Thanks for my free lunch…and more

I have a mushy memory from kindergarten about the little half-pint cartons of milk. I wanted to have milk at snack time like the other kids. If memory serves, Mrs. Knowles said, “I thought you didn’t like milk.” I’m guessing we hadn’t paid for it. She told me if I wanted milk, I needed to bring money to school with me. We had just moved to Kansas from Indiana and were living with my grandparents at the time. I went home and said I needed a nickel or whatever it was for my milk. It all got straightened out and I did not have to do without the rest of the year.

We were always poor when I was growing up so I have many memories of doing without. I learned to not ask for much, even things I needed. I remember doing without school supplies, like in the first grade when I didn’t have an eraser. I remember walking home looking at the ground, hoping I would find a piece of rubber or something else that would work better at rubbing out my mistakes than a wet finger.

As I got older, I learned what it was like to sit on the sidelines and not participate in sports or other activities because we couldn’t afford it. There was the time that my class was taken down the hall to look at music instruments. I would have liked to have chosen a clarinet but I knew it was not an option for me. In the fifth grade, on the annual play day, one of my sneakers literally fell apart when I was running because it was ripped from front to back.

When I was twelve, I got my first babysitting job. For fifty cents an hour on Saturday mornings, I watched three kids while their mother cleaned at the hotel. I opened up a passbook savings account and saved what little I could from that job and others. As a teenager, I tried to help out by paying for some of my own things. As a teen, I remember asking Mom to take me shopping to Topeka so I could buy a winter coat with my savings. I didn’t choose something fashionable; I chose a simple, cheap one. As a senior, I paid for my own pictures and graduation announcements with the money I had saved. Poverty taught me the value of frugality and self-sufficiency.

I did without a lot growing up but I got to go to a public school whether or not my parents could afford the school books. I had free lunch every day. There were many times when we did not have enough food at our house. How would I have performed in school if I hadn’t had that dependable, balanced meal every day? I will never know. What I do know is that I was a good student and I am grateful that there are people in the world who thought I should eat.

As a kid, I was well aware that there were people who looked down on us for being poor. I heard the whispers and saw the dirty looks. I knew that people resented us because their tax dollars contributed to our welfare. I write about what it was like to be a poor kid because I hope that people will have mercy on the children who will be harmed by proposed cuts to school lunch programs, the Pell grant program and after school programs that help poor students.

So let me take this opportunity to say thank you, taxpayers, even those of you who resent the poor, for paying for my free lunch. I didn’t ask to be poor any more than you asked to feed someone else’s kid, but thank you, because you did the right thing, even if it was against your will.

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney defended cuts to school programs with his claim that there is no demonstrable evidence that programs that feed poor kids help them do better in school. He believes that hard-working taxpayers should not have to pay for welfare programs that help the poor without proof that it makes a difference. He is one of those people who would have looked down his nose at me and resented me for being what Paul Ryan calls a “taker” and not a “maker.” But again, I was just a kid. I didn’t ask to be poor.

Today, I am demonstrable evidence that programs that help the poor pay off in the long run. Government grants paid for about a third of my college costs. I still had to work and I still had to get good grades to keep my scholarships. When I graduated with a degree in accounting, I made $21,000 a year at my first job at a CPA firm. That was three times what I could have made at minimum wage. Over the past thirty-two years, I have paid tens of thousands more in income taxes than I would have paid if the government had not helped me out when I needed a hand up. I’ve paid for my free lunches and free school books and college tuition assistance many times over.

The President didn’t ask me if I want my tax dollars to go towards increased military spending or towards building a wall or towards providing security for his second home or for his frequent trips to Florida. Believe me, I would rather pay for free lunches or Meals on Wheels or for taking care of our veterans. But I don’t get to choose where my tax dollars go and a shocking  quarter of every dollar goes towards military spending.

The sad thing to me is that even religious people who should care about the poor often don’t. I see more expressions of compassion from my atheist friends. One of my evangelical friends recently repeated what she heard a guy say on the radio about the difference between Christians and liberals: Christians believe that we should care for the poor with our own money but liberals want the government to pay for everything! Yet I have never heard an anti-government Christian explain just how the church or secular community would replace the government’s role in providing help to the needy.

So again, thank you American taxpayer for every bit of government financial assistance I received in the first twenty-one years of my life. I know there are people who don’t think I was worth it, but thank God someone did.

Reflections on Columbine

Eighteen years ago, two high school students plotted a massacre at Columbine High School, which is only about twenty miles from my home. On April 20, 1999, they killed twelve students and a teacher in one of the most deadly school shootings in U.S. history. I remember watching the events unfold on TV that day and how horrified I was that anyone could do something so evil, let alone two kids. Recently, I read Columbine, the book by Dave Cullen, and learned that a lot of what we had been told about the massacre was not true.

One widely spread myth was that Cassie Bernall was shot because she confessed her faith. A witness said that Cassie’s killer asked if she believed in God and she said yes before he shot her. There was some truth behind the rumor. A student was asked if she believed in God but it was not Cassie; it was Valeen Schnurr. While the martyr myth persists, the truth is more compelling to me. The purpose of professing faith is not to bring glory to yourself but to bring glory to God. Valeen seems to understand this. Although I don’t understand why Cassie’s mother Misty chose to write a book that perpetuated this myth, even after being told it wasn’t true, I can understand how desperately she must have wanted something positive and inspiring to come from her daughter’s senseless death.

Columbine was a spiritual turning point for me. In my grief I returned to church because I wanted to be with people who believe in goodness and love. Columbine reminded me of how much evil there is in the world. It was frightening to think that the world had changed so much in my lifetime that students who were bullied would strike out at their peers with hatred in their hearts. That’s not how we responded to bullying when I was a kid.

After reading Cullen’s book, I know that the motive was not retaliation for bullying. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not social outcasts – they had lots of friends. They did not target jocks or any other group for revenge. They wanted to kill as many random people as possible.

In the immediate aftermath, it became clear that Eric Harris was the more evil of the two killers. He wanted to outdo Timothy McVeigh, the primary perpetrator behind the Oklahoma City bombing. He intended to kill several hundred students by placing two bombs in the “Commons” area, timed to explode at the busiest time of day. He and Dylan planned to shoot at the bomb survivors as they raced for the exits. Fortunately, Eric was not a skilled bomb maker. Unfortunately, he was able to acquire guns easily by asking a fellow student to purchase them at a gun show.

Eric predicted that people would not understand his reasons for murdering. He figured they would say that he was insane or crazy. Based on the evidence, including the basement tapes and Eric’s journals, it is likely that he was a psychopath, though most are not violent. His motive for killing was twofold: to demonstrate his superiority over others and because he got a sadistic pleasure out of it.

Psychopaths are not insane but they do have a personality disorder. They lack empathy. Psychopaths do not have the depth or complexity of emotions that normal people experience. A psychopath’s emotions are primitive, a reaction to threats to their own welfare. They experience emotions like frustration, rage and indignation.

The frightening thing about psychopaths is that they are skilled manipulators. They are able to mimic normal emotions easily – joy, grief, sadness, anxiety – and can be quite charming. They are proud of their ability to disguise their disregard for others and enjoy fooling people. It’s like a game to them.

Eric did not have respect for morality, justice, rules and laws. In his journal, he wrote that there is no such thing as true good or true evil, that morality is relative to the observer. He had no mercy or compassion for others. He held other people in contempt.

Dylan was not a psychopath; he was a depressive. He had been thinking about killing himself for two years and self-medicated with alcohol. Dylan was lonely and self-conscious. He was disgusted with himself. Dylan was also very smart and had a bright future ahead of him. He was introspective. He believed in God and an afterlife. Unlike Eric, he did believe in ethics and morality. He showed that he had the capacity for love, often writing about his crush on a classmate.

As I said, the Columbine massacre reminded me that there are truly evil people out there who are bent on hurting as many people as possible. But tragedies also reveal how much goodness there is in the world and how much healing is possible when people respond with love.

Cullen told the stories of many survivors and families of the victims – stories of struggles, resilience and forgiveness. Cullen was personally impacted by Patrick Ireland, a student who was shot in the head and foot. Although he had brain damage and had to struggle through rehab, his injuries did not define him or set the tone for the rest of his life. Val Schnurr is another example of a survivor who endured years of pain, therapy and counseling. She chooses to focus on the positive and is not consumed with understanding why the tragedy happened. She forgave the parents of the killers and bears no ill will towards Eric or Dylan.

For all of Eric’s contempt for his fellow man, his inhumane actions in fact revealed the beauty of humanity. Faced with physical trauma and pain, survivors demonstrated courage, persistence and determination to overcome. Faced with deep emotional scars, survivors demonstrated resilience, optimism and hope. Confronted with unimaginable cruelty, survivors showed an amazing capacity for forgiveness towards the monsters who wronged them.

In the years since Columbine, there have been many other mass shootings. After Columbine, I hoped that the national response would be to pass commonsense gun control legislation. With every tragedy, my hope wanes. In some cases, mental illness plays a role in the decision to kill others but most of the violence in America is not linked to mental illness, it’s a symptom of our violent culture. In two years, when America looks back at Columbine, how will we explain the fact that we have learned nothing?