Ursula LeGuin wrote an amazing book called The Word for World is Forest back in 1972. A friend gave it to me sometime in the 80s and it has haunted me ever since. It’s something of an allegorical tale: humans head off to exploit the fictional planet Athshe—to kill the men, rape the women, and plunder its resources. The people there are deceptively primitive, furry, arboreal creatures. The main feature of their culture is reliance on and trust in their dreams. If it comes to them in a dream to do a thing, they obey without question.
The Athsheans are a peaceful people; murder and war are simply unknown there. But one night it comes to one of their leaders in a dream to gather large rocks and smash in the skulls of the humans while they sleep. And so it comes to pass. After an ugly and bloody rebellion, the humans leave. But will all be as it was before on Athshe? No. As one of the natives says at the end, murder has been brought “across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time.” When it’s done, it’s done, there’s no going back. There’s no point in pretending that the Athsheans don’t know how to kill each other now, just as they killed the humans.
I have thought of this somber conclusion many times over the decades, particularly in regard to school shootings. I was working in an elementary school as an instructional assistant when a young man opened fire on children playing at recess at a school about 50 miles away in Stockton, California in 1989. This was the first that I was aware of. Something like this was unimaginable before. Immediately the school district admins where I worked ordered all personnel to keep our classroom doors locked. We all complied for a while, but it was inconvenient. Most elementary school staff are women and jeez—a lot of women’s pants and skirts don’t even have pockets. We weren’t in the habit of carrying our keys and the practice was abandoned relatively quickly back then. Besides, it seemed an overreaction to an incident we were all sure would be a one-off occurrence perpetrated by a young man who suffered from mental illness.
Obviously, we were wrong.
School shootings are in our dreamscape now. As LeGuin says at the end of her novel, “You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity.”
Now there is a new element: two young men—two in one week—rushed at a shooter at their respective schools and were killed attempting to stop them. On social media there is praise and concern. Should we call these young people heroes or victims? No one thinks children should ever feel compelled to make a sacrifice like this.
It should be noted that these two students (one high school, one college) were 18 and 21 years old, so they had crossed the arbitrary line into adulthood. Nonetheless—well—I’m not sure what to say. I struggle with new thoughts and emotions over this. First, I think, this isn’t new. Boys and men have been raised into their archetypal roles of protector and warrior for millennia. Then I think—hey, at least it’s not as bad here as those scary third world countries where war lords kidnap young boys—even preadolescents—and force them to serve as child soldiers.
If you think I’m coming to a point, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m just rambling here, feeling heart sick that this is where we are now.
I worked in special education for over thirty years. I often had students in my class who had severe behavioral challenges. What that means is that on occasion a student might throw chairs or books, rip papers and posters off the walls, hit, kick or punch other students and staff. Protocol dictated that I clear the other kids from the room until I could get the tantruming child to calm down. Sometimes another student—usually an eager-to-please-type kid–would say he or she wanted to stay in the room to protect me. Among these few were both boys and girls—well, now that I think of it, there were actually more girls! Of course my aides and I would make them leave with the others. But I think now—would kids like these want to rush a shooter? I hope not.
There is no shame in hiding from danger. There is no shame in wanting to stay alive. It’s good to love your family. It’s good to want to go home to them.