Thursday, April 23, 2009

A thin line between them and us

Every high school has a wall. And on that wall, are grainy, black and white or sepia toned photos of young men and women of that high school's past. When you're a teenager and you look at them, the people trapped behind the time and glass look more like your grandparents than the people who are passing you in the halls. They're dressed in ties, tweed jackets, and long sleeved shirts. There's something in the eyes that reflect sights that all the generations to follow would never know.

It was one year, a stint in the keystone state of Pennsylvania, and a big dose of reality later when news broke that gunfire had erupted at Columbine High School, a seemingly typical American high school in a part of the world no one had known about until April 20, 1999. News footage was chilling. Young kids, students, some with backpacks still slung around their shoulders ran in terror from a building where inside, fellow students and teachers lay -still under attack, wounded and some dead.

There was a moment, on that very day that something became quite clear.

It was just a year before that myself and my friends had been as unwitting as those students had been that day. In the library or the cafeteria or the classroom - unaware of how the unthinkable can sometimes be unbearably brutal.

And just like that - a line was drawn between those of us who knew what high school was before Columbine. And those who would only know it after.

Those of us who knew of the before, knew high school before stereotyping and merciless teasing resulted in anything other than the possibility of a fight or a good few years of therapy. There were isolated incidents of violence in schools before, of course. But nothing hit so hard as Columbine.

Brutality has its own line. A line that separates the times when the situation is so severe that it leaves a scar we feel forever and the times when the situation is the complete opposite - and we become ultimately desensitized.

High schools are filled with a new kind of cruel. Now, kids torture each other with public insults plastered on Facebook pages and MySpace pages, three-way phone calls where one is basically invited to some personal ridicule. Teasing, in some cases, ends only when one student is driven into such deep self-consciousness, self-hatred and depression, that they try to take their own lives. Guns are toted to school by hands that don't even realize they are - at the very least - too young to be touching them.

But the lines are very thin. A flip of the coin and we could find ourselves on the other side.

Lines sometimes divide us. They challenge us to cross them and challenge us to hold to them. They can be keep us safe from harm, or hold back the ability to love. We don't always have a choice when it comes to the line. Sometimes, we're just on the side we're on.

As a parent, your child might draw a line as they insist on growing up for themselves. We choose paths even our best of friends would not choose for themselves. And vice versa. Criminals test whether we're going to be victims or survivors. Every day, lots of lines. Between right and wrong. Bitterness and forgiveness. Enough and too much.

Along with the anniversary of the Columbine massacre this week was Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day. A day that reminds us all of the thin line between good and evil. Between life and death. Between life and survival. A line between the eyes that were closed before hatred entered the world in an unimaginable way. A line between the eyes that were opened after.

In Israel, to mark the day, sirens wail for two minutes. People stop their cars in the middle of the street. They get out of them and they stand quiet. For two minutes. But there is a line there too, separating those that do stop and those who don't.

It would be arrogant of me to expect to be able to sum up the Holocaust and all that it is - in a paragraph or even a page. There's a line there too. Of when something can be too big for us to sum up. A line between what overwhelms - and what we can handle.

What I will say is that when I do think of the Holocaust, I think of one man in particular. Elie Wiesel. But not because his book about his experience during the Holocaust, his time at Auschwitz, 'Night' is a piece of literature so brilliant, raw, open and honest that it brings one to tears. Or because of his continued mission to bring humanity, justice and ethics to the world.

It's his voice.

With the weight of his life on his shoulders, every day, every morning when he wakes up and every night when he goes to bed, I imagine that Mr. Wiesel knows what it means to walk a great many lines. But one that interests me is the line between what one might expect to be piercing anger and what is his quiet humanity.

Wiesel is quiet when he speaks. Without even trying - he commands that you listen. Even when he's talking to someone else. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey for Winfrey's magazine in 2000, Wiesel said something that has stayed with me every day since heard it on an audio portion of the interview.

Speaking of his travels to countries where there continues to be acts of great brutality, Wiesel said, "I've gone everywhere, trying to stop so many atrocities: Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia. The least I can do is show the victims that they are not alone. When I went to Cambodia, journalists asked me, 'What are you doing here? This is not a Jewish tragedy.' I answered, 'When I needed people to come, they didn't. That's why I am here.' "

There are times that we can choose where we draw our lines, how far we bend them, when it's time to break them, how we cross them. Ultimately those lines we weave define our character. Between wrong and righteous. Ignorance and integrity.

When we're brought to a line, sometimes that line is between being and leaving.

That's why lines, as thin or thick as they may be, are flat. Drawn in the sand, a long stretch of tape across a tile floor ... etched in stone. They're flat. So we can hold to them and still see past them. So that we might stretch out our hand and let those on the other side know - we're here.

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