Like the rest of America, I am deeply saddened by the senseless Newtown murders. I can’t begin to imagine the grief of those directly impacted. It is beyond my understanding. I pray for the families afflicted, our country’s future and seek some good out of great tragedy. Unlike many, however, I’m not at all surprised. If anything, it’s amazing we don’t have more horrific incidents like Sandy Hook. We live in a world of cheap guns, questionable social mores, and more profoundly irrational and deeply disturbed humans than we care to come close to even partially acknowledging.
Liza Long’s “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” is some of the good. In her recent blog post at http://anarchistsoccermom.blogspot.com she shared a parent’s fears for her seriously disturbed teenage son. Anyone who can’t feel her pain and bone crushing fear brought about by raising a profoundly disturbed boy simply lacks any sense of compassion, precisely like Lanza who was so far over the edge of reason he no longer operated with even a modicum of logic or the tiniest shred of human decency. It is a black pit of evil and inconsolable depression Satan himself must have invented. I’m not sure, however, how many in America truly understand Long’s plight or Lanza’s. For most, dangerous insanity is an alien existence, and you are so very fortunate if it is. I could have easily written “I Am Adam Lanza’s Father,” and in a way, I guess that’s what I’m doing to a small extent today.
It is not my intention now to go into many details as Long just did it so well and eloquently that elaboration isn’t necessary. My son, like Liza’s, introduced my wife and I to the world of mental hospitals, police officers, and emergency rooms at three in the morning. I carry the scars today, two decades later, as does my son. I can still hear the moans and screams, smell the sweat drenched explosive anger without reason and feel the bruises and torn muscles from wrestling with a teenager dangerously out of control.
Most fortunately, my son, now in his 30s, is doing much better, although he will never be fully healed as we know far too little about the brain to fix a damaged one. He will always have a hard time functioning in a very complex and often cruel world. I worry about him constantly. He was for a long time carefully monitored and greatly helped in a residential setting where 24-hour staff could monitor and assist when needed.
But the state kept pressuring for a “less restrictive environment” and he is now forced to make his way through the world with only the help of friends and family and a $700 a month disability check. He can walk into any pawnshop in town and buy an assault rifle. He has always been fascinated with weapons and spends much time today playing violent video games. I love him dearly. I will always be afraid of him. It’s a mixture of emotions few understand, and I’m one of them. A psychiatrist once told me “You can understand some things intellectually but not emotionally,” and the simmering stew of conflicting feelings falls under this category. Many, many, many times there were no alternatives except to ride out the storm and hope to live another day, or maybe not, and then all the pain would at least be over. My best guess, having never served in the military, is that combat feels about the same way, uncertainty and danger at every waking moment with no place to run and hide, sleeping two hours a night just waiting for another bomb to explode.
But that’s not my central focus this week. I have also, very frequently, been Adam Lanza’s teacher. In this case I have lots of company.
Teachers everywhere are trained today to contend with incidents like Sandy Hook and drill and practice for the horrific possibility. Most people teach because they like kids, and when they’re threatened, teachers, like those courageous ones at Sandy Hook, respond in ways we would have never thought possible, but the record indicates many average people just go on God’s autopilot, bringing out the best of humanity when facing terrible circumstances.
When “our kids” are threatened we respond instinctively, as individuals and as a nation, countless incidents both big and small attest to this. Most we never hear about. Only God knows how many potentially violent incidents teachers, police officers, good parents and just casual acquaintances put down on a daily basis before something really bad happens. For all the evil in the world there is much good. The good guys at Sandy Hook came to rescue, from the custodian who risked his life to sound the alarm by going class to class, to the teachers shielding their children, to the principal and psychologist who tried to block a killer’s path, to first responders who entered without concern for their own lives in a mission to stop unthinkable massacre. But for all their efforts, the innocent still died.
Our politicians are quick to call for change, and many are sincere. Our president’s genuine grief was touching. But the true problems won’t fit into sound bites and quickie legislation. We should not accept a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound.
While the proliferation of weapons is a big problem, the true disease is far more complex and much tougher to eradicate or even alleviate to any significant degree. We have thousands of deeply disturbed people who desperately need a variety of services but don’t get them to nearly the extent needed, if at all. If any good can truly come from this horrible tragedy, it will be a shift in focus to recognize and substantially help the mentally disturbed and cognitively challenged with far more research for true cures and services for those suffering. As Sandy Hook horribly demonstrates, we can also help others not suffering from mental illness when we serve those who need help. There are and were in Lanza’s case plenty of warning signs but too few remedies the average person can access.
We spend trillions defending ourselves from people who aren’t likely to ever do us harm because for all their faults and wicked ways, rulers in places like North Korea aren’t insanely illogical. Neither are the Iranians or most on our list of bad guys. I’ve often felt terrorist suicide bombers we so greatly fear today are just mostly mentally unbalanced and therefore easily manipulated into an ideological war suiting their disorder and tragic lack of self-worth and respect for life.
Our real danger, at least to the average person, lies within, domestic “terrorists” far more likely to kill and wound as they have both opportunity and motive, in that the mentally disordered need no motive at all, at least not one that any sane person would use to act upon violently, and the freedom to walk into just about any public place to become tomorrow’s headline.
We seek motive, but it’s trivial to the point of being unimportant when dealing with a broken mind. I’d wager heavily if the facts are ever pieced together, something of very little consequence happened to Adam Lanza at his former school he twisted into a pretext for mass murder. It could have been a failing grade, an undeserved punishment, sour milk, any minor slight or misunderstanding that festered and boiled in a diseased brain.
Like I just said earlier, I’ve more than passing familiarity with severely disturbed young people. I could offer a dozen or more case histories, as could many who traveled the same school roads I did for thirty years. The Sandy Hook tragedy reminded me most of a poor and deeply disturbed teenager with a long documented history of violence. We met at the end of my career and he threatened to kill me over prohibition of an electronic device in class. “I’m gona get my ‘gat’ and kill you #$%#@!#,” he said in what I took to be genuinely serious intent. I’d guess something like this unremarkable incident happens a hundred times a day in America’s inner city schools, just another day on the job. But it could have easily been much different. Sandy Hook showed how. The boy who said this to me was deeply disturbed and almost completely unable to control his behavior, a poster child for dangerous actions.
Unlike the elementary school teachers in mostly middle class Newtown, the environment for most of my career involved older, poorer and much more troubled children. I spent my last 14 years teaching in a school for urban teens unsuccessful in other school environments and deemed at-risk of dropping out. I taught gang members, felons, sex offenders, and more than a few potential or actual killers, as well as a lot of mostly very decent kids who suffered from another untreated social illness, abject poverty and the lack of a stable family. Two of my former students are doing life terms for murder. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been fearful in school settings. It was just part of daily life as it is for thousands of teachers across America.
Truthfully, I am something of a risk taker who enjoyed living on the edge at times, and in many ways the environment suited me perfectly. I felt, and still feel, what we did as teachers of the disadvantaged was of value, a worthy way to spend a life. But while there’s much I miss about teaching, being in fear for my general safety on a regular basis isn’t one of them, and this fear is most common in many classrooms, usually for very good reason.
I’ll call him Adam too, the boy who came charging out of memory as the news of Sandy Hook gripped a nation, but that’s not his real name. Like my son, Adam was a special education student who had also been categorized as emotionally disturbed. Already lacking average intelligence, the added psychological problems produced an individual prone to out of control actions daily. Violent behavior had been documented in previous settings. On top of all the neurological problems, the teen was also a poly drug abuser and claimed gang affiliation. Adam was hyperactive, frequently completely irrational, and so volatile I spent most of my time when he was in class within an arm’s reach of him. We call this proximity in the teaching biz; the closeness often preventing small things from spiraling out of control.
Adam had been in a specially designed unit for severely disturbed kids, but the program was cut due to the billions the state removed from Texas public school budgets the last year I taught, the 2011-2012 school year. Many disturbed kids like Adam need very small classrooms as they have great difficulty dealing with multiple personalities, especially if some of them are problematic too. Putting Adam in my class of over 20 at-risk teenagers was a prescription for trouble. Adam Lanza was home schooled, reportedly for being unable to cope with others in school settings, a warning sign of great significance.
Long’s vivid description of her son and the recent events at Sandy Hook once again awakened memories I’d just as soon have erased if there were some way to do it. “…the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises,” she wrote of her son when he was “in one of his bad moods,” a description of eyes I’ve seen countless times with emotionally disturbed adolescents and my own son. It’s like staring down a bottomless pit into hell itself. I am absolutely certain the children and teachers at Sandy Hook, if they made eye contact with Adam Lanza, saw the same eyes connected to a place no one wants to go. Many are blessed to never experience the flash of a tormented soul. Many see it more often than any human safely should, mostly police and correctional officers, mental health professionals, and yes teachers, many teachers. We learn to juggle human nitroglycerine, trying not to set off an explosion but often having little more than our own skills to work with.
The first time I saw an armed police officers in a school setting was in 1988. I was opposed to anyone having a gun on campus. A year later, after one of my students was found to be in possession of four loaded handguns in his backpack, I reconsidered my opposition. I still hate guns in schools, but I can’t help think just one armed police officer on campus could have saved a lot of lives last Friday. We send armed men to other counties and spend billions on defense thousands of miles from our shores, but can’t seem to find a way to protect our own children and unarmed teachers at home. It seems an obscene misplacement of priorities. But guns in the hands of protectors still fails to address the deeper moral issue. Adam Lanza’s life was wasted too. By all reports, he had much to offer the world.
The emotionally disturbed student who threatened me a year ago had previously threatened other students and then me a few weeks earlier over a similar incident. When threatened the first time, I just blew it off as one often does when dealing with students with limited reasoning ability and poor impulse control. Most times, it’s just static often better left ignored, but the repeated threats, to me and to others also involving the threat of lethal weapons had me very concerned, especially since our entire three building campus was without an armed law enforcement officer but full of very volatile adolescents and surrounded by a community overloaded with guns and daily violence. The police officer, like many other staff positions, had been eliminated the year before. We never had a school psychologist but could have employed two 24/7. In light of everything, I saw too many red flags and decided I had to do something. I thought about Columbine and what could possibly happen if I remained silent.
My Adam, I thought then and still think now, was very capable of doing something supremely dangerous because he simply lacked the control ability of a normal teenager, and that’s often not a lot to begin with. My calling for a police officer was the only time in my career I ever asked for police involvement for a classroom incident. I had a plan. It didn’t work, but it should have.
I wanted to have the student sent to a mental health facility, or at least arrested and then given residential treatment as so many prisoners are treated today. Sadly jails and prisons have become de facto mental institutions in America. By his own admission, my Adam was using hard drugs daily, mostly cocaine, but not taking his prescribed mediation because he lost his Medicaid card and couldn’t refill his prescription, or so he said. Beyond question, he needed to be detoxed in a residential facility as well as psychological treatment for his mental illness. I greatly feared he was on the verge of a huge outburst. I’d seen the signs before, and most unfortunately, experienced some of the consequences. I daily thank God I never saw the worst possible outcome, the one we all now revisit as it’s so fresh in our minds.
When the police officer arrived, I tried to negotiate a placement in a medical hospital instead of an arrest. I didn’t want the student arrested, just treated in a place where he couldn’t hurt anyone else or himself. Adam was already on probation as many of my students were, and I had no desire to add to his misery. Instead, the officer wrote Adam a ticket and the assistant principal suspended the student for three days, nothing that would treat the core problems or protect society at large. Adam dropped out of school a few days later. Where Adam is today I haven’t a clue, but it’s highly probable he’s still dangerous, unsupervised, and one of thousands every state in the union has as part of its population.
Nobody wanted Adam and there was no one else to turn to. Every agency that could have helped had waiting lists months long just for initial appointments much less treatment. I could write 100 more pages about similar people and include stories where real weapons were involved. One sees much in 30 years of urban education in poor communities. I have many more stories I could tell of home life with a profoundly disturbed adolescent. But we don’t need that today, especially in light of Sandy Hook. Today we need to start talking about a lot of issues far too frequently glossed over or ignored in modern American life.
Liza Long’s article received a lot of criticism. She deserved praise for her courage instead. If we’re to even come close to appropriately honoring the memory of real life heroes and remembering the tragic loss of children too young to really know about life, we can start by building something from the ashes of hate and misery. We can open our eyes and stop ignoring the frequently disturbing reality all around us. We can greatly lessen the chance of another Sandy Hook if we really commit the resources to do so. Or we can just pretend, and I fear, given the current financial crisis, that’s just what we’re most likely to do. Find a scapegoat, pass a few ineffective laws, and go about our usual business.
The young father who lost a child and then showed great compassion for the family of Adam Lanza who murdered his daughter was most remarkable to me, another ray of light out of the cold blackness of evil. We should build upon the great good in our country as we mourn and remember our dead. Otherwise, we’re right back where we started.