When I see a kid getting tattoos, listening to violent songs, smoking weed, or playing games shellacked in gore, I see a kid trying to find their own place in the world. Some place authority, however kind or cruel, hasn’t touched.
I rebelled because I was a child and I wanted to be human…
I was the only kid who wouldn’t stand for the pledge of allegiance. The teachers had me wait outside the classroom, where my heart pounded with the adrenaline of minor disobedience. I wrote to the anarchist prisoners whose zines I found through Factsheet Five. During class, I devoured the antiauthoritarian canon—Marquis de Sade, and Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Revolutionary Suicide. Books hid neatly under my desk. Teachers didn’t like when I read during lectures. Their first punishments were in-school suspensions: a day staring at the walls of a windowless room, no books allowed. When your brain isn’t occupied, minutes expand to centuries. You can hallucinate a universe in your thumbnail…
Our principal, Dr. K, was thin and unctuous and admired how Japanese students bowed to their teachers. Bowing wasn’t my thing.
I wanted to be as bad as Dr. K said I was. I wanted to be hardened and unafraid before authorities to whom I was supposed to defer. Anything I know about swagger, I learned as a twelve-year-old in a room full of adults who’d labelled me profoundly troubled. Don’t give them satisfaction. Keep your back straight. Meet their eyes.
When I remember that year, no stereotypical adolescent crimes stick out. I didn’t fight or get caught shoplifting, and I never had enough friends to score drugs. Instead I refused to change out of an anarchist T-shirt. I painted my palm green before a presentation. I had a bottle of White Out. I read War and Peace during math class. When I didn’t bring sweats to gym, I told the teacher that to make excuses would imply I that I cared about her opinion. I drew violent pictures in the ballpoint style of Babygoth Baroque.
In the guidance councilor’s office, Mrs. S would emote at me, eyes moist with false concern. She’d ask me why I was so angry.
I was angry because I was 12.
The right way for a white girl to be angry is to turn her anger inwards. She should be a victim, like the patients in Reviving Ophelia, a psychiatrist’s late-90s textbook on broken girlhood. She should starve or cut or blow boys who treat her badly. A crusading shrink should scoop her up, and return her to good grades, tasteful clothes, and happiness—heart and hymen intact.
Like many smart kids, I had age dysmorphia. In my head, I was ready for adventures. In the world, I couldn’t hang out alone at Starbucks. What the guidance councilor didn’t want to remember is that childhood is helplessness. Schools, sometimes benevolently, sometimes not, have power over their students that most American adults will never experience unless they are in a hospital, old age home, institution or prison.
In The Medicalization of Deviance, Peter Conrad says that what was once conceived of as sin, then crime, became illness. School kids are labelled with all three. Brown kids in broke schools are seen as minicriminals. Police detain them for doodling on their own backpacks. In religious areas, queer kids are sinners.
For white kids in decent schools, adolescent rebellion is something for psychiatrists to treat. For them, school is taken as a hard-wired part of evolution. You’re broken if you can’t sit in class…
In the era of Adderall, one must have a diagnosis. By spring, I got mine. For three hours, a beige man asked me questions in his beige office. The verdict? Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Officially a mouthy brat. The school suggested lithium. My overwhelmed single mom sent me to therapy. During my weekly visit, the therapist would try to peer into my emotional guts. Instead, I’d talk about books.
At the end of seventh grade, school threw me out. My mom sent me to live with my father. After a year of being called away from her job because of my Nirvana book covers, she’d understandably had enough.
Columbine happened when I was 15. American schools are driven by externals rather than root causes. After Columbine, guns didn’t kill people. Black trench coats did. According to David Cullen’s book on the massacre, Harris was a sociopath, but the media played the shooting as goths versus jocks. Suddenly, every freak was a future mass murderer. By then, I had an older boyfriend to fuck some perspective into me. Better able to hide my desires, I was left mostly untouched.
I graduated early. Nothing as an adult, no brokenness, no breakups, no illnesses, was as bad as childhood.
It seems beside the point to write about one’s angsty youth. Doesn’t the president make “It Gets Better” videos? Isn’t Lady Gaga head of an antibullying campaign? Weren’t we all fucked up in middle school? Then another school shooting happens, and weird kids are scapegoated again.
School shootings are terrifying because they exist at a locus of public and private breakdown. Afterwards, talking heads debate guns, bloody video games, the mental health system. Beneath that lurks a fear that nice white boys in nice white suburbs are just waiting to explode. So they say these boys were deviant and different all along…
Security theater is the only security we know. Of course schools target drawings or poetry or trench coats.
What they destroy when they do so are the frail life preservers that carried kids like me through childhood. We needed our black clothes, our art, our angry anthems. We needed things that were as jagged as we were. Take them away, and you might provide the illusion of safety. But you steal the small safe spaces we built for ourselves."