The Writer

After the judge's decision, we--the kid's parents and brother and me--went up to congratulate and hug the writer kid. He'd been pretty much completely vindicated; true, in return for dropping the charges, he and his parents and lawyer had agreed to some conditions--probably a face-saver, to reassure the teens who said he'd frightened them--but they were very mild conditions, and for a year only. The judge, without saying so, managed to convey that this kid is not a menace to society.

It's been a long haul. Last fall, a week after he'd suffered a brutal attack by seven other teens on school grounds during the lunch hour, the kid wrote a brief story for drama class, about a bullied teen who comes back to his high school to take revenge. The school freaked out. Some of his fellow students alleged that the kid made death threats against them. He was taken away by the provincial police and his home was searched; they found nothing, no bomb-making instructions, zilch. The prosecution could produce nothing more than the kid's story and the other student's allegations of his threats. Nonetheless, he'd been ripped from his home and had spent 31 days in jail, denied bail, missing Christmas, New Years, and his own 16th birthday. His brother was also arrested, charged and jailed for saying he'd bomb the school, after he'd been given a very hard time on the school bus.

I've been involved in this case in part because I am a writer, and Canadian writers rallied to support the kid when the case first hit the news; but more importantly because I've had two kids in the same school system, and both of them have been badly bullied, and I've watched more than one school principal shrug and turn away when somebody has pounded my kid into applesauce. I know the dynamics. And they bother me a whole lot.

I came away from the courtroom with a word buzzing in my brain, and the word was "scapegoat". As sexual jealousy is the intersection between Lust and Anger, and Accidie is the three-way cross between Sloth, Anger and Pride, then perhaps scapegoating is a combination of those two that should be in the Seven Deadlies and aren't: Fear and Deceit. (Maybe we could reconfigure the Seven Deadlies to be Nine?) I'm not talking about regular fear, the feeling you experience when your child darts out into the street; I'm talking about a more nebulous sense of helplessness, mixed with the sense that Something's out to get you. Hysterical fear, paranoical fear --the unhealthy form of the normal human feeling. This Fear has to be has to be assigned somehow, to someone, somewhere; you have to create an outer danger to justify your own anxiety, even when your creation has come completely loose from reality. And of course, after September 11, we all now know Fear, as well as grief and horror. The world feels like a very unsafe place, and it's easy to look around for people to take out our anger on.

But Fear (as opposed to fear) also has its attraction. There's that delicious little frisson: that I might be a potential victim magnifies my status. I'm important enough for someone to target me. I am the tragic figure in the tumbril, nobly suffering, all in virginal white, like a doomed bride. Or I am the hero, grabbing the killer's gun. In our own local high school, I've seen kids work themselves into a major tizzie just through gossip and "the imagination of their hearts." That's a typical teen thing. By focusing on the outsider, the group gives its members encouragement, sympathy, permission; the whole "Oh my GOD, did you hear what he SAID???" dynamic promotes a sense of group coziness and self-importance.

We love scary movies and big bangs--until, of course, it comes up close and personal, and then we're furious at a world which is not perfectly safe for us, even if we have made it much less than perfectly safe for others. I understand where the Fear is coming from; our own local high school had a mild epidemic of mass hysteria after the U.S. school shootings--especially Columbine. My own kid got into a situation roughly like the writer kid's, but in our case the school and the police were sensible, and the person who got in trouble was the girl who started the rumours. Which made the writer kid's case all the more appalling.

What kids who are wallowing in Fear need from the adults around them is wisdom, not sympathy. Wisdom is, in fact, far more apt to say, "Okay, calm down, let's talk this through reasonably" --to cut Fear down to size, put it out in the sunlight and watch it shrivel--than it is to rush to an empathy that may, in fact, just be urging on the emotional stampede. Did any of the other students' parents, I wonder, talk to their kids a bit about the difference between Fear and real danger? Or about how the writer-kid might feel? I don't know. Rationally speaking, the student who was in danger in that school was the writer kid himself, not the other teens. In fact, any of the other teens had a far better chance of being killed by a lightning strike than of being murdered by a fellow student--even if this kid was murderous, which he is not. The kid, on the other hand, was in danger every time he stepped off the school bus. In this case, the judge showed wisdom. The school administration and school board did not.

In scapegoating, aside from Fear, there's also a large dollop of Deceit--Self-Deceit, to be specific. Instead of facing our own failings and taking them on, we lie to ourselves about our part in the problem. If a bunch of kids could stomp a fellow student at lunchtime on school grounds and the administration took no steps to protect the victim or to deal with the problem, then the school has a Majorly BIG Problem with bullying and school discipline--a problem that it can avoid dealing with by "supporting" the other students and blaming the victim.

We scapegoat people by loading our own sins on them to carry. That is, after all, what the scapegoat originally did: the village loaded a goat with its own sins and drove the goat out into the desert to die. "We don't want to deal with the bullying, or with our part in it,"--because, in fact, bullying requires the complicity of the adults in charge and of the other kids. Bullies can't operate without permission. The other kids have to stand by silently, to say the kid is a geek and a loser, to refuse to call the cops; they have to provide tacit support and justification. A kid in my town--quite a nice kid, I gather--was hanging around the teen center the other night, and another boy beckoned him over: "C'mere, I wanna word with you"--and then pasted the kid full in the nose, breaking the cartilage. The other teens present who had witnessed what was, after all, good ol' Assault and Battery, shrugged and said that the hurt boy was a geeky pain in the ass. That's what lets it happen: you stand by, isolating the victim, and let nature take its ugly course.

Scapegoating says, "We don't want to deal with our own failings, our own transgressions, our own part of the problem. So we'll load all the blame on this odd-man-out person, and we will drive him out into the desert, where we don't have to see him or our own failings ever again." Is that what the teens and school people wanted on Thursday--that this kid would be put away, where he could never bother them again? That their Fear would be proved and justified by his punishment? I don't read minds. I have to wonder.

Scapegoating says, "We'll make him disappear. Then we can be happy with ourselves again." Or, as one person put it, some time ago, "It is necessary for one man to die for the good of the people."

It seems like a small and silly thing--"a comedy of errors," the papers called it. But it hasn't been a comedy for the two brothers and their family; it has been a nightmare. I wonder if anyone in the school has thought about that? I hope so. I don't know. The defence lawyer shredded the school administration into tiny bloody gobbets with a blast of sheer common sense, forcibly put; and the school administrators shook their well-groomed heads in dismay: "He doesn't understand us!" A dysfunctional school community can be so tight that it leaves reality out by the curb. I know; I've seen it happen.

The school group seemed pretty upset that the writer-kid "got off" with no further punishment--as though he, who hadn't actually done anything, deserved more punishment than 30-odd days in jail and permanent expulsion from the school system. Fairness? Nah. Doesn't come into it, when Feeling is so strong. Justice? How unreasonable; he scared us, and that's not fair to us, and if he suffers for that, that's not our fault. Reason? How cold, how inhumane!

As though they really had ever had anything to fear. As though anyone from the school had shown the kid any real humanity.

The younger brother's trial starts next Tuesday; I'll drive down to their town again to keep the family company. From all I can see, this kid is a real sweetie; I sat next to him on Thursday, and he showed me a couple of small private treasures with an endearing trust, sharing them with me. I dropped a kiss on his thick-haired head, and he accepted it matter-of-factly. I hope he gets the same judge, and justice.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 29 Sep 2001
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