Fish Out of Water

fish out of waterI thought I would be writing a post on a different subject. I thought I would be writing  “Our War”—about the Vietnam War— as a follow up to my last post, “The Nazi Flag in the Attic.

But then Wednesday, February 14th happened. Fourteen high school students and 3 faculty members didn’t come home from school that day. Seven minutes of carnage changed the lives of every student, faculty member, administrator, custodian, and whoever else was a part of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And then there are the families of those who were killed. For everyone who died, there are at least two people, and likely many more, whose lives will now be defined by before that day and after that day.

But something else changed as well. It was in the voices of the students from Parkland. Voices that were so clear and strong they drowned out the NRA’s oh-so-familiar “We can’t talk about guns. If we talk about guns, we’re politicizing it.”

As Obama said, “You are who we have been waiting for.”

I wanted to know what was happening with high school kids locally, so I did what I know best how to do: I talked with some of them.

I went to the coffee house where they hang out, and found four young women. They told me there would be a school walkout on March 14th, some of them could participate and others couldn’t. I asked them if they felt safe in school, and they said they realized it would be easy for someone to gain access to their campus.

And then I asked them why they thought it was young men, boys, who were the ones who were consistently behind the carnage. “Because boys get away with things girls don’t,” one of them said.

This led to a discussion about what has and what hasn’t changed vis a vis gender roles since I was their age. Some has changed, but it distressed me to learn that girls still have some mountains to climb.

They also talked about how the Internet has changed things for their generation. The Olympic Peninsula can have an isolating quality to it—can foster an island mentality. But while their parents and grandparents had limited contact with the world outside the Peninsula, the Internet showed them a world that extended beyond theirs.

Smart girls. Long may they wave.

I ended up going to the walkout to support the kids. And thus I stepped into a mess that probably has to do with a cultural gap between me and where I live.

There were several adults (it’s Sequim so most of us were of the white-haired persuasion) who had also come to support the kids. I asked a vice-principal where they wanted us to be. Basically, it was don’t mingle with the kids, stay on the sidelines. But nothing was said about not engaging in conversation with them.

As the students gathered, a handful of students one carrying an American flag and a pro NRA sign, stood in opposition to the larger group, some members carrying signs asking for sane gun laws.

Just before the silence started, I motioned to the students in opposition and stage-whispered that they should go and join their classmates. By which I meant, take your signs and join them to remember those who died.

After the silence ended, I stepped towards the boy who carried the American flag and NRA sign and said, “My only problem is that you are equating the flag with the NRA.”

Isn’t the flag about America he asked. Yes, I said. What’s America about, he asked. Well this, I said and pointed to the students who walked out. Don’t I have a right to protest? he asked.

Before I could answer a school official guided him away. As I was checking out of the main office, he walked by and I said, of course you have the right to protest.

And that was that.

As the two women with whom I attended the walkout and I made our way back to our cars (about 3 blocks from the school), a very large black truck pulled over to the curb, two boys rolled down their windows, their faces disguised, took photos of us, and then spewed black exhaust at us as they peeled out. They came around for a second time. It was threatening behavior, intended to intimidate.

I reported the incident to the police, then later called the high school to let them know what had happened. I had a partial license plate. I told the school that what the 3 of us wanted to happen was to meet and talk with the boys in the truck.

Long story shortened: the school Resource Officer let me know in no uncertain terms that talking to the boys wouldn’t/couldn’t happen because of confidentiality—they were minors. And then he let me know that a woman had been very aggressive at the walkout so that both sides behaved badly. I should let bygones be bygones.

That didn’t sit right with me. So I wrote him a letter, said that while I might have missed the opportunity to not share a great idea (join your classmates) I thought talking, using words, was not equivalent to the boys’ menacing behavior. I hoped the boys would be held accountable for their behavior.

Long story shortened, the police just didn’t want to hear my concern. Or probably more accurately, they just considered the incident to be a closed issue. They wanted me to go away.

So, I, being me, hunkered down into confusion and guilt. What had I done wrong? What taboo had I broken? Would I finally be arrested for tearing the tag off the mattress?

In the meantime, I had attended a meeting of a group who are hell-bent on hardening the schools—the NRA way. The meeting was in a Security firm’s building, where they have that human-outline target with what looked to me like two mock (I assume they were mock because they looked plastic) AR-15-type rifles leaning against it. I assume it’s where they train their security personnel.

Mixed in their multi-layered approach to school safety was their plan to bring in teachers to show them the weapons and then students to show them the various magazines and how many bullets are in each so when they are under siege they can count the number of shots, recognize the magazine is empty, and so know they can make their escape.


I don’t believe they will be successful in their plan. I think our schools are in already in safe hands here.

Back to my confusion and guilt. I asked around enough that I finally put the pieces of my puzzlement together.

To me, talking to the kid with the flag and the NRA sign was a sign of respect—for him. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to complete our conversation. Reporting the incident with the boys in the truck was the appropriate thing to do in my mind. In domestic violence terms, their behavior is considered stalking. It should be nipped in the bud—boys using aggressive, intimidating behavior to shut someone up.

But these things collectively might be my cultural gap.

My town is small enough, with enough entangled relationships, that upsetting the apple cart can be more akin to waking the bear—and then poking it.

My actions upset the apple cart.

I’m a bit of a fish out of water here. But, then, I just might be a fish out of water. Period. Full stop. I’m beginning to think that might be who I am.

But, here’s the thing. It’s not just schools that aren’t safe from the young male with an assault rifle. It’s also waffle houses. And churches. And open air concerts. And so on.

We need to have that conversation. The one about guns, why certain young men are turning to them, and why the carnage appeals to them. And, also, why certain young men turn to intimidating behavior, rather than words, to confront someone with whom they disagree.

It’s an uncomfortable conversation. Probably even volatile. But I can’t help but think that if we open up the conversation, eventually we might be able to get past the discomfort and find common ground.

I’m still a bit concerned that my encounter with the boys in the truck is being dismissed as boys will be boys. I suspect my reporting it upset the apple cart, maybe even woke then poked the bear. I suspect that entangled relationships might have something to do with just wanting to put the incident to bed. And, it might just be that not putting it to rest is poking the bear and this might not be the best time or place to poke the bear.

But, I hold out hope that my reporting the incident models something. I hope that the young women I spoke with in the café see it the way I do. Men or boys using aggressive intimidating behavior to shut them up is not acceptable.