He was 11 years old when the Columbine massacre happened.
His parents, it’s safe to assume, were as horrified as the rest of us. Maybe they gave their boy an extra hug that night, said a prayer for the victims, spoke of how precious and precarious life is. And wondered, like so many of us, how it’s possible that a typical American suburb could produce an Eric Harris and a Dylan Klebold. Perhaps they joined in the criticism that rained down on the Harris and Klebold families. What’s wrong with those parents? How could they not know? Or maybe they just shook their heads and sighed with relief that they and their families were safe.
It’s possible that the parents of James Holmes did all those things, just as so many others did. I remember driving home that day in April 1999, listening to reports of the Columbine killings and noticing how closely the descriptions of the killers’ neighborhood matched my own neighborhood. I heard radio talk show hosts rail on about guns, troubled youths and parental responsibility. To be honest, the neighborhood description was the only thing that really stuck with me. Everything else seemed pretty abstract at the time.
Then I became a parent.
Now, another Colorado massacre has shaken us to the core. But this time I understand, in a way that I couldn’t in 1999, why the wounded, the dead and their families are not the only victims.
As far as I can tell, Robert and Arlene Holmes aren’t so different from me. They’re upper-middle-class suburban professionals who led quiet lives until July 20, when an early morning phone call from an ABC News reporter brought their world crashing down. A statement that Arlene Holmes made to that reporter was ripped out of context and flew around the world in a matter of minutes, casting her in the role of Mother Who Knew Her Son Was a Killer. In fact, she knew no such thing. She didn’t even know there had been any killings.
Within hours, she and her husband were prisoners of the media, and of a culture that never lets facts get in the way of opinion. The Internet fed the beast of innuendo and condemnation in a way that was unimaginable in the pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter days of Columbine. What could they do, other than lock themselves away in their home, find an attorney to act as their spokeswoman, and try to set the record straight? All while trying to cope with the knowledge that their son is thought to be responsible for one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.
The James Holmes story won’t end in a Colorado courtroom, or in a prison. It will go on, with different names in different states, until those of us living our sheltered lives of nuclear families and suburban comfort stop saying, “It can’t happen here” and start saying, “How can we help stop this?”
Until I became a parent, I’d never been around kids, except when I was one of them. I had heard talk of awkward kids, lonely kids, kids who didn’t fit in. I didn’t give much thought to it.
Now I do. And you should, too. Because they’re in your neighborhood, your church, your child’s school. They’re in Boy Scouts and on soccer teams. You might not recognize them right away, but all you have to do is look around, and listen to your own children, and you will know. You’ll know which kids don’t get invited to birthday parties, which kids are left to play alone on the playground. Often, it’s the ones with odd behaviors, or difficulty communicating, or a clothing style that sets them apart. Sometimes, it’s skin color. Or lack of athletic ability.
Schools do their best to help such children, but with budgets stretched to the breaking point and government-mandated standardized tests holding educators hostage, anti-bullying efforts and social skills programs tend to slide far down the list of priorities. A forward-thinking education policy at the federal and state levels would put just as much emphasis on children’s interpersonal relationships as on their math skills, but forward-thinking education policies generally are not what you get in America. Even suggesting that more resources be devoted to teaching children how to develop friendships and live successfully in society provokes cries of socialism run amok.
Somehow, though, there always seems to be room in the budget for sports programs. (Yes, I know that participating in sports can promote self-esteem and friendships for some children — but for others, it can be emotionally devastating.)
I have no idea what James Holmes’ childhood was like, and I won’t depend on reports from self-described childhood friends or family acquaintances to offer any insight. Perhaps he was a model child in every way. Or perhaps he had a mental illness with biological roots so deep that even a perfect childhood could not have made a difference.
But I do know that social isolation is a very real and very painful experience for countless children. I’ve heard mothers at my son’s school brag about how compassionate their children are — the very children who have taunted and teased my socially awkward son when their mothers aren’t within earshot. I’ve come to the conclusion that as parents, we all have blind spots when it comes to our children.
No doubt, Robert and Arlene Holmes had one, too.
Sarah Smith Nessel, a 913 freelance columnist, writes The Bubble each week.