By Lauren Reiss
On March 6, 2007, Peter Houghton murdered ten people on an otherwise ordinary day at his local high school, Sterling High. Some of the victims were shot at random: the daughter of the town’s minister, a math teacher, a Jewish student, a freshman with Down’s syndrome. And then there were the targeted: the popular girl who humiliated Peter and the popular jock who relentlessly taunted him. On March 6, 2007, Peter transformed from being the bullied to being the bully. Eight years later, his story is still tragic. His story is still important. His story is still timely. His story, however, is also fictional.
Nevertheless, the fictionality of Peter’s story in no way undermines its significance. Peter Houghton, the main character of Jodi Picoult’s novel Nineteen Minutes, represents the 75% of school-shooting perpetrators who were in some way motivated by harassment and bullying. According to the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, as of Oct. 3, there have been at least 152 school shootings in America since 2013, a number that averages to approximately one every week. Since Oct. 10, the number of American school shootings in 2015 alone reached a devastating 52, in which 30 people were killed, 53 bodies were injured, and countless souls were changed forever.
As individuals, we tend to treat information about school shootings with sympathy and sadness for those whom they affect. But we seldom consider how they could affect us, for we all too often convince ourselves that something so incomprehensible could not possibly happen in our community. We hear the news on the television, and we read the articles in the newspapers, but it all can seem so far away. Rarely do we think that such a horrific event may actually happen. Behind each tally mark on the chart of this year’s school shooters is a person—not unlike someone you or I might know—who acted out one day with unspeakable intent. But it did not necessarily have to be this way.
There is no way to eliminate the chance of a school shooting, but the school administration should nonetheless take responsibility to protect the school from potential danger. However, even if South does decide to take action, many questions still remain: What can we really do? Whom should we seek to protect? Should we protect the student body from school shootings, or should we protect students from bullies?
I pondered these exact questions as I read Peter Houghton’s story in Nineteen Minutes. Upon finishing the novel, I found that the novel’s ability to artfully raise moral issues and to blur the line between bullies and victims left me with the notion that there is not always a clear distinction between bully and victim. Both can be protected through actively pursuing understanding of the other.
In order to achieve such understanding, students should effectively discuss the causes and effects of bullying and school shootings in conjunction with Nineteen Minutes in school. The issues presented in the story and the issues in current events are far too complex to be taught in a rigid curriculum, and so Picoult herself has posted online a discussion-based curriculum with a thoughtful structure of important excerpts and sensitive questions with the hopes that it would be taught in schools across the nation. The topics of bullying, violence, mental illness, social isolation, and methods of prevention can be difficult to deal with, so it is imperative that the curriculum is handled carefully. Picoult’s thoughtfully designed lessons should be incorporated into South’s health classes, where the teachers will have the ability to teach the novel in conjunction with lessons about mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, other possible psychological impacts of harassment, and other potential causes of school shootings and violence in schools.
These issues may be complicated, but we cannot ignore them—ignorance only silences the afflicted. Uniting the school through the power of literature will help us combat bullying and prevent school violence. Uniting the school through understanding and consideration will help us find peace within ourselves and among our fellow students and staff.