The Michigan State University community is picking up the pieces of its shattered existence this morning, after a gunman killed three students and critically wounded five others Monday night. Authorities say the 43-year-old man had no tie to the East Lansing campus and his motives for this attack are not entirely clear.
The shooting victims were going about their daily routines, never once thinking, “These are likely the last moments of my life.” As a friend who survived a mass shooting once said, it’s not like what people tend to think of when they think of a situation like this. It’s not like The Doors music starts playing to let you know what’s about to occur.
However, kids of this generation know that death in this fashion is not rare for their peer group. As much my students don’t like to admit it, they have occasionally let it slip that they know something like this could happen to them at any point in time. More than a few have told me over the years they had concerns about the “one kid” in a classroom or a residence hall who “wasn’t quite right.”
The choices in how to proceed become frightful for them:
Is the kid just odd or a true threat? What if I report them and they decide to come after me?
What if I don’t speak up and something terrible happens?
So many of the basic choices these kids make every day can have fatal consequences that no one could ever see coming.
Get the wrong roommate? They could be killed.
Go to sleep after a night out with friends? They could be killed.
Go on a class field trip? They could be shot to death.
Go to work at a crappy retail job? They could be shot to death.
Go to a night class on Cuba? They could be shot to death.
Today’s students move through a society in which shooter after shooter, killer after killer sees themselves as righteous grievance collectors, people who have been wronged and feel justified in avenging their perceived slights against any target they see fit. For them, violence is strength, death is justice and a body count is a measure of valor.
Mass shootings have become so ubiquitous for kids today that educational institutions begin training students how to be ready for them, starting at the pre-kindergarten level. I still can’t get the image of my then-13-year-old daughter waggling her hand back and forth as she described how she was taught to run down the halls of her school in a zig-zag pattern in case a shooter entered the building.
“If I run in a straight line, it’s easier for the person to shoot me,” she said in such a matter-of-fact tone, I still can’t process it.
What she and so many of her generation are forced to endure should be astounding to any reasonable person, whether they ever face a situation like the one at MSU or not.
It is no wonder that the kids aren’t all right these days.
The often-cited line about today’s students is that they exhibit more anxiety than institutionalized mental patients of the 1950s did. While that statement is somewhat misleading, given the study from which it is drawn, very little would convince any reasonable person that the mental health of our youth has gotten anything but worse. Studies show that reports of fear, anxiety and trauma have risen steadily among students over the past decade.
Even without those studies and diagnoses, I see so much of it every day in their behaviors.
Fingernails all chewed down to the quick, with the skin surrounding the edges of them bitten and bloody. Students twisting locks of their hair until some falls out and they shake it free from their hand and begin again. Kids picking constantly at the burgeoning acne patches on their faces and arms, unaware of anything but their stasis of stress and the momentary release they receive from the tiny nips of pain.
When they get a break during a class, they dive into their phones with quick, purposeful movements that remind me of the way students a generation earlier would dive into their cigarette packs during breaks. The device pours content into their eyes at a speed and volume that no one has ever encountered before, with researchers still uncertain as to the totality of damage this has yielded to their still-forming brains.
The world they consume on those devices is one of pure bifurcation. One world is bursting with impossible dreams of aspirational lives. Social media images make everyone seem like they have more money, more friends, more experiences and more of every other amazing thing than they do. Even more, the filters on these social media apps make everyone look thinner, prettier and cooler as well.
The other world is soaked in tension and coated with anguish, just one spark away from exploding at any point in time, like a Molotov cocktail left near campfire. Mistakes aren’t just brief learning experiences. Thanks to the ability for information to spread like a virus, one wrong move can have a battalion of keyboard warriors attack them without warning or mercy. A post on social media, an ill-timed text message or a poorly conceived moment of levity could create a wave of devastation that could lead to incalculable losses, up to and including, their lives.
All of this doesn’t even take into account all of the other ways in which the world has repeatedly bludgeoned these kids.
This generation of students has just survived a once-in-a-century pandemic that took what little normalcy they had in their lives and tossed it about like a rag doll. They studied in isolation to complete courses that were hastily pushed online. Educational institutions sent them between home and school, never really knowing if the risk public gatherings presented to their physical health mattered more than the risks that isolation had for their mental health.
Both during and after this epidemic, college students worked two or three jobs to maintain any semblance of life, as they pay ridiculously high rents and bloated tuition fees, all so they could hear a professor with an incomprehensible sense of ego drone on about the importance of Viking pottery during the Middle Ages. Why? Because that blowhard got a Ph.D. on that topic and then convinced an entire institution of higher learning that this was an essential element of students’ “general education requirements.”
When they graduate, they know they are entering a world in which they will never be able to live as well as their parents, something that used to be the benchmark of generational success. Housing has become an investment commodity, making even a basic home out of reach for many college grads. Student loan debt continues to cripple borrowers, even as the government tries to stabilize things for them. Current students will face the same problems, knowing that not only will they not receive similar help, but also prior generations will scoff at them for being “fiscally irresponsible.”
Where is their port in the storm? Where is their “good life” that each generation was promised for “doing the right thing” and “playing by the rules?” Isn’t that what the students of MSU were doing Monday night? They were showing up for class, taking notes, getting the grades and pursuing the degree.
All to be “members of a club we don’t want to be a member of and we don’t want any more members in it,” to quote the friend I mentioned earlier. He meant the growing collective of people who are physically, mentally and emotionally scarred for life by the act of a violent domestic terrorist.
And that’s only if they were lucky enough to survive.
If all we can be is responsible for ourselves and all we can do is find ways to make incremental differences in the lives of those around us, it has to start here. If we can’t stop these terrifying events, we should at least find ways to help these kids exist better in the world in which the events occur.
It starts with grace and forgiveness for missteps and social faux pas that come from trying to balance far too much on too fragile of shoulders.
It starts with compassion and empathy for these students, who might not always look like it, but who are actually doing the best they can with what they have.
It starts with admitting the truth about the reality of our surroundings.
The kids aren’t all right. They need us to understand that.
One thought on “The Kids Aren’t All Right”
Well done. We had 647 mass shootings in 2022. By definition, that counts only shootings where there are four or more victims; so, gun violence is rampant in the United States. No other civilized country has this problem. Is it the cost of freedom? The least we can do is keep talking and writing about it.