Saturday, December 15, 2012

You're Not Like Me

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school that left 28 dead, including 20 children, is the kind of tragedy that makes you weep for this country. It is also the kind of incident that will ultimately divide America into two groups: those that feel genuine sorrow and those that will use this nightmare to push forth their own agendas, be it gun control or parenting or mental instability.

Sandy Hook Elementary School, scene of yesterday's horrible shooting.

The latter will make this an issue of why guns need to be taken off the streets or why Obama needs to make stricter gun laws. They'll mark this tragedy as Exhibit A as to why parents need to make sure they pacify troubled kids with a smorgasbord of pharmaceuticals.

In the end, they'll miss the larger issue: which is WHY this kid felt the need to do what he did. They'll overlook what pushed him to open fire on innocent children. They will ignore the crisis in this country that needs to be solved if America truly wants to put an end to this kind of violence.

Before we get into that, let me indulge you with a few personal stories.

1988: Early picture of me.
The first decade of my life was spent in Newark, New Jersey: a city infamous for its crime, violence and recklessness. I lived in a small house just a few blocks from the Pennington Court projects. From kindergarten to the 4th grade, I could count my friends on one hand. My best friend was a kid named Anthony, whose family moved him out of Newark by the time he was ready to start the 4th grade.

I was routinely picked on. I was bullied. I was teased. I dressed weird. Most of my clothes were generic brand sweat suits or whatever dorky outfit my single mother could afford. One time, in 3rd grade, I was ridiculed so bad that I sat at my desk in tears. The teacher did nothing. So, I walked out. When I came back, I was hell on wheels. I acted out. I cussed. I misbehaved. It became so bad that my teacher would put me in other classes during  assemblies out of fear that I'd make a public scene. My grandmother was called into the Principal's office on a routine basis.

During the tail end of the fourth grade, I became good friends with two kids who lived around the corner from me. One was a Peruvian kid named Dave, the other a black kid named Will. Of course, Will and I became friends only after he slugged me in the face and gave me a black eye. We'd hang out, play video games, cause trouble, run around in the park....all the things kids do.

Later that summer, my mother moved me and my sister out of Newark and into the suburb of South Orange. I would visit Will and Dave whenever I could, but even those visits were subject to the same kind of teasing I dealt with in class. Being in South Orange was the epitome of being a fish out of water. I was a white kid with a love for rap music and sports. I started wearing baggy clothes. I gelled my hair. I started dropping my "R's". Needless to say, I didn't fit in with the uppity, high class white kids that made up a majority of my classmates. It also didn't help that I was shy and not the best at making friends, especially in a new town so drastically different from my old one.

1994: Me and one of my first friends in South Orange, Woodley.

For pretty much my entire stint in middle school, I hung with a predominantly black crowd, most of them only used me to get free candy from my stepfather's store. It wasn't until 6th grade that I would make my first real white friend. His name was Rob. In today's times, he would be referred to as a "nerd". To me, he was an intellectual -- a bookworm who prided himself on storing an ungodly amount of useless knowledge such as knowing every capital to every country in the world. I was nowhere near the brain that he was, but we were outcasts who liked sports so we meshed together.

1995: Rob and I, South Orange
Middle School.
I spent nearly every day after school at his house, eating dinner with his family, playing video games and making fun of the kids who spent so much time making fun of us. He was David Spade and I was Chris Farley.....and those similarities made me depressed. Rob was a smart kid who did well in school. His family was wealthy and he had both of his parents. He lived in a nice house and could afford someone to clean it for him a few days a week. He had a computer and a Playstation and all these nice things.

Meanwhile, I was a clown who "talked black" and goofed around in class to the point that I was lucky to get B's. My family lived in an overpriced apartment that more closely resembled a tenement. We weren't poor, but being in the company of the Flaxmans made me feel like I was. His father took him to a Super Bowl. My father left when I was two. My stepfather was around, but he spent so much time working that we didn't become close until I started working with him after high school.

Suddenly, I felt like an outcast even among an outcast. I could never compete with Rob intellectually. Even athletically, we were about equal. When his friends would come over and hang out with us, I felt so insecure. I wasn't one of them and, because of that, they never missed an opportunity to take pot shots. I resented them for it. More importantly, I started to resent Rob. Once again, I acted out. I did stupid shit. When I got invited to their house in Pennsylvania, I threw "pops" against the wall, which left a black soot on the walls.

1997: Columbia High School group photo.

When high school came around, me and Rob went in our own directions. He was committed to academics. I was just focused on survival. For as long as I can remember and especially throughout high school, I dreaded coming to class. I got money stolen. I got a trash can dumped on me. I was laughed at mercilessly, teased constantly. I hated life. Throughout my entire scholastic career prior to college, I had two girlfriends: the first being a girl I met during summer camp when I was 7 or 8 who I can't even remember if I kissed and another who was a friend of my sister's who I would only date for a total of three days before she ended up giving handjobs to two of my best friends.

I wasn't the social butterfly I am now. When I would talk, I'd say something stupid...which led to even more insults from classmates. I would get into fights and, more often than not, I'd lose. I got pushed into tables. I got volleyballs beamed at my head, basketballs thrown at my back. I was rejected by girls in such a loud, dramatic fashion that I just stopped asking (or I'd have someone else ask for me, to no avail.). When it came time for the senior prom, I got saddled with a girl who was a friend of my best friend's girlfriend. Her name isn't even worth mentioning in this blog. She left after a couple of hours. We didn't dance. We didn't kiss. We didn't even hold hands. She was more of a guest than a date. Whatever.

1999: Columbine High School shooting

Midway into high school, the Columbine shootings happened. It was the kind of wake-up call the world needed, even if we didn't realize it at the time. It was an opportunity that this country could have used to reach out to kids like me who felt alone and backed into a corner. Instead, it was an opportunity for the media to blame rap music and video games and the occasional jab at poor parenting.

It was never about what pushed these kids to shoot up a school. It was about their influences. It wasn't "maybe we should take better care of kids getting picked on". It was "we shouldn't let kids listen to Marilyn Manson".

It wasn't until years later that this country took a serious look at bullying, only after ridiculed kids were killing themselves left and right and school shootings were becoming a bit more frequent. The whole anti-bullying campaign just seemed like too little, too late anyway.

Why am I telling you this now? Because we are once again given the opportunity to save the kids who need saving. The kids that shoot up these schools are, more often than not, not the cool kids who get invited to parties on Friday nights. They aren't the guys on the wrestling team. They aren't the pretty girls with the nice racks who developed too quick.

It's the awkward kid who gets picked last for basketball or the girl who constantly gets teased about her weight. It's the kids who get shoved into lockers. It's the kid who sits in the back of the class room staring out of a window because he feels the world isn't checking for him. It's the kids who don't fit into society's cookie-cutter image of what school kids are supposed to look like. Some kids don't get to be Zac Efron or Lea Michelle. Some kids go to school every day just hoping to not cry their way home.

School is supposed to be about education. It's supposed to be about preparing the nation's youth for life as adults. Instead, it's a crash course in social acceptance. It's a lesson plan for kids who learn the hard way that, if you don't look like Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber then, well, you suck, kid.

Believe me, this isn't sour grapes. I survived school and have managed to do O.K. for myself, but something happened at work today that triggered this reveal. A few co-workers were talking about the shootings in Connecticut. When I walked into the room, an old man joked that "it sounded like something Dave would do.". I wasn't offended. I was annoyed.

The fact of the matter is there may have been a time when shooting up a school sounded like something I would do. When the Columbine tragedy happened, I was surprised but also sympathetic. I knew what it was like to feel the kind of rage that would drive young kids to take their frustrations out on those that torment them. In the end, I channelled that rage into motivation to become the man I've become today.

However, some kids channel that rage into pulling the trigger on an assault rifle. THAT is the epidemic we need to prevent. You don't make the world safer by campaigning to take guns off the street. That day will never come. Medicating kids into a doped-up stupor won't help either.

The key is understanding the hate. It's understanding that kids can be cruel, that getting a bunch of celebrities to talk to them about bullying is only a small step. We still have a ways to go to make the most isolated kids in the world feel like they fit in. I never seriously considered shooting up a school or even let the frustrations of work tempt me into violence, but I understand where a kid might be pushed into extracting revenge.

We may never know why Adam Lanza did what he did, but something set him off. Maybe it was a childhood of feeling inadequate. Maybe it was boredom. Or maybe he was just a crazy fuck. Nobody knows, but I can't help but think that those that say how they can't understand how something like this could happen have probably never felt a basketball thrown at their back or a trash can around their head.

This piece won't reach the exposure it should. I opted to write it here as opposed to my normal spot on Bleacher Report because I want you to read every word, without any fancy editing. So, when you're hugging your children tonight or posting on Facebook about how you send prayers to the fallen, take time to remember the living. Take time to think about the kids out there who feel like the world has given up on them because it is THOSE kids who need your love, too. THOSE are the shoes you need to start walking in.

The irony of growing up a loner is that you don't realize you're not alone until it is too late. Every outcast wishes they can have a do-over and relive their childhood knowing what they know now. Today, I'm a survivor of a malicious and shallow school system that catered to the privileged. I still keep in contact with the Flaxmans, even if me and Rob have hardly spoke in years and I was terribly depressed over not being invited to his wedding. Dave, Will and I are still very close and I try not to think about my ex-girlfriend leaving me to go jerk them off.

2011: Me, Dave, Will and our friend, Jack. 20 years after we first met.

If you really want to put an end to incidents like these, put an end to bullying. Put an end to the torment. Listen to the voices of the kids who feel like the world doesn't give a damn about them. Get off your soapbox about gun control or happy pills and make sure your kid feels wanted.

Things worked out for me. I'm very lucky. Because you could have just as easily been reading about me in an entirely different light.

Sometimes, the happiest of endings come after the saddest of beginnings.

1 comment:

  1. David I AM SO HONORED to have you as a FRIEND, but even more so,to have you as MY SON IN LAW!You are an inspiration to me in many was. Each time you write a blog i see a young man who has matured and the world that doesn't see these "WORDS OF WISDOM" is missing out on stories and experiences that surely would make them take notice of your talent. Thank you for showing my Niki that there is a big wide wonderful world out there and that the TWO of you are going to explore it and make it better together. I LOVE YOU!