When I’m really stressed, I have nightmares about school shootings.
Obviously, as a graduate student, I’m in schools all the time, so I suppose it isn’t so unusual that classrooms are often the backdrop to my dreams, good or bad. And even more obviously, the accounts I’ve read and seen and heard of the events at Columbine or Virginia Tech are horrifying. They are nightmares. And I say this with the realization that I can’t claim any connection to the way the students, teachers, parents, and communities around those schools experienced that sort of violence. I witnessed it on the nightly news or on the radio. I want to insist that I have the utmost respect for those who have suffered through school shootings, that I don’t mean to use their experiences as some way to explain my own nightmares, which are less than trivial in comparison. Thinking through why these events haunt me so much is the best way for me to try to understand the complexity of what happened.
Aside from the obvious nightmare that school shootings are, I think I dream about them for another reason. I get very anxious when two incongruous things — one soothing and one frightening, one safe and one unknown — inhabit the same space. It’s like being at home alone and catching an unfamiliar, moving shadow in your bedroom. Or noticing that there is a face, staring at you, from a window you assumed was empty. It’s probably not an unusual fear, but it certainly is more powerful to me than the completely foreign, the completely violent. It’s the element of “I know this,” followed by the “I don’t… this is wrong… something terrible is here” that makes it so paralyzing.
I hate pigeonholing this feeling — which seems so ragged and difficult and unpredictable — into a category, but it’s very much like Freud’s concept of the uncanny. That’s probably why that essay speaks to me so much, even though I usually find Freud, well, unhelpful. Freud admits, in this essay, that “many languages are without a word for this particular shade of what is frightening.” He admits that this sensation isn’t easy to understand, to write about, which is probably why he has to turn to literature, which can describe things sideways, obliquely, to describe it. Only then can he begin to explain fully this sudden realization that the opposite of your fear has somehow turned into the fear itself. Because they aren’t opposites anymore. They are, somehow, the same.
It’s the ten-year anniversary of Columbine, and grainy videos and images of the shooters as they move through the hallways of their high school are appearing with more frequency this week. These images, for me, epitomize the sensation I’m trying to describe in a really harrowing way. There’s a cafeteria. It looks like any other school cafeteria. There are molded plastic chairs and trays. There are brown paper bags and half-eaten sandwiches. And then there are two boys, with guns, and the suggestion of a student hiding, or hurting, just at the edge of the frame.
Or there’s a library, with the clunky monitors of the 1990s and the headachy glow of fluorescent lighting, and everything is familiar and right until a stream of students runs through the stacks.
They are obviously and heart-sinkingly unsure which direction is safe.