The School Shooting That Never Was: How I Was Blamed Out Of Fear
On October 25, 2006, my tiny and highly esteemed New York performing arts high school was rocked by revelations that a student had threatened to shoot a fellow classmate.
School authorities acted on a tip from a female student.
Sometime after noon, the student walked into the dean's office to report the threat and give her statement. She and the alleged target had their names added to a non-binding witness list.
By 12:35 pm, after being plucked out of sixth-period music theory by two of the deans and put in isolation in the infirmary, the interrogation already underway, I made a discovery.
I was the shooter they were seeking.
I did not realize this right away.
The knock on the door was quiet, perfunctory. On any other day, its sound would have been lost under a cacophony of keyboarding and Gregorian chants.
But the class had taken a collective momentary breath at the moment the knock came, listening with feigned interest to the talk of midterms, which were only a few short weeks away.
More than 20 pairs of eyes moved as a singular unit to the opening door where two of our deans stood with somber looks on their faces.
I did not anticipate that my name would be called, but when I heard it -- "Alan, there's something important we'd like to discuss. Could you come with us for a moment?" -- I was calm.
I was even in a good mood.
The fact that I was unpopular was no secret; when I would lash out verbally it was considered essential to my character. I knew this, and longed for a change.
I had longed for a change my entire life.
For years I the odd man out, the last one picked for any team, the regular subject of the rumor mill and of being (poorly) closeted. I was physically attacked for this and other reasons.
I was mocked for the way I hid myself in the back of the library, for writing poetry and short stories.
I would find solace in the sardonic wit of Dorothy Parker, in the sweltering southern heat of a Tennessee Williams play.
I could relate to the notably unfeminine rage of confessionals Plath and Sexton, and in the cultural crossfire of a Joan Didion novel, but all of this had taken its toll on me.
I had a quiet history of depression and carefully concealed suicide attempts.
But on October 25, 2006, I was in a good mood.
I did not like to think of myself cold and distrusting. No one had tried to trip me in the hallways. No one had told me I should go ahead and kill myself.
This was a good day. Perhaps life, for all I knew, was on the upswing.
The knock on the door changed that. I was 15 years old.
Before Frank Sinatra School of the Arts eventually moved into its own spacious digs (this would not happen until the fall of 2009, after my class had already graduated), it took up the sixth and seventh floors of a rather featureless gray building on a quintessentially industrial block in Long Island City.
The dean's office was located on the seventh floor, sharing tight quarters with the school infirmary.
It was there where I was isolated and subjected to an interrogation which would take up much of the next hour. My schoolbag had been taken from me, its contents dumped onto the floor by school security.
I could not understand why.
No one told me why I was there at first; the questions seemed designed to confuse me and to potentially incriminate me, though of what I did not know.
Finally, I was asked where I'd hidden the gun, and it was then that the tears began to roll.
I knew I had found myself in the middle of yet another cruel trick, though I did not know how far this one would go on.
But I immediately knew who had named me and who could have instigated this.
Her name came to my tongue naturally.
She had made my humiliation her business before. Freshman year I'd been subject to the vile rumors that I'd tried to sleep with one of her boyfriends.
Let's call her Alice.
When I asked about this, I was ignored.
I would soon be led into another room, where it was decided a pat-down would be insufficient and I was commanded to strip.
Nine years later, the original suspension notice from the Department of Education in my hand, I find myself looking at Alice's name, still unsure of what I feel.
By the time I was led out of the dean's office in handcuffs, marched to my locker and forced to open it for inspection, the rest of the student body had caught on.
I remember the way both teachers and classmates looked at me, like a fish in a bowl.
I remember the jeers, the laughter. I remember hearing a voice behind me somewhere, unidentifiable among the murmurs say, "Of course it was him. No one likes that kid anyway."
I remember how I opened that locker, how security personnel removed my notebooks, some chocolate, a baseball cap, my favorite plaid scarf and Jake, a teddy bear I'd bought in for a show and tell session in Spanish class a short time prior.
All these things were tossed into a plastic bag and carried away.
They were disposed of at some point without my knowledge.
I asked, a week later, at an embarrassment of a hearing where I professed my innocence in hopes of being allowed to go back to school, what had become of my things, and there was no answer for that.
I have shared this story on occasion with friends and acquaintances. I have never written it down until now.
How has it come up? Rehashing the past, I suppose. Conversations evolve, sometimes mutating, sometimes digressing into very ugly places. This is par for the course.
People have never known what to say when I've told this story.
More often than not, they ask me how I could have morphed so miraculously into an adult capable of weathering such a storm.
How do I answer that? Within 24 hours of being kicked out of school, our landline rang incessantly.
Death threats were left on the answering machine ("If you think you can shoot up the school, you f*ggot, I'll shoot you first!").
Within 48 hours, I had confined myself to my bedroom, refusing to eat.
By hour 72, I had made a failed attempt at suicide, regurgitating a bottle of sleeping pills.
By the day of the hearing, running on four hours of sleep, I didn't have a clue in the world why I wanted to go back to that school at all.
In the end, it was decided there was no evidence that could substantiate Alice's claim and I was allowed to return -- which I did -- on November 6.
What happened once I walked back into school is not important. Suffice it to say, I faced more of the same bullying I was used to.
As a result, my academic performance suffered.
I would not graduate on time.
Mass shootings have long been accepted as an essential facet of the American cultural zeitgeist.
In the last few weeks alone, we have seen shooters take on college campuses, a Planned Parenthood and a center for the developmentally disabled.
Since Patrick Ireland was pulled, barely conscious, out of the window of the Columbine High School library, the media has bombarded us with school shooting fears.
But, the discussion which has engulfed us on a national scale has become a staple of the last decade and a half.
I am left wondering just how much the conversation has distracted us from the very real paranoia we leave brewing in its wake.
I have been told more than once that what I endured would "make anyone want to go on a shooting spree."
In the past, I would laugh, perhaps in an attempt to relieve myself of the weight of the acute suffering the accusation itself caused.
This would leave me feeling as if I'd somehow gained an understanding as to how and why young men, ranging from Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to Elliot Rodger and Adam Lanza could commit such heinous crimes.
But that would be disingenuous; I cannot say that I have a deeper understanding of their motivations without having felt capable of committing a mass shooting myself.
Where these motivations spring from, where the inclination to take a life becomes no longer a dreamy possibility but a cold, hard truth, is a mystery to me.
I was a loner, but I was not so lonely.
I was depressed, but not so ill as to lose my capacity to feel the pain of others.
Even now, I look back on that day, traverse its scars and wonder just how lived in, how organic the paranoia must have been.
But I also think of just how much of an easy target I was.
This has made the trajectory of the event -- so much more than your standard scuffle with the administration -- that much more difficult to reconcile.
I have asked myself just how much I have been willing to understand, just how far I am willing to go to forgive, at the expense of my own sanity and later at the expense of my own dignity.
The following year, I had a minor biking accident.
While cruising downhill, I failed to swerve in time and had a head-on collision with my younger brother.
He escaped from this minor snafu unscathed; I was not so fortunate. Both of my hands received cuts and abrasions. I bandaged myself the best I could and went to class the following day.
I was pulled from seventh period Earth Science by our assistant principal, the resident bespectacled jazz enthusiast. I could not look him in the eye, as much as I tried to maintain my composure.
I began to cry silently.
"Can you explain to me what this is about?" I finally asked.
"I thought you knew," he said.
"I don't," I replied. "I really don't. I'm very confused."
This went back and forth for a few more minutes.
More questions, each one as equally vague as the one before it, followed by my confounded answers. Then he looked at me with something resembling pity, finally deciding I was telling the truth and ordered me to go back to class.
I was more than happy to get out of there.
Later on, I would find out that I had been the prime suspect in a case of vandalism. Someone had cut themselves and written a "Satanic message" on the wall in his or her own blood.
Our tiny school had immediately registered my bleeding hands and bandages and singled me out to the administration.
The incident would, not long afterward, be attributed to one of the fine arts students, a "weird" sort of girl, who would later fade away into memory.
I have been told that the seriousness of such accusations warranted drastic action on the part of the administration. I was told this by school authorities.
I have been told that such actions were justified when one considers the times we live in. It's a society where you can't go to see a movie without fear of getting shot in the head.
I was discouraged from taking legal action from everyone, my own mother included.
We neither had the time, nor the money nor the resources. The school no doubt wished to avoid any negative publicity.
I found myself resigned -- at 15, no less -- to handing my body over to the state.
My body was not my own. The school, the Department of Education and the state had laid claim to it, reserving the right to police it and to violate it at any given point in time.
The message was crystal clear: Where the matter of security was concerned, I had no right to draw the line.
I was not even owed an apology.
What did this mean for Alice?
The message was pretty clear where she was concerned, too.
She was never reprimanded for her part in the whole affair.
This meant that she -- and anyone else for that matter -- could get away with filing a false report provided the accusation was serious enough to be considered a threat to student safety.
Behavior such as this is rewarded -- and is even excusable -- if the alleged culprit is a member of the school's peasant class. Moral panic is to be heeded even in the face of facts, provided the accused is a social outcast.
To say that the United States has instituted adequate measures to address its gun problem would be dishonest.
To say that the public has been asked to participate in this debate with startling regularity would not be dishonest at all.
We are all weary.
We are a culture accustomed to seeing human lives recycled on newscasts, just as we are a culture where our weapons regularly eclipse their victims with a personality and subculture all their own.
There is much work to be done, which is why we should never grow complacent. Our complacency is the same as our silence.
It is our silence that gives consent to those in the political arena who place a cost on the rising stock of human lives as they lobby to those for whom such misinformation and degradation are fitting.
They often go against any rationale even though they the power to quell mass hysteria before it can begin.
The willingness to give our fear an equal playing field with our security is the most effortless manner in which a society can forfeit its liberty.
But it is easy in the analysis of social events to forget how this truism could be exhibited on the micro level.
We have seen entire governments rise and fall beneath the weight of their paranoia; their people have been rendered expendable.
We have seen witch hunts engulf small towns.
But such behavior is also alive and well in schools. Perhaps it is the institution at the very epicenter of the battle cry for increased public safety.
Even more devastatingly, it is present in the children we raise.