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Growth-pained West sows fields of Columbines



I graduated from high school in 1967 in a small logging town in northern California.

Only one of my classmates had his own car. We had no cell phones, pagers, video games, computers, VCRs or DVDs. We hadn't yet smoked pot or snorted coke.

We drank beer and whatever hard liquor we could find, smoked cigarettes, shot at beer bottles with .22 rifles and necked in the backs of pickup trucks. We all owned guns.

We were full of million-year-old hormones that told us to breed and hunt and raise hell and use tools to build things that went boom. Three of my classmates died violent deaths in our senior year: one car wreck, two suicides.

We died, but we didn't kill each other. When you go to a high school with less than 200 kids, you are cautious about insults; your victim's cousin may sit behind you in geometry class. If we had thoughts of murder, we repressed them. We had alternatives.

We didn't have to stay in high school, for one thing. Girls got married and had a baby five or six months later, probably with a boy who didn't like high school either. He could set chokers in the woods, pull greenchain at the mill, join the Marines or just wait to be drafted.

In the Western suburbia of 2000, there is no alternative to high school. Without a diploma, you can do nothing, have nothing, be nothing. Shotgun marriages are no more, welfare is phased out, and the Marines can afford to demand that diploma and be picky about prescription drug use -- as Columbine killer Eric Harris found out.

In a high school with 2,000 kids, you can trip a nerd, and chances are none of his buddies are even around. Go ahead and trip him. But do it once too often, and he may get a gun and kill you and a dozen of your closest friends. You are not of his tribe, and he is not of yours.

Shiny new high schools are rising in the West: 250,000-square-foot flat-roofed boxes, spawned by the metastasizing suburbs. Their inmates are strangers to the desert, children without history, without community, without extended families.

In these vast new structures, looking oddly like Babylonian temples against the dry hills, are kids who wear white baseball caps and yell insults at kids in black trenchcoats. The mystery of the past few years is not that members of these groups might want to kill each other, but that they so seldom do.

For most of their time on earth, humans have lived in groups of 20 or less, isolated from other bands. In a group of 20, only 190 two-person interactions are possible. But get a group of 2,000 people together, and the number of possible two-person interactions increases to 190,000. A society that large, without a centralized authority -- which no large high school has -- disintegrates.

Any high school with more than, say, 500 students is a potential Columbine. And still we build them every day.

In the post-industrial, post-agricultural West of America, we herd millions of kids together by the thousands, and tell ourselves we must, for smaller schools are too expensive. Smaller schools would take money away from us, from our big houses on the new cul-de-sacs, from the SUVs we need for the two-hour commute, from the toys with which we distract ourselves from the truth: that we fear our children.

We fear their energy and their strength and their minds that leap over ours; we give them money to buy a fantasy world so we can concentrate on our own. We don't need them anymore, to help on the farm or in the shop or the store, and we are afraid they know it. We confine them in a splendid misery and cry out in bewilderment when a few of them -- armed with expensive toys -- grow slowly insane and begin to kill themselves and others.

And still we build another Colum-bine, every day.

Louise Wagenknecht is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (

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