Sunday, March 18, 2012

When Your Dad Knows the Gunman... and Says He Was Really Smart

My dad came home on Thursday and told my family some pretty disturbing news: a man who used to work for him, one he called "a kid at the time," went on a shooting rampage at a mental health clinic in Pittsburgh and was shot and killed by police.

My dad talked a little about it, but of course, I'd like to respect his right to privacy. He hasn't spoken to reporters who called to ask him about the man and his past, so I don't feel that it's my right to speak on his behalf. What I will note, however, is that much like other sources are reporting, my dad said the man (who he kept calling a "kid" because he was only about 23 at the time) was very smart. He meant it in the bookish sense.

As the reports have come rolling it, it's apparent that my dad's assessment is one that others shared. He had a B.A. in chemistry from Carleton and B.S. in engineering from Columbia and had recently become a graduate student in biology. According to a quote from a former professor of his in the Huffington Post, he was a "good, hardworking student." In other words, a student like me.

It's these sorts of stories that really hit home for me. This man was surrounded by academia, its pressures and its protections. How is it possible that no one sought to reach out and help him? How is it possible that no one noticed? I think about my own students. I think about students I have met in past encounters as a student myself, as an intern for one of the academic advisement departments at a university, and as a teaching assistant. Would I be able to spot a student who needed help like this? I've been trained to spot distressed students, but am I really prepared?

What I also think about is the fact that he was so brilliant. A chemistry degree. An engineering degree. Part of a Master's complete. All in prestigious programs. Yet, he couldn't deal with real people or real problems. He couldn't make sales. He couldn't teach. He couldn't handle his personal problems, so he turned to prescription drugs. In all that time with all of those degrees, what was he learning? Why wasn't he learning to relate to the world around him? It seems to me that for all of our emphasis on the importance of an education, the importance of going to a good school and getting into a good program, the importance of having an impressive degree, we lose so much when we continue to tell people "gosh, you're so smart" and give them no guidance when it comes to social interaction or skills that are useful beyond passing exams and doing research. Maybe someone should have asked him why he wanted to learn about chemistry, engineering, and biology. Maybe someone should have asked him what he enjoys doing in his spare time. Maybe someone should have asked him whether or not he liked himself or his life.

It makes me think back to Richard Miller's Writing at the End of the World and Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time. Miller would say that reading and writing is not transformative. There's no book that this man could have been made to read, no story that he could have been made to write that would have changed him if he was truly a sociopath. Fish would say it's simply not our job to fix people. I can't believe that I have no impact on people, though, in my class and otherwise. I won't believe it. I think something could have been done to stop this act of violence, and I wonder what I can do to stop another from happening.

For the medical worker that he killed and all of those whose lives are now shattered as a result of his thoughtless action, I feel immense sympathy. There's nothing that can be said or done that can make the pain of loss feel better, especially one as senseless as this. For those surviving their wounds, there is nothing that can remove the trauma they experienced. At the same time, however, I grieve for this man because I believe he is one that we let slip through the cracks, one who tried to fulfill the American image of success and failed, one who was told to be smart was enough when it wasn't. No more empty educations, please.

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