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April 17, 2007

Nineteen Minutes....and Virginia Tech

Posted by admin

On thelast weekend of my vacation I read Jodi Picoult's book, NINETEEN MINUTES. I always like Jodi's writing and thus I was looking forward to seeing how she handled her subject matter about a shooting at a fictitious high school in New Hampshire.

The beginning recounted a number of things that can happen in just nineteen minutes; the amount of time it took the shooter to accomplish his mission. The reality of how many lives were taken in this short time and the impact it had on so many people gave me pause. Before I read the book, I was thinking it would cover a lot of familiar tracks. But the way Jodi crafted and wrote her story I was intrigued to read more and more even when I figured how it would end and the twist in the tale. I still was compelled to read the why.

The story is not just that of the shooter, but also of the "popular" girl who is a survivor and how she felt uncomfortable in her popular role. It's the story not told enough since for everyone who is bullied there needs to be another side--- and it's brilliantly done. I can see why this book has been at the top of the bestseller lists for weeks. The emotion is there and it's so raw.

Reading it I sadly knew there would be another real-life mass school shooting; that there would be yet another moment when someone for some reason would feel compelled to pull a trigger rather than solve a problem another way. Thus today when I heard the news out of Virginia Tech, I knew I was right on this one, even when I did not want to be. As I am writing we have no idea who the shooter is, or what his motive was. We do know that 33 people are dead and more than 15 are physically injured, which will long beyond our learning the motive for what happened and more about the possible reasons behind the attack. Unlike Picoult's book, it looks like this shooting was in two parts perhaps tied together and thus it took longer than nineteen minutes. But again for each victim, the instant that they were shot altered so many lives.

I have two sons, one of whom is in high school. We've been out looking at colleges. While in every pitch that we have heard there has been talk about the hours the library was open (with 24 hours being a real selling point touted to parents) and about the dorms, food, classes and social life, none have talked about how the school is equipped to respond when shots are fired. No one asked if the school has an emergency plan for a lockdown though high schools across the country drill for this. I never thought to ask how information is transmitted in an emergency.

I found myself listening tonight for what kids who survived in VA had done. They hit the floor and played dead, barricaded doors, jumped from windows. But if you are in the path of someone with a gun, which of these concepts will you remember? And will any of them matter? Are these the things we should be taking notes on? Are these ideas as important as the essay, the interview and the good SAT scores?

Jodi's book does a lot of talking about physical and verbal bullying and the ramifications of both. I found myself thinking about this more than usual as the entire week of vacation my older son was working on a project for English class, a group project; the kind of project parents loathe as much as the kids working on them. Tossing a group of kids onto a project when they have no ties to one another and no skills or direction on working as a team is pretty brutal. Typically things start out fine and then rapidly erode as the dream concept of "teamwork" breaks down. It was maddening how this MOBY DICK project had a nasty undercurrent under it that marred an otherwise really pleasant week.

The week was an exchange of phone calls, emails and blaming about work done and not done ---and lots of push and pull for power and getting the project done. At one point, one of the boys in the group left a cellphone message, which crossed about six lines of social acceptabilty with how he addressed my son and handled working on the project. I could not picture myself talking to anyone in school or elsewhere the way this message was left, but this kid seemed to think it was just fine to do this. I am lucky my son took all this in stride, worked through it and if anything, grew from it by seeing again someone he did not want to be.

But where is the line where people cannot shake off what is happening and they cannot get beyond it? And what are the options they take? Is there someone out there seeing another message from Virginia today, one where they are not ducking and covering but rather taking aim?

In NINETEEN MINUTES the shooter crosses the line because he's been harassed just one too many times and the moment has arrived to get back at the people who have hurt him. It tells the story of both sides and it is great reading for discussion. It will make you think --- and I dare you to close it and not think differently when you see a brutal incident like we did today. In the days to come perhaps we will learn why the shooter at VA Tech decided to take aim and fire. No reason will sound good enough. But we all will grapple with the concept that for someone today who fired a gun at groups of students and teachers like they were doing target practice at a firing range, they really thought they were accomplishing something with what they did. That is something we all need to reach out and talk about so perhaps something like this can be prevented going forward. And a good start might be a discussion of NINETEEN MINUTES, just to get the conversation going.