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The Unmentioned Victim at Columbine High School

April 25, 1999|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation."

SAN FRANCISCO — After the ribbons fade, after the dead are laid to rest, after the reporters drift away, the last casualty of the massacre at Columbine High School may turn out to be the idea of public school.

Public school. We used to know what that concept meant. Earlier generations understood, in a nation as individualized as ours, that we needed an institution, a school, where children would learn to regard themselves as people in common.

After Littleton, Colo., who wonders about Yugoslavia? The most balkanized region of America may well be the high school, inner city or rural, also suburban, middle class. In the cafeteria, the teenagers of America segregate themselves, each group with its own: jocks, skinheads, blacks, surfers, Latinos, nerds, etc. What we saw at Columbine--the Goths against the jocks--was a kind of ethnic cleansing.

More than a century ago, Mark Twain created Huck Finn, a kid who, in the company of a runaway slave, left his small town to risk the great American river. The nonfictional reality today is much less romantic.

At that very time--the season we call adolescence--when we expect our children to leave home, to grasp their independence, American teenagers instead are looking for home or a tribe.

Inner-city kids, for example, speak of their gang as "family," "blood." Because school is not the center of existence for the big-city gangsta, ethnic cleansing, East L.A.-style, tends to be accomplished through drive-bys, on street corners.

We have known for some time that brown and black inner-city kids kill one another, to establish their sense of belonging in gangs, in the city of strangers. We are sorry for them, but as long as we stayed out of their line of fire, we thought we were safe.

But then we started to see white kids emerge from the forests of rural America, their parody of big-city gangs, their murderous rage against parents and school.

Now the nightmare moves closer to the America's heart and hearth, to Littleton, a middle-class suburb where nice people live and the streets are wide and the houses have separate bedrooms for everyone and a three-car garage--the domestic architecture of anonymity.

We look at photographs of those split-level suburban homes where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold lived. Steven Spielberg, our modern Twain, would doubtlessly romanticize the warm, golden light coming from within. The other Stephen--King, the writer whom many teenagers read--imagines teenagers in the basement, plotting to blow up the junior prom, while several televisions blare upstairs.

An Italian friend of mine shakes his head. He says we Americans are always flattering ourselves by announcing our "individualism" to the world. But, my Italian friend says, you cannot be truly individualistic unless you have a strong sense of family or village. You can't become an "I" without a strong sense of "we."

For all our American talk of individualism, my Italian friend says, we are merely the loneliest people on Earth. Our divorced and womanizing politicians keep yearning for "family values." The rest of us settle for chat rooms or support groups or a cafeteria table with people just like ourselves.

Have you ever been to Littleton? There are hundreds of Littletons in America now, from the Silicon Valley to North Dallas to Long Island. The main employers are high-tech firms; many homeowners have college degrees; and there is a preference on Saturdays for soccer, not football.

But Littleton is a town built on restless ambition. Most people arrive from elsewhere, and most will probably end up moving away.

A psychologist on one of the networks this week estimated that 20% of American teenagers today should seek psychological help. But all week, I kept thinking of the parents of the two "monsters."

A woman, a mother of teenagers, said to me this week that she began to "lose contact" with her children when they began to listen to a music she could not decipher. Before that, they had their televisions. Now, of course, they have their own computers. "They live in their own world."

This, of course, is where the teacher comes in. We send our children who are innocent of intimacy to Columbine High School. But look at the place! The building has the charm and scale of an office building alongside the interstate.

It falls to the teacher, underpaid and overworked, to teach the children of Littleton what public-school teachers have always tried to teach children, that they belong to a culture in common, speak a common tongue, carry a common history that connects them to Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X.

The ideal of public education is an extraordinary one, especially because America is a country that otherwise prizes its unruly soul. (In Twain's story of Finn, the "school marm" must play the villain, because it is she who intends to catch Huck and diminish his individualism by making him "speak regular.")

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