Nine months ago, two seemingly ordinary boys from normal middle-class families walked into their high school in an affluent suburb of Denver and shot and killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher before finally turning their guns on themselves. It was a watershed moment in contemporary American life, a definitive fall from innocence that made parents and teachers look on their kids with unfamiliar feelings of anxiety and doubt. There had been other school shootings, of course. But Columbine—the name itself quickly settled into the lexicon—tapped far more deeply into a lurking fear that even during these unprecedentedly good times something might be going wrong with the nation's kids.
What troubled Americans about Columbine was the combination of the extraordinarily willful viciousness of the massacre and the very ordinary middle-classness of its perpetrators and its setting. One could explain violence in inner-city schools: poverty and urban crime had been intertwined since the days of Dickens's London. And, though no one might say it out loud, many Americans could pass over a school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, or West Paducah, Kentucky, without too much comment. The folk in the hills and hollers, Mark Twain taught the nation, can sometimes be a little irrational.
But Columbine was different. Columbine made us wonder if we had been in denial about some sickness at the heart of the middle-class culture that most American kids know as reality. "Where were the parents?" many people asked, bewildered at how two teenagers could build up an arsenal in their own bedrooms without their mother or father knowing. "What kind of schools have we created?" others wondered, on hearing that the two were making videos and writing essays for school about their vile fantasies without anyone being particularly impressed.
This fall, stories from two unlikely (because relentlessly conventional) sources, PBS's Frontline and Time magazine, began to give us an answer to these questions. By entering deeply into the daily lives of American middle class children as they interact with their families and schools, the stories offer some real insight into the roots of the teen alienation and emptiness that culminated in Columbine. They add up to a devastating portrait of adults, who were not neglectful or abusive in any conventional sense, but who, apart from lavish houses and abundant entertainment, have nothing of substance to pass on to children. Without the producers and writers fully understanding what they have uncovered, their portrait reinforces the suspicion that Columbine may reflect a spiritual and emotional void within contemporary American middle-class culture, into which troubled teenagers can easily pour their most grotesque and often rage-filled fantasies.
The adults who appear in the first and most important of these portraits, "The Lost Children of Rockdale County," which aired on the PBS series Frontline, in October, would seem to have everything to offer children. About 25 miles east of Atlanta, Rockdale is Littleton's sociological twin, a booming, affluent suburb—"the fastest-growing settlement in human history," according to some locals quoted on the show. As is the case with Littleton, many Rockdale residents are newcomers to the region who have succeeded in their search for the good life. We get innumerable images of the wide streets of pristine subdivisions and newly sprouted McMansions, with their cathedral ceilings and airy, granite-countered kitchens. And, in fact, the mothers and fathers who inhabit these perfect houses do a good deal of what we hear good parents today ought to do: they coach Little League teams, they go on family vacations, they fix dinner for the kids. In the end, though, they remain utterly clueless when it comes to turning their mansions into homes where children can learn how to lead meaningful lives. Devoid of strong beliefs, seemingly bereft of meaningful experience to pass on to their young, they have at their center a vague emptiness that comes to seem the exact inverse of the meticulous opulence of their homes. The Frontline episode could just have easily been titled "The Lost Adults of Rockdale County."
The occasion for the show was an outbreak of syphilis that ultimately led health officials to treat 200 teenagers. What was so remarkable was not that 200 teenagers in a large suburban area were having sex and had overlapping partners. It was the way they were having sex. This was teen sex as Lord of the Flies author William Golding might have imagined it, a heart-of-darkness tribal rite of such degradation that it makes a collegiate "hook up" look like splendor in the grass. Group sex was commonplace, as were 13-year-old participants. Kids would watch the Playboy cable TV channel and make a game of imitating everything they saw. They tried almost every permutation of sexual activity imaginable—vaginal, oral, anal, girl on girl, several boys with a single girl, or several girls with a boy. (The only taboo was homosexual activity among boys.) During some drunken parties, one girl might be "passed around" in a game. A number of the kids had upward of 50 partners. Some kids engaged in what they called a "sandwich"—while a girl performs oral sex on one boy, she is penetrated vaginally by another boy and anally by yet another.
According to the producers, it was the profound loneliness of these children that led them to seek a "surrogate family" in the company of their peers. No one could dispute that these children are lonely. Some are the virtual orphans of broken and dysfunctional homes. Others were simply the children of part-time parents, who were out of the house working long hours to provide their children with lavish homes, cars, cell phones, and the latest teen fashions. Most of the sex parties took place after school, between 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM, in houses emptied of working adults. Other times, kids slipped out of the house after midnight, without waking their exhausted parents.
But it gradually becomes clear that the absence in these kids' lives is not limited to office hours, and the loneliness they suffer goes beyond being left alone. Their parents, even when at home, seem disconnected. As the producers see it, one of the problems is that these families spend most of their time, including meals, in front of the television. "You just go fix your plate, eat, watch TV, finish watchin' whatever you're watchin'," one girl explains. The camera follows a boy named Kevin as he shuffles from the kitchen (with television, of course) out to his bedroom in the family pool house, where he has, inexplicably, two televisions, both enormous, and both flickering at the time of his interviews. In fact, the television is on in the background during a number of the show's home interviews, a detail that turns out to be more than local color. A Kaiser Foundation study released shortly after the "The Lost Children of Rockdale County" aired found that two-thirds of children have televisions in their rooms and that 58 percent of parents admitted that the TV was on during dinner.
Yet, surely a diet of The Simpsons and Dawson's Creek is more a symptom than a cause of middle-class ills. The truth is, though the show's creators can't quite put their finger on the problem, these shadowy adults have removed themselves from the universal task of parenthood: that is, guiding and shaping the young. And they have done so not because they are too busy at work or watching television but because they have no cultural tools with which to do their job. They know they must love their children; they know they must provide for them—both of which they can do abundantly. The producers are clearly and rightly critical of the way these adults have translated material goods into the sum and substance of parental obligation. But when it comes to the cultural resources that would outfit their children with the moral awareness and worthy aspirations that would help them form a firm sense of self, these parents are deeply impoverished. Here the producers can only make some ineffectual speculation.
Yet the producers' inability to define this scarcity is as important a part of the Rockdale story as the sex parties and syphilis outbreak, for it reflects a more general confusion about the cultural impoverishment suffered by many children today. The profile of one father and daughter in particular dramatizes how the Rockdale parents and the media are similarly befuddled. Amy, a soft-spoken and pallid young woman, who smiles shyly as she tells her story, clearly has had all the benefits of a privileged childhood. We see shots from the family videos and photo albums—doubtless made by parents bursting with pleasure—of the braided girl whacking a ball during a Little-League game, grinning sweetly as she carries her Easter basket in her pretty party dress, and nestling happily in the lap of her contentedly smiling father. In fact, Amy's father did everything the books tell you to do. (Amy's mother refused to be interviewed.) He coached her baseball team; the family went on vacations together; he appears to have good reason to say, "We were close." But—he finally admits, in what appears to be a moment of revelation—they watched too much television. "We've got TVs in every room in the house," he says. "I watch my programs. My wife watches her programs. . . . Much of the time we had together was not together." Pressed, he says forlornly, "I guess we should have talked more."
Can this really explain how this spunky, beloved little girl became a teenager so desperately lonely that, urged on by two boys, she engaged in rough sex in front of her terrified three-year-old nephew and that she allowed herself to be used as a ferry service by "friends" whom she sensed liked her only "because I had a car"? It seems we are to believe so. During another scene, a health expert tells, with heartfelt frustration we are evidently supposed to share, about the reaction of the families of Rockdale when she speaks at a public meeting about the syphilis epidemic. A minister had turned to her and exclaimed about the parents: "Don't they see? Don't they see it's them? They don't talk to their children!" This insight is certainly consistent with prevailing expert wisdom. The Kaiser Foundation, in conjunction with Children Now, for instance, has begun a campaign entitled "Talking with Kids About Tough Issues," which implies that the problem facing adults today is that they are failing "to impart their own values and, most importantly, to create an atmosphere of open communication with their children on any issue."
But while it goes without saying that parents should talk to their children and "impart their own values"—is there anyone who believes they shouldn't?—this advice begs the obvious question: What exactly is it they are supposed to say? What values are they supposed to impart? To this question, no one—neither the Kaiser Foundation nor the Frontline producers—dares venture an answer. Should they tell their children it's not a good idea for them to be having sex with 40 partners? Why not? Because they might get syphilis, or because it violates all sense of dignity and modesty? Should they recommend their child see a therapist? A minister? A gynecologist? An expert on Tantric sex? It doesn't seem to matter, as long as they're talking and expressing their "values." Talking and imparting values show that adults are "caring."
Yet the Frontline producers unwittingly lead us to the conclusion that adults are not talking to their children for the same reason experts themselves can only deliver these platitudes. They don't believe there are any firm values to impart. These parents undoubtedly do not approve of group sex or sexually transmitted diseases or, for that matter, shooting one's classmates. But they have absorbed from the surrounding culture an ethos of nonjudgmentalism, which has drained their beliefs on these matters of all feeling and force. This suspension of all conviction helps explain the bland, sad air of many of these interviews. "They have to make decisions, whether to take drugs, to have sex," the mother of Kevin, the boy who lives in the pool house, intones expressionlessly. "I can give them my opinion, tell them how I feel. But they have to decide for themselves." It's hard to see how imparting her values will do anything to help her child. After all, these values have no gravity or truth. They are only her opinion.
The children of Rockdale know full well that their parents have nothing to say to them. "In my family, you do what you want to do. No one is going to stop you," Kevin says factually, without a hint of rebellion or arrogance. True, his mother did at one time attempt to be a parent to Kevin's older sister but gave up, because she found "it was easier to let her [do what she wanted]. We got along better." Convinced that there are no values worth fighting for, the lost adults of Rockdale County have abdicated the age-old distinction between parents and children and have settled for being their children's friends and housemates. "We're pretty much like best friends or something," one girl said of her parents. "I mean, I can pretty much tell 'em how I feel, what I wanna do, and they'll let me do it." "I don't really consider her a mom all that much," another girl agrees about her own mother. "She takes care of me and such, but I consider her a friend more."
When adults turn into friends, childhood must disappear. Childhood cannot exist with no adults around. The children of Rockdale, still baby-faced and restlessly energetic, have lost all the sense of wonder, spontaneity, and idealism that we ordinarily associate with childhood. One of the most memorable images from the documentary is of three cherubic 14-year-olds demonstrating their sexual activities with the stuffed animals that still lie heaped on the bed in one of their rooms. It is in this child's bedroom, whose walls are decorated with graffiti, some of it obscene, that they also chant the lyrics of their favorite rap song: "He can get the bitch fucked, but how many can get the dick sucked," goes one of the lines. The tone of their delivery is a mixture of robotic chanting and giggling, and it captures perfectly the pathetic struggle inside them between the nihilism their own degraded experience has taught them and the childishness that nature insists still defines them.
For nihilism, as Columbine seems to have taught us, is the eventual outcome for that considerable number of children today who are growing up deprived of any inherited wisdom about the longings and limits of human nature. Left to feel their way through life by themselves, they will inevitably stumble into experiences against which they have no defenses, experiences that will ultimately leave them numb. One thinks of Heather, who by the time she was 12 was left by her single mother to fend for herself for a week at a time when the mother was away on business trips. The child turned to alcohol and drugs and one day woke up to realize she had been raped while she was passed out. Her own words offer a sad epigraph on the weightless life to which she was abandoned. "The first time that you have sex, you think it's cause it means something," she says at 14. "But then you realize it doesn't. You just don't really care anymore."
Among her peers, even the reality of a serious disease becomes nothing to get excited about. Taking her daughter to the county health office to be tested for syphilis, one mother assumed the girl would be chastened. Not at all. The kids laughed and gave each other the high-five. "We thought it was funny," one girl said of the occasion. "'Oooh, you got syphilis,' you know. . . . It was like the cooties game little kids play, you know." These children's deadened sensibilities leave them incapable of horror—and, for all their sexual adventures, of pleasure. "Sex sucks, actually," says another. "I think sex was made for guys, because you just lay there, and you're just like, 'Get off me, what are you doing?'"
A month to the day after Columbine, Rockdale County was the scene of another school shooting, when a 15-year-old sophomore opened fire and wounded six people at Heritage High School, where some of the kids interviewed for Frontline were enrolled. T. J. Solomon, the boy who committed the crime, was said to be depressed. After watching "The Lost Children of Rockdale County," one can begin to understand why.
Of course, it would be oversimplifying things to blame parents for the ills of children like those of Rockdale and leave it at that. Parents are not some subculture with its own belief-system and habits; they are citizens of a wider culture, and in their childrearing practices they are conforming to its demands. An October cover story in Time, entitled "A Week in the Life of a High School: What It's Really Like Since Columbine," illustrates that culture at work inside our educational institutions. Time chose to base its diary on Webster Groves High School in Webster Groves, Missouri—a town of about 23,000, ten miles southwest of St. Louis—precisely because it struck them as so ordinary. (In fact, CBS chose Webster Groves to be the subject of a 1966 documentary for the same reason.) Indeed, as in Littleton and Rockdale, it is the ordinariness of Webster Groves that makes its story so troubling.
Like the lost adults of Rockdale County, Webster Groves's educators have also disengaged themselves from the task of shaping and training the young. And like Rockdale parents, they view the cultural heritage that might transform these youngsters into morally aware, aesthetically and intellectually alert adults as optional, a matter of opinion rather than of firmly held conviction. Thus, the few ambitious college-bound students of Webster Groves may choose to read serious literature and do serious math. However, those who don't feel like it—that is, the large majority—can choose to remain in their complacent, uncultivated state. The effect is to turn the institution into day care for teenagers, a high school babysitting service to keep kids off the streets. Students can satisfy the most challenging requirement, English (or "communication skills," as the school gratingly calls it), for instance, by taking journalism courses or a children's literature class, in which they read books by Dr. Seuss and other works written at the third-grade level or below. Or they might take a dumbed-down tenth-grade English class. On the day the Time writers visited, this class was analyzing a short story called "Sweet Potato Pie." The teacher describes eating sweet potato pie, ham hocks, collard greens. "And what do all these things have in common?" the teacher challenges her group of 15-year-old students. "They don't care if you learn," says one junior boy astutely. "They only care if you pass."
It could be argued that, unlike the parents of Rockdale County, Webster Groves educators have a good excuse for their surrender. State officials have made it clear that they view teaching students as secondary to educators' central task: to keep kids from dropping out and becoming social menaces. The state of Missouri gives bonus money to schools that have been able to reduce their dropout rate, and in Webster Groves that has amounted to $150,000, an irresistible sum considering that the school is staring at a $1.2 million deficit. Yet these funds also turn out to give students a way to blackmail teachers. Not only does the attendance bonus force teachers to dumb down the curriculum—"you promise not to ask us to read anything above a sixth-grade level, and we'll promise to stay in school" is the unspoken bargain—it also renders them powerless to enforce discipline against all but the most threatening infractions. Students can curse at teachers and saunter in late to class without penalty; teachers know the administration can't do much to back them up.
Most of the faculty has also stopped assigning more than 15 minutes of homework a night. One teacher estimates that only 15 percent of her class does the work she assigns, and kids report doing ten minutes, 30 minutes a night, tops. ("They're safe here, and they can learn in class, even if they aren't doing homework," an assistant principal explains.) And teachers assign little homework, so that kids have plenty of time to do what they really want to do: make money. Students commonly work 30 or even 40 hours a week in bagel or video stores—not to save up for college but to buy the $400 leather jackets and cool cars whose central importance in life their education does nothing to challenge.
In Webster Groves, as in Rockdale, adults who have surrendered any semblance of the authority that normally invests those of greater experience and understanding try to disguise their negligence by pretending they are their charges' friends and peers. The Time article opens when the principal arrives for a predawn workout in a Goofy T-shirt, and her garb sets the tone of much that follows. Two teachers frequently engage in practical jokes, such as shooting Super Soaker water guns at students from the roof, a prank that led a frightened neighbor who could only see their outlines to call the police. The week that Time visited the school, the two climbed up to the school roof again, this time to dangle the head of a female mannequin they'd named Headrietta so that it hangs in front of a classroom window and elicits the screams of female students. Comments Time about one of the zany pair: "It's hard to tell whether Yates, physics and astronomy teacher and chair of the science department, is a member of the faculty or still a kid." Yates's strenuous efforts to keep things friendly don't always work. His students continue to "dis" him or call him "asshole," behavior that Yates reassures himself is a sign that they are "comfortable" with him.
Extreme as it is, Yates's evasion is the way many adults today tell themselves that they are doing well by the young. As long as the kids stay in school, as long as their self-esteem is unthreatened, as long as the adult-child friendship appears relatively trouble-free, then they can tell themselves they have a "good relationship with the kids." Indeed, the writers of "A Week in the Life" depict the educators of Webster Groves as caring adults who put in extra time going to school football games, playing in faculty-student softball competitions, as well as reaching out to a teen whose mother just died or another whose parents are getting divorced.
But none of this can fill the void left by their own failure, and doubtless that of most of their students' parents, to represent a coherent moral and intellectual order. One of the main jobs of the educators of Webster Groves is to manage the decline brought about by their own abdication. Though the school has no guards or metal detectors, the principal and her assistants, including a detective, wander the halls between classes with walkie-talkies. Officials installed costly tracer equipment on the school telephone after a bomb scare last year. The faculty has crisis management seminars for working out responses to hypothetical emergencies. The school keeps a wary eye on the many kids on medication, and teachers are on the alert for those who suddenly lose interest in activities or whose grades decline.
Erik Erikson once defined adulthood as a period of generativity, when the mature nurture the vulnerable young and prepare them for independent life. What the stories from both Frontline and Time suggest is that in many parts of America adulthood in this sense has vanished. Adults have no meaningful cultural nourishment for filling the empty imaginations of their children, nothing to give order to their chaotic, unformed selves. For middle-class kids, a generation richer than any in human history, the predicament is grim. Setting out on the search for human meaning, they see adults staring vacantly at the ground.
It's enough to make some of them pretty mad.
Photo by Sulfiati Magnuson/Getty Images