I remember when they got him. Our local sheriff marched him through the hallway as if showing off a prized fish he’d pulled out of the river, or a trophy buck he’d just slain. The rest of the student body lined the walls next to their lockers watching and wondering. We were nervous, fearful that somehow they might get one of us next.
Sheriff Kent fit the stereotype of law enforcement for a small, rural, conservative community. He was so overweight he had a hard time making it up a flight of stairs without stopping for breath, but he made sure to parade Jason Todd throughout the whole school so that all the students could see his shame. Kent seemed to feel his whole existence had been justified by this capture. He believed he’d done a great service to our community. The sheriff grinned, and there was a twinkle in his eye as he pranced through the hall.
Jason was handcuffed, of course, fourteen year old kids are dangerous after all. As he walked, Sheriff Kent marched on his left. Vice-Principal Stewart marched on his right. Principal Hank came behind. Jason tried not to make eye-contact with anyone. He shuffled along with his head down. Every time they came to a corner, Kent allowed Jason to take an errant step in the wrong direction before jerking him back on course. The action made Jason flail and look silly in front of his classmates. That was the point — to humiliate him further.
“Where do you think you’re going,” Kent said in a nasally growl which was probably influenced by how the chief of police talked on ‘The Simpsons.’ “You aren’t getting away that easy.”
We, the watching students, could see tears on Jason’s cheeks.
All of this was prior to the shooting.
Jason had been arrested for possession of marijuana.
In a conservative, “god-fearing” community like ours, marijuana was considered among the most evil of crimes. This was 1990 in northern Wisconsin. The only way to be ostracized more quickly than to be caught with marijuana would be if you were discovered as a homosexual. People didn’t ‘come out’ back then, not in my home town. That would have been suicide. Men in blue jeans driving pick-up trucks have historically issued some savage beatings. This is a traditional, American garb, but to this day I get nervous when I see guys dressed that way. I get nervous when I hear the ideology defiantly delivered in a country twang.
“God, country, family, in that order…”
As students, we sat through lessons on qualities like tolerance and respect and good moral values. These lessons would be taught by the same people who would throw rocks at us at the drop of a hat. These were people who would shame us in a medieval public spectacle if they ever had the opportunity to accuse us of wrongdoing. Heck, there were those among them who grew suspicious if they caught you reading a book. Any book.
This was my high school.
I felt compassion for Jason, but I’m also ashamed to admit, at that time, I felt he was stupid for getting caught. Hadn’t he figured out what these people were like? There had never been any indication of mercy. Jason should have known better.
In the hall, watching the strange procession, stood Jeff Anders. Like most days, Jeff was falling down drunk. But Jeff was a good football player, so Principal Hank would stop and shake Jeff’s hand and ask him how his day was going. Paint peeled off the walls from the fumes that escaped whenever Jeff opened his mouth, but Principal Hank never seemed to notice.
“How are you doing today Jeff?”
“Heck of a game last week.”
“Shame about Jason, that kid has ruined his whole life. He won’t recover from this.”
Then Hank would look a me, “Why can’t you be more like Jeff here?”
“I’ll try sir.”
They pranced off with Jason in custody. Some watched through the windows as the vehicles with flashing lights drove away. I think they took a victory lap around the school. I’d seen enough. The school day resumed.
I felt sick. Something hadn’t been right. I was only fifteen myself, a year ahead of Jason, powerless like all high school students. I was confused and troubled and trying to grow up, but I knew what I’d witnessed had been wrong.
The next day my suspicions were confirmed.
That evening, Jason took his own life. He shot himself with his hunting rifle.
There was no assembly the next day. Principal Hank didn’t even address the suicide. Vice-Principal Stewart didn’t say a word. There was no apology from Sheriff Kent. Their silence was defiance.
A boy was dead, and they acted like the subject was not polite conversation.
Hank still strutted about the school. He had a proud trot he used to use going down the hall. Even with Jason dead, he tried to maintain his smug and superior attitude.
What did they expect to happen?
A kid with a few problems smokes a joint and his educators humiliate him?
What did they expect?
Hadn’t they received any training?
What kind of people were these?
It took a few days to process. It’s difficult when you’ve been conditioned to trust a person, and you realize that person is a predator. Hank tried to push through the “tough time” but everything had changed. When he walked by, I began to whisper, “a kid is dead.”
It was quiet enough that Hank didn’t notice at first, but bit by bit, day by day, I let the volume grow. I began to discover that I had power. I had a voice.
“A kid is dead.”
Hank began to tilt his head.
Days went by, I added details.
“You’re here to help us. Why didn’t you help him?”
After weeks of this, Hank finally stopped and looked at me. I looked back not flinching. He had wilted. I felt rage. For the first time that I could remember in my experience at that school, there was a touch of tenderness in his eyes. As a young boy, you hope to see that from an adult. You need it. You long to be accepted and cared for and guided. You try hard to do well for a table scrap of praise, just enough to keep you going.
But I realized, the only reason that tenderness was there, was because Hank was afraid. His tenderness was for his benefit, not mine. His praise meant nothing, it never had. I’d been chasing nothing for years. All this time, the only thing that would have made him happy was to see me fail.
“Would you like to talk about it,” Hank said.
“Jason, you mean Jason?”
Hank nodded. Was he incapable of saying Jason’s name?
“No, I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t ever want to talk to you.” I said.
I wondered if I’d be punished and I realized I didn’t care.
There was a moment of silence, then Hank dropped his head and slunk away. The illusion was broken. He didn’t bother me again for the rest of my high school career. But he never suffered any consequences either.
Now people are discussing sending kids to school during a pandemic.
I’ve already seen arrogant administrators kill a student.
I’m an adult now, I’ll do everything I can to prevent it from happening again.