.

While what each person goes through is that person’s own history,I am not claiming to be unique. In fact, as painful as it is to say, my experience plants me in the realm of the ordinary, since high school is hell for most people. If you do not recall times being so bad then, check the functioning of your memory, or ask yourself if you were not a part of the problem. My point is to establish what I said at the start of this piece. When I hear about a teenager shooting up a school, there is a part of me that understands why, the part of me that knows that not everyone finds a way to get free in the writings of Plato and Chaucer and Richard Adams.

I raise the latter author because I clung to the hope that if the Sandleford rabbits could escape their doomed warren, I, too, could escape the hell of high school. And so can others. In almost twenty years of teaching literature — to college students, but I hope the lesson can be translated — I have had many students who have said that a particular book awakened them to worlds that they had not imagined were possible.

This is more than idealistic hope. A study done by social psychologist, Emanuele Castano, and David Kidd found that reading literary fiction, stories that are built on “the psychology of characters and their relationships,” gives readers a greater depth of empathy. And, if I may add a bit to their work, I suggest that the oft reviled genre fiction — when it is good — and literary fiction with the same caveat gives a vision of the satisfying outcome. Life frequently disappoints us, but we can dream, and a story worth reading is a playground of such dreams.

That is the musing of a romantic. There is a practical, though difficult solution as well, one that will not be popular with any establishment. Why is high school hell? The demand for conformity. This is not something that high schools created, but they are institutions that enforce and encourage fitting in. What they should be doing is supporting individuality.

Diversity is named as today’s value, and I am asking here that we practice what we preach. As I said, my high school experience is nothing exceptional, and that is a reality that a free society cannot accept. Too much about our educational system is geared toward producing good consumers, and this is no surprise, considering who funds politicians. But given the ideals that were built into the structure of our nation, if we are to survive, we have to protect and encourage individual expression. Doing so would reduce — not eliminate, but diminish — the crushing conformity that rewards those who can submit to the dominate model of behavior and makes life a misery for those of us who are not able to play the game.

Will that stop school shootings? Not all of them. Nor will everyone like me end up being a school shooter. But we can improve the lives of many who are now tortured by the isolation and mockery that the culture of secondary education currently accepts and endorses. That offers the promises of reducing violence from disaffected youths and of a more productive and peaceful world.