The Teachings of Tragedy: Guest Post by Chris Mercogliano

In the wake of Friday’s horrific events, I was speechless. Like so many across the world, my heart broke into a thousand pieces and I struggled to make sense of how this could happen. There is no sense, however: it was a senseless, devastating event, and my heart could only grieve, body wracked with tears, sending prayers out between the sobs.

And now we must attempt to make sense of this so that we can take action that will prevent it from happening again. We must attempt to address the complicated factors that would lead a young man to take so many lives, little children among them. Conversations about gun control and mental health are critically important, but there are other factors as well.

In my desperate need to make sense of this, I reached out to one of my spiritual mentors (most of whom don’t know that they’re my mentors), Chris Mercogliano, author of my all-time favorite book on parenting and education, In Defense of Childhood. He wrote back immediately with piercingly insightful comments, as well as an article that he wrote after Columbine ten years ago. This certainly isn’t the whole picture or the singular answer, but it provides a piece of the puzzle that I believe deserves serious attention.

With grateful permission, I’m reprinting his article here.


Will we remember where we were the day the Columbine massacre went down, like those of us who were young when John F. Kennedy was assassinated? I hope so. Though it’s only the latest in a string of school shootings, we must make this tragedy the one that stops the clock long enough for the information encrypted in the event to be decoded. We have to get the message this time. Enough is enough.

So much has already been said and written about the tragedy. The Tom Brokaws, Timeses, and Newsweeksquickly turned it into the Columbine Show. For days afterwards the Denver dailies featured entire special sections on the killers and their victims. But as the immediacy begins to fade, will the public discourse move beneath the hype, the hysteria, the scapegoating, and the layers of denial into some deeper understanding that might help prevent another such disaster? If history is our guide, then there’s little reason to be optimistic.

How does one come to terms with the causes of such an abominable event? There are so many areas to search for reasons and contributing factors: the psyches of the killers, their parents, the surrounding culture, the ready availability of high-powered weaponry, and always at the bottom of the list, it seems, the school. This is where my attention remains, not because I believe it is the school’s fault that the blood of dozens was spilled upon its tiled floors, but because this is where no one wants to take that long, hard look. Education, you see, is our most sacred of sacred cows. The system is built upon a mountain of assumptions, notions that we don’t even question any more such as compulsory attendance and learning, age segregation, rating and sorting students by test scores, pitting one against another, punishment for non-compliance, exclusionary labeling for non-conformity, and a hierarchy of authority. The list could go on.

Even the students are buying into the prevailing mythology. This I discovered when I happened to catch a snippet of a talk show featuring a group of Columbine students. The subject was cliques, a very relevant topic because the killers had made it all too clear that revenge for their outcast status was one of their primary motives. Cliques, reflected each student commentator, are a natural ingredient of high school life. Everybody belongs to one.

I beg to differ. Cliques are a stress response, a symptom. When humans feel threatened, the most primitive portion of the brain (the reptilian brain) takes over. The reptilian brain concerns itself with survival, with defending its turf, with dominance over rival groups. Teenagers join cliques in school because their schools are hostile, high-pressure environments, places of overcrowded captivity, competition, and judgment. Their motivation, rarely conscious, is security, and a sense of identity and belonging, just like in urban youth gangs. Cliques are anything but natural. Even if a hundred Frenchmen belong to them, it doesn’t make it so.

I’LL NEVER FORGET where I was when the surreal, manic killing began—which as fate would have it, was only five miles up Wadsworth Boulevard from Columbine. Ten seventh and eighth grade students, two other teachers, and I had just arrived at the Jefferson County Open School, which serves the adjacent Denver suburb of Lakewood. The purpose of the visit was to serve as an overnight stopover on our way to the annual conference of the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools that was being held that year about three thousand feet above Denver on the edge of the Continental Divide.

It was a cool late-April morning. High, wispy cirrus clouds signaled an approaching snow storm. A real whopper, they were saying. Just before lunch I went into the library to read over a friend’s manuscript, while our kids roughhoused in the gym unwinding from the thirty-six hour train ride. I was immediately puzzled by the number of school staff huddled around a TV set in the librarian’s office. I also detected a strange mood attached to the scurrying in and out, a concern so hushed that it seemed out of place even in a library. People had initially been so friendly. Now all of a sudden I seemed to be invisible. Finally, the librarian noticed me and came quietly over to the table where I was working and wondering what was going on. She diplomatically clued me in on the unfolding madness.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Not again.

As the initial media chaos slowly sorted itself out, it became clear that this was the worst ever. God help us if they ever come up with a Richter scale for school shootings. By 2:00 p.m. the horrible news had whispered all the way through Jefferson County Open. I watched teachers and students alike slide into a state of semi-shock—they all knew someone at Columbine High. And they must have all been thinking silently to themselves, “Could this have happened here?”

I FOUND MYSELF inwardly posing the very same question. An answer came quickly. No, I don’t think the brutal attacks would have occurred at the Jefferson County Open School because it is a very different kind of place, a publicly-funded alternative founded in the early seventies on a very different set of principles. To begin with, JCOS is smaller (fewer than a thousand students) and it spans all twelve grades instead of just the usual three or four. It is truly an open space, architecturally and otherwise. While I was there I observed students strolling the halls without passes. They chatted informally with their teachers and called them by their first names. Many of them were working independently on academic and artistic projects. Grades didn’t appear to be the prime motivator either. The students were enjoying what they were doing. And they clearly had a say in the life of the school; in fact, before the end of that awful day a senior was already busy organizing a student meeting to address the crisis at Columbine. This was her own idea, not something she was doing for extra credit. It was a spontaneous expression of ownership, responsibility, and caring.

Graduation from JCOS isn’t based on the compilation of credits, and there’s no competitive ranking of students. Instead, students must successfully complete seven “passages,” each designed to demonstrate the mastery of a skill that is integral to living a good life. Self-assessment counts as much as the teacher’s. Above all, this genuine alternative to conventional schooling, which is a model based on centralized control and Skinnerian rewards and punishments, is a community of sorts. Not the euphemistic kind, like the “Italian American community,” or the “academic community,” but a real community based on commonly held concerns. Faculty and students have a collaborative relationship. They meet together as a whole body once a week to discuss issues of relevance. This differs from most so-called “student councils,” which include only a chosen few, are merely symbolic of democracy, and tend to deal in trivialities. The truth of the matter is that students in conventional high schools have no power whatsoever. And they know it.

By the way, I saw no evidence of cliques while I was there.

One last, very important detail: Every student at Jefferson County Open has a mentor, so that no one goes unnoticed. Each child is valued for his or her personhood. Contrast all of this with what John Gatto recently reported to me. The author of Dumbing Us Down and outspoken critic of the tyranny of compulsory education received several phone calls from nearby Columbine residents in the aftermath of the tragedy. More than once he was told that students escaping the blood bath were heard to have said once they reached safety, “We’re only products there; that’s all they care about.”

Funny, I don’t remember reading that in Time or Newsweek.

OF COURSE I CAN’T claim with any authority that the massacre couldn’t have occurred at Jefferson County Open. A member of the staff there shook her head from side to side when I shared this thought with her late in the day, and then she said, “There are a couple of students here that I worry about. They are angry and defiant a lot, and don’t seem to care about anything.”

“But,” I responded, “you’re aware of those kids. You and your colleagues are paying attention to them.” This time she nodded affirmatively. “And besides,” I continued, “there’s an insufficient level of tension and animosity in your school to provoke such a monstrous reaction.” Another nod.

I refuse to accept the idea that the Columbine killings were a random act, the isolated handiwork of sick individuals. The perpetrators’ choice of setting in which to vent their murderous rage was thoroughly premeditated. This fact has been documented ad nauseam. They harbored deeply held grievances against their fellow students and the social climate of their school, which had been ignored for years. They left a trail of warnings that no one picked up on. God help us if we ever discover that such inhuman behavior just springs up overnight, out of nowhere. That is not a world in which I want to live or raise children.

No, I firmly believe that mass murder will never take place at Jefferson County Open School, or any school where relationships and interconnectedness are fostered, where the work is meaningful and cooperative, and where everyone feels they belong.

Here is my short-take on Columbine: It’s another case of “kid-on-kid” violence. Just as the killing of black males one by another in the nation’s ghettoes has been identified by some as “black-on-black” violence, all of the school shootings are on a certain level examples of kids aiming (quite literally) their venom and frustration at each other, rather than at home, school, and society where it rightfully belongs. So often the oppressed attack each other instead of joining forces against their oppressor.

WHAT ARE THE TEACHINGS of this tragedy? I ask the question because if we can learn enough from this one to prevent yet another, then those young people will not have died in vain. Consider the words of Marcy Musgrave, from a column she wrote for the May 2 edition of the Dallas Morning News. A junior at Texas A&M University, she proposes that her yet-to-be-named generation, which follows Generation X, be called Generation Why. Here is her explanation:

“After the massacre in Littleton, I realized that as a member of this generation that kills without remorse, I had a duty to challenge all of my elders to explain why they have allowed things to become so bad. Why did most of you lie when you made the vow of ‘til death do us part? Why did you fall victim to the notion that kids are just as well-off being raised by total strangers at a day care center than by their own mothers or fathers? Why is work more important than your own family? Why does the television do most of the talking at family meals? Why is money regarded as more important than relationships? Why is ‘quality time’ generally no longer than a five- to 10-minute conversation each day? Why do you try to make up for the lack of time you spend with us by giving us more and more material objects that we really don’t need? Why haven’t you lived moral lives that we could model our own after? Why do you allow us to spend unlimited amounts of time on the Internet but still are shocked about our knowledge of how to build bombs? Why are you so afraid to tell us ‘No’ sometimes? Why is it so hard for you to realize that school shootings, and other violent juvenile behavior, result from a lack of your attention more than anything else?

Rude awakenings like the Columbine massacre probably will continue until you begin to answer our questions and make the changes to put us, your kids, first. You might not think we are worth it, but I guarantee that Columbine will look like a drop in the bucket when a neglected Generation Why comes to power.”

Tough insights from one so young. I am a parent of teenagers and I could feel the sting of every lash-like why. Why indeed. Perhaps Marcy was among the fortunate minority who was homeschooled or who attended schools that were on her side, so that her penetrating gaze passed over our institutions of education and the invisible ways in which they impact American youth. But mine won’t because I work with children every day, many of them rejects and refugees of the system. And my eldest is just finishing her second year at our local public high school, which I suspect differs little from Columbine, except in the demographics of the students. I am one of the fortunate dads whose daughter doesn’t just answer “Fine” when I ask her how things are going in school. She tells me how stressed out her teachers are. Only one or two ever take the time to speak to her individually. Instead, everyone’s mantra is, “We’ve got to hurry up and get ready for the state exams.” It was my daughter’s choice to go to our centralized, citywide high school. She wanted to be in a diverse setting with all different kinds of kids. And yet, despite her outgoing nature, in two years she hasn’t made all that many new friends. There isn’t much time or opportunity for socializing. Instead they are kept interminably busy. The halls are crowded and under constant surveillance by hall monitors and cameras. The students are separated by rigid routine and endless competition. Nothing facilitates their getting together.

My daughter, an honor roll student and one of two sophomores in a class of over seven hundred and fifty to be nominated for a statewide award, is seriously considering quitting. She has my blessings.

INSPIRED BY MARCY Margrave, I will leave you now to ponder my list of questions about schools:

Why have we let our schools become warehouses for youthful energy, creativity, and purpose, and so walled them off from the outside world?

Why have we turned teachers into overwhelmed taskmasters, instead of enabling them to serve as mentors, guides, and role models?

Why have we allowed schools to become so hyped with standards that they pay no attention to the emotional well-being of our children?

Why have we let them turn education into the regurgitation of homogenized data, rather than a search for knowledge based on experimentation and real experience?

Why isn’t learning a cooperative enterprise, and why aren’t students included in the design and the maintenance of the system?

And the corollary, why do the schools maintain internal status structures that ape the larger society and that fuel the drive to split off into separate, exclusive groups?

Why do we accept the level of fear that surrounds the learning process?

Why do we permit schools to corral our children into a state of sheep-like anonymity?

Why are teenage expressions of boredom, anger, and alienation only met with intensified management and control?

Why do we go on believing that our schools just need minor tweaking, rather than a fundamental reevaluation and revisioning?

Do I think Columbine High School caused the tragedy that occurred there? Absolutely not. This is no time for blame. It’s an occasion for deep reflection, for three- and four- and five-dimensional looks at the bigger picture, and for questions that don’t yield sound-byte answers. As I consider one last time Marcy’s challenge to parents and mine to schools, I think I detect a common denominator, one which she herself pointed out: attention. Isn’t that the core of the message, that Generation Why is crying out for attention, and that the two most likely sources, home and school, are altogether too reluctant or preoccupied to provide it?

But, as Marcy warns, we’d better start noticing soon.


Chris was a teacher at the Albany Free School for thirty-five years and stepped down as director in June, 2007 to concentrate on writing and speaking about non-controlling education and childrearing. His essays, commentaries and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, as well as in four anthologies: Challenging the Giant (Down to Earth Books 1992),Deschooling Our Lives (New Society Press 1996), Creating Learning Communities (Foundation for Educational Renewal 2000), and Field Day: Getting Society Out of School (New Star Books 2003). He is also the author of Making It Up As We Go Along, the Story of the Albany Free School(Heinemann 1998), Teaching the Restless, One School’s Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed (Beacon Press 2004), How to Grow a School: Starting and Sustaining Schools That Work(Oxford Village Press 2006), and In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness (Beacon Press 2007).

Currently Chris is a regular columnist for Encounter magazine. He has been featured on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio’s “Ideas,” and other nationally syndicated radio shows. The father of two wonderful daughters, he lives with his wife Betsy on a one-acre farm in downtown Albany, New York.

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