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  • Near Miss & A Newsroom Tragedy

    When I was in Reidsville, an angry and grieving man walked into our newsroom, came into my tiny office without warning, and shut the door behind him. His teenaged niece had died in a car accident.

    The Review, like many small-town community newspapers, had covered the fatality in extensive detail. And the man was angry about the story we had published, which quoted the police report that said his niece was at fault. He believed the story had left a “black stain” on his niece and on his family.

    Anxious to take out his anger and grief on someone, the man threatened multiple times to punch me, even as I tried to listen and calmly talk him down. Finally, I said, "Go ahead," with the stipulation that as soon as the punch was thrown I would throw him through the plate glass window that separated my office from the rest of the newsroom.

    Given that I was 5 inches taller and 40 pounds (at least) heavier, he opened my door and left.

    The police were called.

    I was lucky. He never came back.

    This afternoon, at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., five employees were killed when a man with a shotgun opened fire in the newsroom. Details remain sketchy, even though a suspect is in custody and has been identified. A few minutes ago, police said the man had filed a defamation claim against the paper in 2012, but the case was dismissed in 2015.

    Threats and physical violence against journalists have risen in recent years, which comes as no surprise given the shouting over “fake news” and the fragmented nature of our society. When I saw reports of this latest gun-related tragedy, I immediately flashed back to that day in Reidsville, and to my career as a newspaper journalist.

    I worked for community papers in Texas and North Carolina for more than a decade. It is hard, grueling labor, the only constants being long hours and low pay. (You sure as hell don’t do it for the money, the quality of life, or the fame.)

    You do it because you love to write and be part of the community in which you live. You publish, despite what others may think, more good stories than bad ones.

    This horrible news is now up on the Capital Gazette website, and reporters say there will be a print edition tomorrow. Because even in the face of tragedy, that’s what good journalists do.

    Godspeed.

  • MYT Performs 'columbinus'

    Last night, in a small, sweltering room on the 18th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School, I shot production photos for Metropolitan Youth Theater’s production of “columbinus,” a provocative and troubling play that that focuses on “the dark recesses of American adolescence.”

    Suggested by the April 1999 Columbine shooting, with a script that includes excerpts from discussions with parents, survivors and community leaders in Littleton, Colo., the play was created by the United States Theatre project and performed Off-Broadway in 2006. It runs at 8:30 p.m. today and 7 p.m. Saturday in the Black Box Theatre at Metropolitan School of the Arts.

    The cast of eight opens the show as teenage archetypes, without names but labels (Loner, Freak, AP (Advanced Placement), Rebel, Faith, Perfect, Prep, and Jock). Freak and Loner are bullied by their classmates and morph into Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at the start of Act 2. The rest of the show, which takes its script from the journals and videos of Klebold and Harris, shows what happens in the days approaching Columbine and their subsequent suicides. An epilogue features survivors, parents, and townspeople reflecting on the events.

    Warning: Given the subject matter and language, this is not a play for young or impressionable children. It is, however, a courageous step forward for Metropolitan Youth Theatre, which was founded in 2014 by three high school students who wanted area youth to perform in shows with adult themes. Past productions, all musicals put on entirely by high school and college students, have included “Rent” and “Spring Awakening.”

    “columbinus,” is directed by Chad Vann, a Hayfield High School senior who is one of the group’s co-founders. Vann also is one of the eight cast members (Jock). The rest of the cast includes Brian Perry (Loner/Dylan Klebold), Danny Waldman (Freak/Eric Harris), AP (Joshua Mutterpearl), Rebel (Bridgette Saverine), Faith (Erin Claeys), Perfect (Hallie Friedman), and Prep (Jackson Miller). Madison Hite is the understudy for Faith.

    Alyssa Denton is producing the show, with Hailey Parker-Combes serving as the costume designer and Delaney Claussen as the sound designer.

    A limited number of tickets are available at the box office for the shows. MSA is located at 5775 Barclay Drive, Suite 4 in Alexandria, Va., 22315.

    To see more photos from the production, go to my Facebook page here.

  • A Hometown Tragedy

    Last week, while taking a break from photographing a conference in Las Vegas, a news story from my hometown caught my attention: A high school senior had committed suicide in front of her parents. She had been the victim of relentless cyberbullying over her weight and her appearance.

    Immediately, I flashed back to Blocker Middle School and the late 1970s. When you've been bullied, your emotions are on constant standby for time travel.

    ••••••

    I was bullied as a child. What people thought were innocent pranks about my appearance, lack of style, poor social graces, and general athletic ineptitude left scars that have taken decades to heal.

    Then, when you see something like this, something that happened in the hometown you left long ago, those scars are exposed again. You time travel back to the days when you were that fat child, that pimply, awkward, uncoordinated teenager who liked books, movies, drama, and writing. It comes back like it was yesterday.

    You are thankful for your loving parents, who were dealing with boatloads of crap of their own. You are thankful for your few close friends who accepted you for who you were. You are thankful for teachers like John C. Martin, for neighbors who became your extended family. You are thankful for those who, even if they didn't understand you, didn't judge. You are thankful that, no matter how bad things got at times, you had the inner strength to go on.

    You hope that your children did not have to endure the same things you did, knowing that bullies now hide behind their thumbs and their glare-free screens. You try to treat people with kindness, holding on to the manners you were taught. You try to look at issues and events from both sides — and there are two sides to every story — and respect others' right to their opinions, no matter how different they may be from yours.

    I appreciate the steps Texas City ISD took (making counselors available, sending a letter home to parents with other resources) in the wake of the girl’s suicide and pray that no copycat incidents — always a risk with this age group — occur.

    But don’t bury your head in the sand. The temptation some have to prey on others because of their own insecurity and inadequacy has never gone away. It's part of our history that, despite twists like social media, repeats itself again and again.

    When something like this happens, we feel the need to take action, but it always seems to be too little, too late. In Texas, two state legislators filed a bill last month that would require school districts to have cyberbullying policies. The law would require schools to notify parents when children are bullied. Anyone who electronically harasses or bullies another person under the age of 18 would face misdemeanor charges.

    Why these types of policies are not already in place in every school district in America boggles my mind. Why bullying is tolerated, by adults and children alike, simply makes no sense. And yet it is.

    The wounds heal. But the scars remain. #SuicideAwareness — 1-800-273-8255. 

    ••••••

    The essay above, posted to Facebook on Friday, generated a series of heartfelt, thoughtful, and affirming responses. A number of friends shared it, more than 70 (and counting) took the time to comment publicly, and a few sent private messages. (Read the thread here.)

    Here are some of my thoughts, based on what others had to say:

    • 2016, more than any other, has been the "Year of the Trolls." I spend a lot of time on the Internet and try my best to keep things positive, but I've noticed repeatedly that people pick up on a single word you say and use it as an excuse to rip. That is terrible for us as a society.

    • School districts and state legislators have hesitated to push policies and laws through on this topic out of fear of liability. I understand why, but a policy that requires schools to notify parents when they receive a report of bullying should be a responsibility that districts are willing to take on. In the grand scheme, doing everything you can to keep parents in the loop and invested in the well-being of their children is a baby step.

    • We’ve got to stop looking for simple, knee jerk answers (zero tolerance policies, banning all cellphones) to these types of problems. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this type of behavior, which has been perpetuated for generations.

    • No place is immune from bullying, whether you’re in an industrial town in Texas, a rural community in North Carolina, or the hallowed suburbs of Washington, D.C. It won’t go away without a concentrated effort on everyone’s part, and that means support from schools, parents, classmates, community leaders, and politicians who have the chutzpah to stand up for changes. The problem sits in all our laps.

    • For many young people, compassion is not innate; if anything, the exact opposite is, especially when you're trying to find your way. It truly is heartbreaking to see a kid who's obviously struggling socially, because you know how others have the capacity to be so cruel in those types of situations.

    • Late elementary school and middle school is where so much of this damaging behavior begins. (Middle school was my personal “American Horror Story.”) Like many kids, I thought I could handle it myself, not knowing the damage I was doing to my psyche. I wish I had felt comfortable enough to talk to someone; I would have been much better off.

    • As an average, run-of-the-mill teenage boy who was a barking seal when it came to girls, the power they had was fierce. For the most part, I saw it for what it was and didn't let it bother me. But there were a couple of cruel heartbreaks along the way, where I thought, hoped and prayed that someone was different and was severely disappointed. That's why so much of this cuts so deep and so hard. I realize how much of my life I wasted trying to get the approval of people who didn't give a shit.

    • At times, I feel like we’ve thrown bullying into the same category as poverty — “Can’t do anything about it. Those people just need to step up.” We all need to step up.

  • The Niche of Extremism

    ex•trem•ist (n): a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, especially one who resorts to or advocates extreme action.

    This term has taken on new meaning in 2016. Just look around you. Visit your news feed on Facebook. Look at the vitriol on the campaign trail. For every good moment that we witness, for every proud graduate that we watch crossing the stage, for every small victory that someone has when he or she manages to get out of bed in the morning, we watch helplessly as extremists take over the conversation.

    Sunday morning’s tragedy in Orlando shows us yet again the best and worst in people. It brings the same outpouring of grief and compassion that we saw in the wake of Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Paris, and too many others to count. It brings the same number of talking head “experts” onto cable television to fill the airwaves. It brings out the writers (me included) and so-called analysts who feel compelled to weigh in.

    With what? Opinions. Conjecture. Speculation about motives. The why, why why.

    Why?

    The extremists show no signs of letting go, willing to use isolation and intolerance as their comfort food. Extremists thrive on attention. That’s why it takes a mass shooting to temporarily lift us out of our self-imposed food comas and look at the world around us.

    The first word that came to mind when I saw the news this morning was “Horrible.” I saw the horrible tweet that came from Dan Patrick’s Twitter feed, followed by the wave of condemnation. I saw Donald Trump’s narcissistic “I was right” statement, still in shock that he has a one-in-two chance of being the leader of our country. I’ve seen God’s name used to justify beliefs from all sides — the pro-gun community, the anti-gun community, the LGBT community, the Fundamentalist community, the Muslim community.

    That’s part of the problem. We’ve become so strongly identified with our niches, our think-alike communities, that we can’t seem to take a step back in our day-to-day lives and look at the bigger picture.

    I don’t disagree with a person’s right to bear arms, but I don’t understand why anyone believes it should be easier to get a gun than a driver’s license.

    I don’t understand why someone who identifies as transgender, and is willing to be above board and brave in the face of bigotry and misunderstanding, can’t go to the damn bathroom of his/her choice.

    You can agree or disagree with me on those issues and countless others, but can't we do so in a civil manner? Or is that impossible in today's extremist world?

    Come on, folks. We’re better than this. We can’t let the extremists on either side win.

  • Texas: Adventure and Tragedy

    The Austin run of Billy Elliot started on December 11, with Ben scheduled to perform on his 15th birthday with my mom and several of her friends in attendance. That meant I had to get on an early morning plane after seeing Emma — I can’t miss seeing my twins on their birthday, even if they are in separate states — off to school.

    Little did I know that my time in Texas would be such an experience, or that it would be extended by several days due to a family tragedy.

    Here’s a rundown of what happened on the trip:

    • Dec. 11: Made it to Austin and was greeted by a traffic jam that would make my NOVA and NYC friends blush. And in this case, size did matter. I barely made it to the theater in time to give Ben a birthday hug before his call, then bought my sixth-grade English teacher a beer this evening before the show. Bid a fond farewell to yet another childhood myth. After the show, we had a cake for the boy that my mom bought in the hotel bar.

    • Dec. 12: Touring the state capitol with Mom, Ben, and Ginno. Really a fascinating place.

    • Dec. 13: Media day with stops at four TV stations and my favorite Austin music station. That was cool… Meanwhile, back home, Jill had to go to North Carolina where her Aunt Sybil was buried after a long illness. Thoughts go out to the McFarland and Mercer families.

    • Dec. 14: Had a terrific time watching Kylend Hetherington's final show and seeing Ben again as Michael (a sweet surprise and a wonderful performance by both boys).

    • Dec. 15: Tonight, the boy is on as Billy, with my mom, my sister and her family, my aunt and her friends, and several dear friends in the audience. But our thoughts are with the one who won’t be there. My second cousin, Kerry Bowman, was killed in a head-on collision while driving from Albany (a small town in West Texas) to Austin to see the show.

    • Dec. 17: After an emotional week, Mom and I are sending Ben and Ginno off to Baltimore and heading to West Texas for my cousin's funeral on Wednesday. Many thanks to everyone who expressed sympathy and concern. Also, we need prayers for Jill's ailing father, who also is in the hospital and in increasingly failing health.

    • Dec. 18: I’ve enjoyed crossing into West Texas with my mom over the past two days, taking pictures of small towns and sights along the way and learning more details about my roots. We drove through Baird, where she lived until she was almost 7, and made it to Albany for the visitation.

    My mom is always good with the one-liners. Example: “They have an antique credenza in there. You don't see that often in a Dairy Queen.

    Me: “Everyone is self-centered to a certain extent.” Mom: “That's called survival.” Smart woman...

    • Dec. 19: A beautiful service was held for my cousin Kerry this morning, one that focused on the positive with nostalgia, humor, and honor. And a few stories untold, I know... 

    That’s when I made the three-hour drive to Odessa, where my Texas adventure came to a close. Of course, I had to narrowly dodge a huge tumbleweed amid 40 mph winds on Interstate 20.

    The trip stayed interesting to the end, that’s for sure.

  • No Reason Why

    In November, Ben decided to read Dave Cullen’s Columbine, a nonfiction account of the 1999 school shooting that left 15 people dead and shook the world.

    He had just finished the book when the shootings in Newtown, Conn., occurred. Minutes after it was first reported, I received a text from him.

    “Did you hear? Can you believe it? ... Why?”

    More than a month has passed, and it’s still unbelievable—the shooting that led to the deaths of 20 elementary school children, six adults at the school, the gunman’s mother at home, and the gunman himself. It affected us so profoundly that our president was left teary-eyed, that donations were so overwhelming that townspeople had to ask us to stop sending them.

    On Dec. 14, I was in Austin, preparing for my extended Texas family to come and see my son perform in a show the following evening. The next morning, my cousin was coming to meet us when he was killed in a head-on collision.

    Over two days the next week, as my mom and I drove out to his small West Texas town for the funeral, I thought about my son’s question and then back to my magazine’s 10th anniversary coverage of the Columbine tragedy.

    The events that led to the Newtown and Columbine shootings could not be less similar, but both cases resulted in a tragic and senseless loss of life. Both continue to raise vexing questions about our society—some involving schools, others not.

    Interestingly, in the small town of Albany, Texas (population: 2,034), the person who officiated at my cousin’s funeral also brought up the tragedy that had occurred thousands of miles away. He pointed to the people in attendance—a great percentage of them gun owners—and told them it was OK to cry, and to ask why these events occurred within 24 hours of each other.

    He said this knowing no clear cut answers exist. Sometimes, he noted, there’s no logical reason why.