Friday, April 20, 2007

Another messed-up high school story

Along these lines:

I knew a guy in high school who showed a lot of the signs of being a potential shooter. T was a half-Japanese dude: tall, skinny, liked leather jackets and hurting people. He was in NJROTC with me and led the armed drill team. He loved weapons of all kinds (guns, knives, and swords especially), enjoyed beating on people, and took pride in his ability to take a punch. But although he was a leader in our organization, he always seemed innately solitary, and had all the stereotypical preoccupations, like darkly-themed music and first-person shooter games. He could make you laugh, but he was just as likely to throw a desk as he was to crack a joke. He drove a truck and swerved at small animals crossing the road. He took pleasure in physically and emotionally abusing people around him. T was usually nice to me, and to my friend J, but we were always afraid of him, underneath, because he could have turned on us at any time. He had access to guns and knew how to use them. He talked about how much he wanted to kill people on a daily basis, in a casual way meant to convey how meaningless others' lives were to him.

T was, in many ways, a deeply frightening person. I could imagine him killing, but not out of feelings of persecution, but for the joy of hurting others. And maybe that joy would have been motivated by pain, because I think he was a person in pain, and that he wished other people to hurt like he hurt. But in the end, all that anger ended up being directed inward. One afternoon, during lunch, T started talking to me and J and mentioned, not for the first time, suicide. We didn't think much of it; morbid teenagers weren't out of the ordinary, and morbid talk from this guy was par for the course. And then T took out a largish bottle of Advil, dumped a large handful down his throat, and swallowed convulsively.

We were paralyzed at first, and then had to balance our concern with our fear. We suggested that he make himself vomit; he refused. We asked him to please go to the nurse: ditto. Increasingly frantic, we said we were going to tell.

"If you tell anyone, I'll cut my throat," he said. And he had a knife. We knew he carried one.

All this somehow managed to happen in a crowded cafeteria full of students and teachers. He wouldn't let us leave, because he was convinced that we would tell someone and they'd pump his stomach. Neither of us wanted to be the one who stayed to make sure he didn't cut himself, because who wants to be alone with the armed suicidal guy? We decided, between ourselves, that we would both stick by him until he passed out and then call for help. We said we'd stay and took him to the library, because that was the only place you could safely skip fourth period due to the staggered lunch schedule. Fifth period we had ROTC together, and sixth we could skip somehow if we needed to. That was our (stupid, stupid) plan.

And it worked. Sort of. T didn't die. He also didn't pass out, although by fifth period (in which we had PT, which would have been comical if it didn't almost end up killing him), he was woozy and staggering. Normally at the front of the pack, he stumbled along in the rear, and the colonel shouted at J and I, who were usually slow runners, for keeping alongside our obviously ill classmate. He probably figured T was drunk. But J and I got him to agree that he wouldn't hurt himself if he went to his sixth period class with J, on the condition that I would keep silent. He seemed to be getting better. He still had the suicide note that he had carefully written at the library pinned to his jacket, but he seemed to be over the hump, as it were. And I guess he nearly was; he somehow managed to drive himself almost all the way home before running off the road and totaling a brick-encased mailbox.

T was okay. Advil is fairly difficult to kill yourself with, and his truck won the fight with the mailbox. I went home and spent the afternoon crying in my room, and then my mom got out of me what had happened and called the school, and they pulled him out of classes for a little while. And of course in our little ROTC peer group, who was the bad guy? Not the psychopath who tried to run over dogs and attempted suicide at school. Nope, it was Amber the narc. Nobody loves a snitch.

Coda: after T came back to school, I asked to read the note. At first he didn't want to show it to me, but I told him that I had only said anything because I was worried about him and wanted him to be okay. He grudgingly passed me the note while the rest of our class watched a filmstrip. Half of it was apologies to his parents and brother. The other half was about me: how I would never love him back, and that the pain of this knowledge was just too much for him. I think he expected me to realize the depth of his affections and fall into his arms.

And what can I say? When my eyes first passed over those sentences, I let loose an utterly involuntary, shocked burst of laughter. It was too much. The guy that terrified me with his careless violence, who frightened me into sitting with him for hours so I wouldn't have his blood on my conscience, this person was in love with me? It was absurd.

As I put the note away, he drew himself inward, and after that I was the focus of much of his anger. My mother's tires were slashed. I quit ROTC in part so I could avoid him. When Columbine came around a year after we graduated, my first thought was how much those boys seemed like him. I can still remember driving with T to the armory to plan one of our chapter's events before all this, my legs tucked up on the seat and my dress taut against my thighs. Something seemed off, but I wasn't frightened, for once. In hindsight it seems obvious both why I felt safe then and why I should have been more afraid.

T has a kid now, and to my knowledge has never killed anyone. Does that mean that there could have been a happy ending for those who fell over the edge of madness? I don't know. Maybe he had a piece the others were missing. Maybe he just never got that extra nudge that spun others toward murderous violence. Maybe I'm just easier to get over than some girls. But for every homicidal rampage that happens, there are a dozen more people on the verge. I hope we can do right by those people, even if it's hard.
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