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  • The Recesses of High School
  • Jo Scott-Coe (bio)

I have seen my face in the black metal felt the heat breathed gray dust hanging in the air.

This kid knows what makes Saturday night special.

Donna Hilbert, from “This Gun Is Real”

In the film Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), John Cusack’s hit man character, Martin Blank, slips on a grim black suit and returns to the nightmare of his high school’s tenth-year reunion. Repeatedly he identifies himself as a “professional killer,” and on each occasion he lets the phrase hang in the air, dark eyes watching for the moniker to register as something other than a snide joke. “You get dental with that?” one former classmate chirps. The father of his love interest merely tips his brandy glass and notes that it sounds like a growth industry.

I cringe while laughing at these punch lines, at their prescient awareness of easy American denials in the face of local violence. It’s no shock that when twenty-four-hour cable coverage of the 1999 Columbine horrorshow overexposed Americans to the then deadliest school rampage on public record, other sites of similar violence had long slipped from memory. But the names of cities and towns make a very real roster, like clues on some kind of rigged U.S. geography test: Olean (1974); Las Vegas (1982); Manchester (1983); Goddard (1985); Lewiston (1986); Virginia Beach (1988); Olivehurst and Great Barrington (1992); Grayson [End Page 9] (1993); Blackville and Lynnville (1995); Moses Lake (1996); Bethel, Pearl, Paducah, and Stamps (1997); Westside, Edinboro, and Springfield (1998); Notus (1999). Then, following the Columbine shootings in Littleton: Conyers, Philadelphia, Deming, and Fort Gibson (1999); Flint and Lake Worth (2000); Santee, Williamsport, and El Cajon (2001); Red Lake and Jacksboro (2005); Cazenovia (2006); Tacoma and Blacksburg (2007)—the last, on the university campus of Virginia Tech, with results even deadlier than Columbine.

And now Dekalb and Oxnard (2008).

It doesn’t matter that rampage shootings are statistically rare. From 1974 to 2006, the United States averaged one per year. Figures don’t generally include outsider-initiated attacks by gang members or other individuals, assaults involving weapons other than guns, nonfatal shootings, sexual assaults, or mere threats.* Stats also don’t include incidents buried from national coverage by city or school district public-relations machines, and tragedies on college campuses (until recently) were considered separate cases. At my Southern California high school alma mater—a “good” school with a green lawn where I also spent half a career as a teacher—one young man chose a carpeted classroom to commit suicide by gunshot in the early eighties. Our tragedy didn’t merit a place in the national chronology, yet I doubt we hold some unique local skill in masking our worst secrets. Like most anonymous places, we cling to the notion that we must be an oasis.

It can’t happen here, we think. Not in this school, during the happiest days of our lives. Not in the garden of young adulthood.

Yet autumn rhythms indicate a different kind of awareness, revealing how closely school days link to the macabre in popular American imagination. In one recent Staples promotion, a wrinkly Alice Cooper chides his Goth-looking daughter in the checkout line. Marketers make sure the rush for pencils, paper, and lunchboxes coincides with the placement [End Page 10] of Halloween costumes, masks, and orange-black candies on drugstore shelves.

Our Columbine–Virginia Tech nightmares are a slight variation, because the victimizers don’t cover their faces with hockey masks. We may recognize the skinny-shouldered boy with braces, the small harmless blonde with acne scars. In jester’s caps or flak jackets they may actually google their eyes, mug and wave for security cameras or their own videotapes as they brandish weapons. (Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter at Virginia Tech, actually mailed his ranting video rationale to NBC between the two shootings on the campus.) Viewers see young men who have transformed hurt, despair, or isolation into active rage—at themselves, at the culture that ignores them except as a kind of marketing ploy, a sales pitch repeating they can have everything, if only...