The Nelsonville McDonalds was filled with all its usual characters. That Friday, my dad and I were among them as well. A few hours earlier, I’d taken my last final exam and officially finished fall semester of my freshman year at Ohio University. My dad had helped me pack the car up with all my winter break necessities, and we were stopping for a quick lunch before continuing the rest of our hour-and-a-half journey northeast to Columbus. It was December 14, 2012.
After we ordered, my dad stayed up at the counter to wait for our tray of food while I headed off to look for a table. As I was sitting down, I checked my phone and saw a text from my mom: “Did you hear about the school shooting?”
Taken aback, I texted back a quick reply saying that no, I had not. While I waited for her to respond, I started checking social media to see what kind of news stories were coming up about this situation. I don’t know what I expected, but it was more along the lines of a troubled high school student opening fire on some of his or her classmates.
Two pieces of information immediately caught my attention as I started to read about the incident. The first was the fact that the shooter had not been a student at the school. The second was that the shooting had been at – of all places – an elementary school.
Flash forward a little more than a year later, to Tuesday night. I had the honor of attending a lecture given by bestselling author Jodi Picoult, one of my personal favorite writers, at OU. I first read one of Picoult’s novels my freshman year of high school, at the recommendation of my fantastic English teacher, Jen Kirk. That novel was 19 Minutes, and although I’ve read several of Picoult’s novels since then, it remains my favorite.
19 Minutes tells the story of Peter Houghton, a troubled high school junior who decides he’s had enough. He opens fire on his high school one morning, killing 10 people in a span of 19 minutes. The shooting itself happens right at the beginning of the novel, and the rest of the story is told through both the past – flashbacks which detail Peter’s earlier life and the bullying he endured throughout school – and the present situations of his trial and the aftermath of the shooting.
During her speech last night, Picoult talked in detail about the research process behind 19 Minutes, which involved traveling to Littleton, CO, to speak with police personnel and others who were involved in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shooting. Several of the chilling details of that horrific day make an appearance in 19 Minutes, such as the shoes that were left behind by students who literally ran out of them. A separate grief counselor was assigned to each of the victims’ families, and they were all instructed to tell the family that their child had died first, that he or she didn’t suffer and wasn’t afraid because they didn’t know what was going on. This situation appears in the book as well.
As fascinating as it was to hear about the research that went into one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read, something else that resonated with me was Picoult’s reason for writing the book. At the beginning of her discussion of 19 Minutes, she said that she wrote it for all the kids who have felt ostracized, outcast and alone – kids like Peter. And although most of us (I pray to God) probably wouldn’t deal with our problems in the same way that he did, it would be difficult to find anyone in this day and age who hasn’t felt, at least at some point, that they don’t belong. I know I definitely have, and so has just about everyone I know (whether or not they’d admit it).
I think bullying is also worth mentioning here, seeing as it’s been the subject of much discussion in the last few years. Picoult told us about one instance that happened when her son was in kindergarten and she was volunteering as a classroom helper. As one little girl was walking back to her seat with her snack, a boy pulled her chair out from under her, causing her to fall and send her food flying everywhere. “All the kids laughed,” Picoult said, “and I remember thinking, ‘Wow. Five years old and this has already started.'”
But, as she also pointed out, bullying is evolving. Why pull someone’s chair out from under him or her when you can send them a threatening Facebook message instead? People have the power nowadays to ruin someone else’s life without ever saying a word to them in person. Sadly, stories of young people committing suicide due to cyberbullying are all too common. I’ll never forget when this unfortunate epidemic started a few years ago, and I was reading something in a magazine about a boy who had taken his own life after being bullied. The boy was only 15 years old – the same age that my younger brother was at the time – and I started crying my eyes out. That boy was someone’s child, someone’s grandchild, someone’s friend – all victims of bullying are. Everyone is important to somebody.
The way I see it, suicide is just one of the two worst possible outcomes that can come from being bullied or feeling like an outcast. The other is taking it out on others with violence. I thank God that I personally have not been affected by a school shooting, but I know people who have. I’ve talked with a girl who was a student at Chardon High School at the time of the February 2012 shooting there – she knew the shooter and two of the three victims. And when I first heard that there was a shooting in the electrical engineering building at Purdue a few weeks ago, I was immediately terrified because my cousin is an electrical engineering major at Purdue. She was not hurt, but Andrew Boldt, the sole victim, was one of her best friends.
How many more incidents like this will it take before we realize that bullying and gun violence must end? How many more innocent people must be lost – either through suicide or through violence inflicted by another? How did we not learn our lesson after 26 people – most of them 6 and 7-year-old children – were shot dead at an elementary school?
“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” is sometimes attributed to situations like this. When did a school, a movie theater, a shopping mall become the wrong place? An ordinary day, the wrong time?
When will we learn?