Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How to be an asshole

Back in North Carolina I had the safest classroom on campus. As the yearbook adviser I had control of the darkroom, which was only accessible through my classroom with a key only I and the janitor had access to. So when we had drills to practice what to do when there was a shooter on campus my kids would file into the dark room and I'd lock the door and we'd enjoy ourselves until it was over. There was a sink in there in case of pee emergencies, and we had a mini fridge and a microwave and a cool electric globe lamp. We could make all the noise we wanted because we were inside a room inside another room with no windows.

In my LA classroom I also have a darkroom attached to my room, but it doesn't lock. It has a rotating door, though, so if I have to take my class in there and hide I can put a pen in the track and stop the door from opening. It's not quite as cozy; there's no sink or fancy glowing lamp. (Don't get me started on the fact that our "dark room" has no sink. Or shelves.) Since our school is located on the north side of South Central we do a lot of lockdowns, but nothing has ever been very serious. Usually when we go into lock down it's because somebody robbed a convenience store down the street or because Little Round Boy and his codelinquents started a massive fight with their brass knuckles or because our principal heard a rumor that somebody thought briefly of bringing water balloons to throw around at lunch. But we never actually believe there's a real problem. The violence in this neighborhood all happens over the weekend off campus.

When the order comes to go into lockdown we're supposed to lock the door, turn off the lights, hide and stay put until we get the all clear. Nobody comes in or out of your room, even if they're wounded. The secretary is supposed to call around to all the rooms and get your status.

Of course, our campus isn't nearly as huge as the V Tech campus and they probably don't have a phone in every classroom. So I guess that's where the communication went awry.

Sometimes my kids confess things to me. In North Carolina they told me about cheating on the AP Physics test, at which point I reminded them that I'm not their friend and immediately told the physics teacher. Here in LA they tell me violent stories about crimes they've committed. I warn them not to be too specific unless they want me to go to the cops. But I listen and hope that the advice I give sinks in.

Once a student told me that the night before she'd been in the passenger seat when her drunk friend hit a car on her way out of a gas station. The other driver blocked her in and got ready to call the cops, so my student pulled out her wallet and paid the guy $250 to drive away and keep his mouth shut. He took the money.

Most of my class was really uncomfortable with this story. In her case, this girl was so glad her friend got away without punishment that she didn't think about the lesson they all failed to learn. I told her I hope I'm not on the road next time her friend decides to drive drunk. Then again, if I'm not on the road somebody else is. The kids never think about that. They only think about getting caught, not about whose lives they could destroy. I try to tell them, but I don't know if they're listening.

When something like this shooting happens people always want to know why. It's not that hard, though. It's always the same reason, regardless of the details.

Empathy. So many people suffer from a lack of empathy. As of this posting we don't yet know who the guy is who killed all those people in Virginia or why he was allowed to get so far, but I can imagine what he was thinking.

It's easy to justify cruelty when you have no empathy. If you stop to think about this person's family or his future plans or what he would have done the next day if you hadn't shot him to death, you can't do it. It's the height of selfishness. If you kill this person you have power over him. At least in the moments before you die you can make a difference. You can be remembered. These fools will know you were here in the seconds before you decide their fate. But you have to be careful because it will eclipse anything you ever did before. Nobody will ever say anything nice about you ever again.

So if you can shut down all your ability to feel for anyone other than yourself, you too can be a souless psychopath. I'm so glad that's not me.


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  3. hey emily. because i'm an avid reader of your blogs, I tagged you in one of my entries to see what you thoughts on the subject is if you decide to participate. come check it out at http://polypocket.blogspot.com/2007/04/on-goaling-forward-tagging-game.html

    thanks hun!

  4. Oh my, what a fucking senseless waste of young life. :-(

    You're absolutely right about the empathy, Emily. It's from empathy that real respect flows. Respect for others, selflessness, honesty and so forth. No the "oh my, you've got lots of money, a flash car and a bigger gun than me" type of "respect" bullshit.

    We in the UK can get all smug and holier-than-thou about "stupid Americans and their insane love of guns", but that's not the cause of the problem. I could have a room full of guns and not want to use them on anyone. As, I'm sure, could you. This is due to the recoil from the true horror of the consequences of what guns do. Not the "go bang and shoot people" bit, but the "look into the eyes of the mothers, brothers, fathers, sisters and friends of the ones you gunned down and tell them why you did it" part.

    However disconnected and alienated this person felt, he/she didn't live in a war zone, hadn't been persecuted for simply say, being a Sunni or Shia Moslem, and no-one was trying to wipe out their entire section of society. But they still chose to go and obliterate the futures of fellow students. Stress I can completely understand, but this wasn't exactly the fucking Lebanon.

    Maybe having an obscene amount of guns just lying about the place isn't such a terribly good idea after all.

    Ahhh, I feel sick.

    Please keep teaching your students the way you do, Emily.

  5. This was an absolute tragedy. It's one thing to kill yourself, but to take out completely innocent people with you is just unforgivable.

    The irony is, of course, that violence of this scale never occurs in neighborhoods like where Emily works.

    I grew up in Hollywood and I can tell you that while you worried that you might get mugged or get caught in a gang fight, you never really had to worry about some kid snapping and taking out an entire classroom before he took himself out.

    And a lot more kids have access to guns at Emily's school than they do at these other places like Columbine.

    I'm not sure what my point was there, but I assure you I had one when I started.

  6. The incompetence of the police allowed that "asshole" to accomplish his mission. But for the wrong assumptions made by law enforcement, thirty people would be alive. Why not make the conservative assumption that we have a murderer at large on campus and do all in their power to make people safe? I have two daughters who recently graduated from colleges. I have such empathy for those poor parents who have lost their precious children. Such a loss is a penance few bear well.

  7. Anonymous9:07 PM

    I believe you meant sympathize rather than empathize.

    Here's a point I pulled from wikipedia:
    Empathic but not sympathetic, by internally experiencing another's feeling but not being motivated to alleviating action as a result (eg, a lust killer who is aroused by his victim's fear, or a con artist who knows how his mark feels but uses it to manipulate not support).

    But otherwise I find your statement generally correct.

    Just a note:
    People are suggesting more gun laws again. Criminals are people who don't obey laws, therefore criminals will always get guns. I do however advocate for waiting periods and classes before allowing people to own weapons. I've known a good number of people who have weapons that really aren't mature enough to own them. On another note, I know children who were brought up with them, who I would feel safer with them having a loaded weapon than a number of police officers that I've met.

  8. No I mean empathy. I do teach English for a living and have a master's degree in the subject. I have a pretty wide vocabulary and I trust my own knowledge more than Wikipedia.

    Empathy is the ability you have to feel what someone else feels. Not just recognize that they're in pain, but to feel their pain yourself, to understand what it is like to be them. People who can't feel anyone's pain but their own have no empathy and are therefore assholes.

    And laws or no laws, I personally do not care for guns.


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