...you've got to be kind." These words were written by Kurt Vonnegut, who died yesterday at 84. I am not a Vonnegut scholar, but I have read a few of his works, and when I read these words today in his obituary, it was like a cool hand on my hot head. It helped me to make some sense of something I've really been struggling with. There have been a few stories in the news the last few days that I haven't been able to shake. One of them is just stuck like a pebble in my shoe, annoying the crap out of me, and when I think I've shaken it out, I find it's only settled in a different place. Which means that somehow, that story is related to the others that I find more deeply troubling.
The first story is truly unsettling to me. Have you read about that six year old girl in Florida that got arrested for disrupting her class? This little girl was clearly troubled, and out of control. But are there not better ways to handle these things? Um... how's this? Call her mother? Bring in the school counselor? The school nurse? They managed to isolate her in another room, how about letting her kick and scream until she wears herself out? But call the cops? It took them twenty minutes, but they wrangled her out from under the table like animal control, handcuffed her and took her to central booking to be printed and held until her mother arrived to bail her out. She was charged with "battery on a school official, which is a felony, and two misdemeanors: disruption of a school function and resisting a law enforcement officer." In case you missed it: she was SIX.
The second story was in the paper here in Oregon. A local school kid was arrested for shooting out the windows of his highschool. He was aiming for two teachers, one of whom had called his mother to say he wasn't doing well in school. He was also angry with his mother for not allowing him to live with his biological father. So he took his stepdad's Winchester
.270 rifle with a scope, lay down in the grass and fired two shots. No one was killed, but a few students were injured by flying glass and metal. No one suspected, except of course the kids he showed the bullets to before hand. The principal at this school has been through this before, with more tragic results. He was the principal of the highschool where a kid named Kip Kinkel killed two classmates, as well as his loving, doting parents.
When I read these stories, I wonder what we are to make of them. When I say "we" I don't just mean parents and teachers, and authority figures, but all of us. As a society. How can we raise such angry children? How do we nurture this anger, for surely we must, and when it boils over, how do we deal with it? Look at the words we use, the words we tolerate, the names we call each other, the rules that we make that allow a six year old to be arrested for throwing a tantrum. Look at the people we celebrate and idolize - those who lead the dance in our national tabloid feverdreams - the rude, thuggish, thoughtless people we cheer on day after day - what does it say about us? Which leads me to the third story, the pebble in my soul that, when I think about it, screams "THIS IS WHY".
Don Imus made the news the other day for calling the Rutgers Women's Basketball team a horrible, racist, mysoginistic name. He made a public apology, got taken off the air for a couple weeks and is meeting with the women on the team to give them a personal apology. I'm sure he'll be headed to rehab in no time. Believe me when I say I am a firm believer in free speech, and I think that Don Imus, and Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have the right to say whatever idiotic thing they want to say. But there's a difference between tolerating bullies and celebrating them. Not all bullies get paid millions to spread their ignorance, but he's a stupid, hateful man with sponsors. He's been taken off the airwaves "temporarily", but he'll be back, and the same people who've taken away his money will be giving it back to him, because SOMEONE OUT THERE LISTENS TO HIM. It's not me, and I'm pretty sure it's not you, but there is an audience. Just as there is an audience for rap music, which much of the time is just as despicable. Have you ever read the comments to a news story on Yahoo? Find the first obituary you can, then read the comments. It will turn your stomach. There are so many people who feel empowered to use this beautiful technology to spew hate. Because they can. Because we live in a country that lets us say whatever we think, even if it's ugly. And that's where it stands, forever and ever amen.
Our only hope is within us. Each of us. That sounds so simplistic, but it's the only thing we can control. For all our achievements, as a society we are still so uncivilized. Because personal responsibllity is just not that in fashion any more. My mama taught me that "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me". Unless I let them. The women on the Rutgers basketball team have said that Don Imus took away their glory and grace and their moment. No, he didn't. Unless they let him. They are all beautiful, accomplished women with bright futures ahead of them. He is a crazy old man with a microphone. I don't think, with the way this whole free speech thing is set up, it's going to get better or easier. Doesn't that just suck? And yet, what's the alternative? To try to dictate what people can say, or think?
The original title of this rant was "The Centre Cannot Hold", from the W.B. Yeats poem. But when I read the quote in Vonnegut's obituary, I realized it held not only the answer, but the only hope.
We can't control the way people think or act or what they say. But we can choose to listen to something else, to think differently, to be kinder to one another. We can turn off the tv. We can raise our children right, teach them to be nice, to listen and speak up when they need to, to share and take care of others and to have pride in themselves so that they'll have some kind of armor to ward off the stupid, insensitive, hateful things that escape from the mouths of lunatic bullies. We can counter words of hate with generosity and kindness. We can be mindful of our own words. We can use our common sense, and when something happens to a six year old in Florida that seems so egregiously out of whack, we can use it as a wake up call, do a gut check and say "Stop it. Stop it right now. This isn't right."
Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut, for being there when I needed you.