In mid-February, 17 people—students and adults—were shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In the aftermath, surviving students have led a powerful campaign for gun control. In episode 12, V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell bring you two authors—and a pile of books—who have covered the territory of school shootings, activism, and coming of age. First, Jim Shepard discusses his 2004 novel Project X, which is told from the POV of an eighth-grader who decides to commit a Columbine-style shooting. Shepard offers his thoughts on empathy, alienation, and how schools tend to treat their outcasts. Then Danielle Evans shares her read on the student activists in the #neveragain movement and the longstanding literary trope of child narrators who outwit adults. Adolescent anger and activism play out in Evans’s story “Robert E. Lee is Dead,” set in a high school in the south; she also points us to Edward P. Jones’ story “The First Day” for a particularly poignant phrasing of the transition of adolescence.
Readings for this episode:
Project X by Jim Shepard (2004) · “Robert E. Lee is Dead” by Danielle Evans, from the collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (2011) · “The First Day” by Edward P. Jones, from the collection Lost in the City (2004) · The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970).
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Part one, Jim Shepard The Intensity of Teenage Apocalypse
Jim Shepard: We all say we know that it’s hard being an adolescent, but we forget that one of the fundamental aspects of adolescence is the way adolescents tend to think apocalyptically, you know.
Whitney Terrell: Oh, yes.
JS: Everything is the end of the world. And when a parent says, “Oh, don’t worry this is gonna pass,” part of what a parent is suggesting to the adolescent is: so, I don’t understand the way you operate at all. And when you think like that, when you think apocalyptically, extreme solutions seem like the most logical ones, and they also provide a way of expressing to the world that at least you had some agency, that at least you should have been taken seriously at some point. And even at a good school it’s hard to track kids that are in trouble, that might be a risk since everybody’s feeling so much so often and intensities come and go like weather patterns.
WT: The intensity of children is one of the things that’s so… I don’t know if it’s different… I mean, I have two boys, so I don’t really know that much about young girls, but my son, if he misses a math problem, he’ll say, “I’m never gonna go college! I’ve been terrible at math my whole life!” and he runs upstairs and slams the door.
WT: It’s like his brain doesn’t have a restraint mechanism sometimes.
JS: Exactly. And as a parent you say to yourself, I don’t wanna make more out of the trouble, out of the problem than necessary. And you also don’t want to ignore the intensities, but you are aware that these things come and go very, very quickly. And it’s very hard to get a fix on which ones seem like things the kids can’t deal with at all, and I often think about the tiny, tiny events during their days that steer kids toward or away from disaster in ways that we as parents just never know. Just these little, little things.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I was about to say: the things we don’t know. I don’t think that my parents listen to the podcast, but we might be about to find out. I was bullied extensively in middle school, and I went to school for many years with the person who edited my first novel, actually. She used to sit next to me on the bus so she’s probably one of the few people who remembers this. But I sat next to her on the bus, and then this girl who was two years older than me started bullying me. And she would get off at my bus stop and follow me home, sort of threatening the whole way to kick my ass, and she did this for several weeks. And the thing that actually stopped it was another kid who sort of put herself bodily in the way of it, but I never told my parents about it. I just think that there must be so many situations like that, where it’s humiliating to admit that that happened to you.
JS: Absolutely. And I knew so many kids in my… Again, I went to a really crappy (and scary in some ways) middle school/junior high, and I knew so many kids who simply brought weapons in and brandished them and would end problems that way. Like they would take out their mom’s steak knife, and they would say, “Don’t mess with me anymore,” and either the kids would jeer at them or the kids would go, “That guy’s crazy, leave him alone.” And the parents and teachers would never even know. You just put it back in your bag. This is way before metal detectors or anything like that. And then you’d come home and put the steak knife back in the drawer.
VVG: Yeah, these funny internal systems of justice that kids have on their own that adults never know about.
WT: It remains one of the most powerful memories of my life, watching the social economy of my class coalesce around excluding one particular kid. And he was excluded for reasons that were completely insane. I think we called him a greaser, like we were in the 50s or something like that.
WT: He had dark hair, but what I learned from that was that human groups will find somebody to exclude if they don’t naturally have someone to exclude because it’s the way that groups are created.
JS: It can just be the overwhelming reality of that kid’s experience.
Part two, Danielle Evans The Hope of Student Protest
Danielle Evans: I was thinking of the child narrators I do really like and a lot of them are supported by the weight of a retrospective voice, which makes the tension of the text about whatever’s happening but also about the difference between childhood and adulthood, about understanding that has been gained but also understandings that has been lost.
One of my favorite child narrators (if you can count it) is the narrator in Edward P. Jones’ The First Day, which starts with a brief aside on “an otherwise unremarkable September day, long before I learned to be ashamed of my mother…” And that—the rest of the story is in the present tense, but that aside that it begins with is kind of hovering over the whole story, about the space that’s about to be lost, and so there’s just such striking sharp imagery in that story…like there’s a—the mother is a single mother—she doesn’t quite know what’s going on—it’s the first day of school and she doesn’t quite understand all the things about registration, and we learn some things about why that is in the space of the story. And there’s some sense that the child doesn’t quite understand at the time that her mother doesn’t understand how registration works, that her mother is not literate. These are things that are just sort of lost in the space of the day, but they’re hanging in the story as the cost of the education that the mother is helping the child to get.
But there’s this really lovely moment right at the beginning of the story where there’s a dab of gardenia perfume—the mother has a bottle of the last thing the child’s father gave her before disappearing, and the child says, “I couldn’t smell it, but I knew that it was there.” And I think of that as being the sort of space that’s relevant to thinking about childhood and activism, right? That—we’re not sure there’s any perfume in that bottle… there might be… we’re not sure the mother actually put any on. But that belief that the beautiful protective thing is there and also the ability to function in the world where it might be empty—that’s the space I think we often ask adolescent narrators to… that’s the transition we’re asking them to make.
And I think that so many coming-of-age stories are in some ways about the end of childhood, insofar as the end of childhood is the understanding that some things are irreversible, right? And sometimes that’s not the shape of a huge trauma; it’s just the understanding that this thing that happened will always happen, or I will always be the person who did this or the person that experienced this. And sometimes it is a major trauma, like these kids at Parkland have gone through, that has divided their lives into a before and after without necessarily giving them the space to choose that. And so they’ve chosen to respond to that in this really moving way, with this activism aimed at protecting other people, but I think that, as adults, it’s important to remember that that was triggered by trauma, and that it’s still a new thing they’re going to have to learn to live with forever.
Whitney Terrell: Yeah, one of the things that I think makes the position of the—when it’s done properly—adolescent narrator powerful and that people have talked about in this case is that you still have a capacity for outrage. And you’re also discovering, for the first time maybe, that the adults you thought were powerful are actually flawed human beings. And I think of the Wolff Brothers, you know, I mean it’s hard to—Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff writing about their parents who split up and inspired The Duke of Deception and This Boy’s Life. You know, they were both books about discovering that the adults were screwing up in a way that children didn’t expect—and in a way, the Parkland students are discovering that we have been screwing up for a long time in a way that they did not expect.
DE: One of the things that’s been striking for me is thinking about how quickly the world that they grew up in became different than the world that we grew up in. So many of these kids grew up with active shooter drills. As a person who didn’t have that in school and doesn’t have kids, watching my friends who are parents describe trying to explain to a second-grader what the drill is for, or realizing their small child understands what the drill is for—it’s in some ways a different reality… to think that I hadn’t processed the weight of growing up with… until hearing kids articulate what it felt like to grow up with that.
WT: My son is on the student council, and he is planning a walk-out. You know, that was their next meeting: when are they going do their walk-out—is it going to be now or later. I can’t believe that that wasn’t something I was doing in seventh grade.
DE: We have a long tradition of student activism, even in recent years. A lot of what I think is impressive about the Parkland students is that people have tried to set them against other student action movements and they’ve said “no, , we’ve taken a lot of inspiration from Black Lives Matter,” right? Like “we understand.” Just yesterday, I was seeing online that they were meeting with kids from Chicago, right? Because the idea is that it’s not like gun violence is only appalling when it happens in a place where we don’t expect it, right? It’s that there are children that we’ve treated as though they are expendable in various structural ways. And their understanding that they don’t want to be used against those kids is also profoundly important, and I think a good sign that this isn’t an isolated moment but a thing that can be connected to all the years of activism they are building on and hopefully maintaining.
Transcription by Erin Saxon and Amanda Minoff