Why New York Kids Say It Couldn’t Happen Here

They’d met for the first time in Washington Square Park that day; they had no real plans until they hooked up, and then suddenly this seemed like the thing to do. One kid was white, one black, one Puerto Rican, one Dominican; but it wouldn’t have occurred to them to characterize themselves that way. They might have said “the kid with the tongue stud.” Now they were together at Johnny Rockets, a diner on 8th Street with a fifties theme, “At the Hop” playing and everything in shiny chrome. In the fifties, these kids might not have been able to sit together at a diner, sharing a plate of fries, but that also wasn’t part of their worldview.

I asked them what they thought about what happened at Columbine High.

“A lot of people in my school are saying they shouldn’t blame the media or Marilyn Manson; they should blame the kids in that school because they were the ones who put the boundaries and the segregation between the kids, man,” said Sylvia Dejesus. She was Puerto Rican and a senior at Humanities Preparatory Academy; she wore her hair straight and black, like Madonna’s new style, and had on a T-shirt that said MASTERBATE, with a picture of Pee-Wee Herman (“They shouldn’t have arrested him for that,” she said). “I mean, you can’t blame the dead kids, but the kids as a whole had a bunch of cliques.”

“Our school has cliques and whatnot,” said Ted Rourke, the white kid, also a senior at Humanities. “But we don’t have those kind of dividing lines and hostility.” He and Sylvia had decided that since neither of them had dates for the prom yet, they would go together.

“We just say ‘wassup’ to everybody,” said Sylvia. “Like, who cares if you’re a goth? Who cares if you’re dressed in hip-hoppish clothes? I’m sorry, but I have to defend the goths. The people that I know who are goths, they listen to their depressing music like the Smiths, but that doesn’t mean they go around shooting and slicing people because they feel depressed.”

“We don’t have that same kind of atmosphere in New York like in a jock-type school in a football town,” said Nicolas Peralta. He was black, and the kid with the tongue stud. “There’s not so much pressure to conform here. It’s a pretty good city,” he added.

“There’s, what do you call it, a lot of outlets where people could express how they are – creative outlets,” said Sylvia.

“That’s why the Village is so cool,” said Uwvie (ooh-vee-ay) Ibanez, the Dominican. “Around here, no matter how you dress or what kind of lifestyle you lead, everybody’s fine with it. Nobody puts you down.”

“It’s, like, in New York City,” said Ted, “there’s so much to do. You get to walk down the streets, you see all kinds of people, there’s variety everywhere. In Colorado, there’s nothing going on – those kids just download a bunch of stuff from the Internet and watch TV. There’s nothing to look at but houses and grass and trees – “

“Extra-large trees,” said Nicolas. “Here it’s so different. Like, I look at the high-school shows on TV or movies like The Faculty, and I sit there thinking, I don’t have a locker. We don’t have varsity teams, there’s no parking lots at our school – “

Ted said, “We don’t have a 300-acre football field.”

“Those things just seem to add to the boundaries between people,” said Uwvie. “Like, who gets to play on that football field? Like, when they have jocks who think they have to beat up on the nerds – “

“They feel macho,” said Sylvia, frowning. “They feel like they’re in control and others are weaker than them.”

“They become like gangs, basically,” said Uwvie.

“Oh, we have gangs,” said Sylvia, flipping back her hair. “Like the Bloods and the Crips and the Latin Kings? But they just fight amongst themselves.”

“People never fight in our school,” said Nicolas, “unless it’s over some really stupid stuff, like Oh, you stepped on my shoes.

They laughed. They talked some more, but they couldn’t decide, finally, what they really thought it was that made Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold do what they did. But they were in agreement on one thing, that it was unlikely it would ever happen in New York.

We go on the Internet, we play video games,” said Uwvie. “Look, we have one right here.”

“It’s a little fighting game,” said Nicolas, producing a Game Boy from the pocket of his jeans.

“It’s ruining his mind,” said Uwvie.

“Erase it!” said Ted.

“I seriously don’t get the urge to buy guns from this,” said Nicolas. Attracted by the screen, he started thumbing the knobs.

“Watch out, now he’s going to kill!”

“I don’t think it was those kids in that school’s fault or anyone who got killed’s,” said Nicolas, playing his video game. “There’s just some common sense that says you don’t solve a problem with a bomb.”

David Wexler and Doug Mishkin, both 16, were headed east on 86th Street that same drizzly afternoon. They were students at Trinity and Dalton, respectively. Both were white; they had short, brushed-back hair and clothes much like Nicolas, Ted, and Uwvie’s: baggy jeans, jazzy sneakers, fleece. They were on their way to HMV to pick up some music; David wanted to get the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, and Doug was going to buy the new Busta Rhymes.

“That thing in Colorado,” David was saying, “I don’t think it could happen at our school. I think the kids in New York are more normal. Those kids in Colorado … they had issues.”

“Actually, the first thing I heard someone say about it,” said Doug, “was, ‘I’m never gonna be mean to the outcasts again!’ “

The “outcasts” in their schools, they said, were called Herbs, a term they both seemed uncomfortable with.

“It’s a kid who has no friends,” David said hesitantly. “And either acts stupid or they can’t handle themselves.”

“Clothes can be a big thing,” Doug said, “but only if it’s extreme – “

“Like, you wouldn’t be a Herb if you didn’t wear designer things. Only if it was something really weird, like flower pants with things hanging off of them,” said David.

“Like college shirts, tight stuff sometimes,” said Doug. “Stuff that doesn’t look that normal, just because what the style happens to be is baggy and loose-fitting clothes.”

Tight, however, they agreed, was okay for girls.

“The Herbs in our school play cards a lot – bridge – they have a bridge club,” said David. “It’s weird. They don’t gamble; they just play bridge at lunch and during all their free periods.”

“It’s hard to put your finger on what it is that makes somebody a Herb,” Doug said. “It’s kids that lack self-confidence, or they’re always trying to get themselves involved with other groups when they’re clearly not wanted there. They’re annoying, I guess; perhaps they’re needy …”

He was looking more and more like he wished he hadn’t said all that, or like maybe he didn’t want all that to exist. “The boundaries aren’t that clear at our school,” he added quickly. “We have a lot of diverse groups hanging out …”

“There are people who get teased and picked on,” said David.

“Yeah,” said Doug, “but it’s more behind-the-back than to their face. If kids don’t like other kids, they just won’t hang out with them, or won’t talk to them. They just steer clear of them. The Herbs have their own group of friends they can do stuff with on the weekends. It’s not like they’re all alone …”

He looked a bit pained. “I mean, I think they must think about how they’re not invited and stuff, but I don’t think they think about it to the point where they … could do something like that.”

“When I heard about it, the first thing I thought was how many times I wanted to do it,” said the boy I met on lower Broadway. He was tall, thin, and pale, with jet-black hair and large eyes, large lips.

“I’ve wanted to do it – seriously, I have,” he said softly, standing under the awning of a building to keep out of the rain. “When I saw that Pearl Jam video where the kid comes and shoots himself in front of the whole class? It really scared me, because I had thought of things like that.

“In my high school,” he said, “they just didn’t acknowledge my existence. If I sat somewhere, they sat on the other side. It’s like I was a ghost to them. They didn’t say, ‘Excuse me’ – like I didn’t exist.”

He said he was Puerto Rican in a mostly black high school in Brooklyn. “There’s a lot of class division. If you’re a little bit different, everyone ignores you. It built up once to the point where I did destroy a classroom; I was throwing desks and chairs. I went to that school for three years, and nobody even said hi to me.

“They all thought I was gay,” he said.

“In elementary school, it was the same thing. I had long hair then, and they used to say I was a girl. I got beaten up almost every day. Once I came home with a broken tooth; once I came home with a black eye. And I would never fight back. Every time the bell would ring at three o’clock, I would go running home so I wouldn’t get beaten. It was three o’clock, and I was literally shaking. I didn’t go to school once for a week.”

His parents moved at one point, and he briefly went to Edward R. Murrow High School. “I had no problems then; it was very diverse. You saw black people dating white people, and people who were openly gay. Everyone got along; everyone came from different neighborhoods.

“I think they should make all high schools like that,” he said.

“The teachers, they tried to help me. Once, they had a meeting in the class for everybody to stop picking on me. But that just made things worse.

“I could see how that situation happened in Colorado. I mean, I’m not justifying it at all. But when I saw the Pearl Jam video, I could totally see myself doing it. Thank God, I was able to connect to myself.

“Kids are the most evil, meanest people in the world,” he said, eyes narrowing, “and when you are stuck in a situation till you crack … I think those kids in Colorado had too easy access to guns, because I know that if we had as easy access to guns in New York, we’d have a lot more situations like that around here.”

He blinked, his eyes liquid, black.

There was a street fair on upper Broadway last Saturday, the kind with flowery summer dresses blowing from vendors’ stands and smoke from the crêpe and sausage grills billowing up into the sky.

Dylan Hass, 14, Sarina Straussner, 15, and Marjorie Cardon, 14, were sitting on a bench in the avenue island watching the swarms of people slowly move along. The girls were all in jeans and T-shirts, all small and bouncy and likely to break into musical laughter.

“Our principal made an announcement” after Columbine, Marjorie offered. (They all went to the High School for Environmental Studies on the Upper West Side.)

“He was saying, ‘Let’s all take a moment to be silent,’ ” said Sarina. “But it seemed very fake, like he had no heart.”

“He cared; he just didn’t make it seem like he did,” said Marjorie. “He said, ‘If you have any problems, we’re all here to help.’ “

“He said, like, ‘Okay, if you feel like you’re gonna do this, then come see the guidance counselor,’ ” said Dylan.

“But do you remember how he said it?” Sarina said, raising her eyebrows. “He said, ‘If you ever feel like doing that, it’s your obligation to come see the guidance counselor.’ Obviously if a person feels like they’re gonna blow up the school, they’re not gonna go see the guidance counselor!”

“Oh, yeah,” Dylan and Marjorie said.

“We had one kid – we’re not exactly sure what happened, because they didn’t make an announcement,” said Marjorie. “But during an English class, he wrote on his quiz, ‘There’s a bomb in the school.’ “

“Which isn’t funny at all,” said Sarina.

“Like, the police actually walked into my gym class and they checked all the rooms,” said Dylan.

“The next day the principal made an announcement that it’s not funny to joke around like that and you will get arrested,” said Marjorie. “Now, I thought that was a fabulous announcement.”

“I did not like that announcement at all,” said Sarina, a trifle exasperated. “Instead of reassuring the kids that everything was okay, it was like a threat. He said” – she lowered her voice – ” ‘This is what’s gonna happen to you if you do this – the police are gonna search your house just like they did that kid.’ “

Dylan murmured, “Like they did that kid in Brooklyn.”

They all looked at each other a moment; they seemed a little nervous.

“But our school is very free and open,” Dylan said hopefully. “There aren’t many people who are alone. I really don’t think it could happen here. I think if the teachers in Colorado had actually paid attention to Dylan and Eric, they would have seen these kids had problems. They were following Hitler. Like, that’s crazy.

Why New York Kids Say It Couldn’t Happen Here