It was the spring of 2001, and the assignment for my 11th-grade English class was to write a 3- to 5-page fictional horror story. This assignment was right up my creative alley, and I wanted to knock it out of the park. And I did. Had the grade counted, I would have gotten a 30 out of 30, the principal would later tell me. It was a very well-written story free of grammar errors, I was told, it reeked of creativity and plot development, and it had a great ending.
Except I didn’t get a grade, and that 0 was the difference from me making the honor roll that semester. At the time, it upset me (the grade still does, honestly), but as I’ve looked back over the years, I’m grateful for what happened.
See, I had a very creative mind, so the idea of writing a story about a mass killing like I had seen in the movies immediately popped into my head. I quickly developed the characters, and outlined the plot points. All I needed was a setting and character names.
So, with absolutely no ill intent whatsoever — as the psychologist would later tell me with confidence — I decided a fictional version of my high school would be a great setting. I switched the name of the school, made tweaks to the teachers’ names (Palmer instead of Palmero, etc.), wrote a great story and turned the paper in without a care in the world.
Later that day, I was told I needed to meet the principal in his office, and my mother was coming in as well. My teacher had read my story and immediately flagged it, we were told. The shooting at Columbine High School had recently occurred, and she was suspicious.
I was immediately suspended (the first and only time it happened), pending an evaluation by a professional psychologist, who would determine if I was a danger or threat.
The doctor asked me a variety of probing questions, and said I had to take a version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory personality test to gauge my mental health. After completing what seemed like more than 400 true or false questions, we all sat down, and we were told that I was “ridiculously normal,” and that I could return to school the next day.
Upon returning, I sat first with the principal who welcomed me back, informed me that he and school staff had of course not shared any specifics with my classmates about my suspension — and informed me of the failing grade. From then on, all was well — I graduated, went to college and began a career in, perhaps not so ironically, a writing profession.
This is a true story and a memory I’ll never forget, and it’s unfortunately one I all-too often have had to revisit the past 12 years. The most recent flashback was Friday (the 13th), when I read the news reports of yet another shooting, this time at Arapahoe High School in Colorado.
The story brought me back to the recent shooting at Sparks Middle School, and of course to the gut-wrenching memories of the Sandy Hook tragedy that occurred a year ago in Newtown, Conn.
And damn it to hell if another shooting happened as I sat writing this on Tuesday, at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, where a gunman reportedly shot four people before killing himself.
For many, all these shootings and mass killings stir heated debates on gun control and school safety. Worthy debates for sure, no matter what side of the coin you flip.
I choose to stay away from the debates. For me, incidences like these bring me back to that day in 2001, when I unknowingly set off a red flag. It turned out to be nothing. After all, I was, and still am, “ridiculously normal.” But what if I wasn’t?
As I look back again, I couldn’t be more thankful for what my English teacher did. She saw something that maybe, just maybe, wasn’t right, and she acted quickly and swiftly. In my opinion, she did the right thing.
It’s likely that countless other teachers have been in a situation like this over the past decade-plus, and we’re unfortunately in an era now when it’s only going to happen more and more. My advice to any teacher is to do what my 11th-grade English teacher did in my situation, and do the right thing.
Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspapers; his column appears every other Wednesday in the Sun. He may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin1MacMillan