On Friday a student carried a shotgun into Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado, a suburb south of Denver, along with what news reports described as “a bandolier” of ammunition and three Molotov cocktails.
He asked where a teacher was, and then shot another student in the face, point-blank.
Teachers and students followed the drills and locked classroom doors and dived for cover, and the sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school immediately pursued the shooter. The boy, a senior, was found dead a few minutes later, having shot himself.
Friday’s shooting happened on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where a young man with automatic weapons killed 20 students, and six teachers and staff.
The two young men were different people from different backgrounds. Their common thread: they apparently saw killing as a viable solution.
Last night as I watched the animated movie How to Train Your Dragon, I thought about how violence itself begets violence, until it becomes the right–or only thing to do.
If you’ve not seen How to Train Your Dragon or read the book by British author Cressida Cowell, here’s a synopsis:
Hiccup, a nerdy young Viking whose father is the village chief and a dragon-slayer of heroic proportions (in all ways), gets his longed-for chance to prove himself when he is accepted into dragon-slaying school.
Only he tracks an injured Night Fury dragon and ends up befriending the creature–in secret, since he is betraying all his village holds true. As Hiccup gets to know the dragon, Toothless, he learns that dragons are not the mortal enemies he has been raised to believe.
His new understanding allows Hiccup to defeat dragon after dragon in school, and become the head of his class.
Until the day he is chosen for the honor of killing his first dragon–and cannot. The village and his father turn on him. In the end, Hiccup and his motley crew of schoolmates and the dragons they train save the Viking armada from death, and dragons become part of village life.
It’s a well-told fairy-tale (the special effects of dragon-flight alone are worth the price) with a happy ending when Hiccup and his macho father reconcile, and Toothless saves with the young boy/man who befriended him. (Hiccup also gets a smooch from the girl, his sassy fellow-classmate Astrid.)
What stuck in my mind was the basic premise: stripped of Vikings and dragons (which, as a half-Norwegian, half-Scot, I happen to appreciate), it’s a tale of a culture locked in warfare with the “other.”
The Vikings must kill the dragons, who have pillaged and burned their village for generations; the dragons must pillage (and kill in self-defense) in order to serve to the uber-evil giant who has enslaved them.
Neither dragons nor Vikings understand the other. They are locked in generations of warfare, kill or be killed.
Until Hiccup tracks Toothless, and realizes the dragon is just as afraid of him as he is of it. Toothless is no more a killer than Hiccup is.
“Everything we thought we knew about them is wrong,” Hiccup realizes.
That “aha!” moment begins the boy’s journey to a re-framing of knowledge and culture that ultimately saves both his people and the dragons.
“We become the stories we tell ourselves,” writes psychologist and author Mary Pipher in The Shelter of Each Other.
If the stories we tell ourselves glorify violence and blind hatred, is it any wonder that troubled youngsters walk into schools with guns and the intent to kill?
I’m not suggesting the solution is simple. But I continue to be struck by the lesson in Hiccup’s aha moment: “Everything we thought we knew about them was wrong.”
Seems to me our kids need more stories that glorify tolerance and understanding. And more heroes like the scrawny nerd who refused to kill dragons because he dared to know the fearsome “other” as a fellow creature.
Hiccup and Toothless point the way to the kind of healthier stories we can become–with humor, rousing action and dazzling special-effects.