An interesting situation is developing down in Maryland, where a teacher was placed on administrative leave for for authoring a book about a school massacre. There's a lot of moving pieces going on there, and I'm not claiming any depth of knowledge, but I heard about the story and couldn't help but start digging.
My first thought, knowing nothing else about the case, was that there has been no shortage of authors, some of whom very prestigious, who have written about school violence over the years. A friend immediately pointed out that Stephen King (who was actually a teacher at the time he wrote Carrie), Richard Russo, and Jodi Picoult have all written about large scale school violence over the years.
My second thought, selfishly, was that I had recently self-censored a scene I wanted to include in the Indestructibles sequel because I wanted to stay clear of school violence. Not because I don't want to be controversial. I want to say it was because it just wasn't the right time for that particular allegory, but honestly, I have a rule about certain types of violence when I write--if you're going to touch certain hot button topics, you better mean it, and you better have a purpose for it. Which isn't to say in another scenario I might not broach this topic, but Book 2 goes to some very dark places and I felt like touching school violence would bring it to a darker place than I was ready to go to with these characters.
And then I thought--damn, dude, you're a teacher. You do have to think about these things, in this day and age especially.
But then I saw the teacher's age. He's 23. This is a kid who grew up in the age of school shootings. And so I'm torn. On the one hand, we do have some accountability, as adults, as writers, as professionals (and in his case as educators) to walk with care and sensitivity. But this is a guy who grew up with a school shooting somewhere in this country every few weeks or months.
A few months ago there was an incident at a college near me where a student was brandishing a knife. The school went into shelter in place protocol for safety. I have a few adult friends who work there who were legitimately freaked out. They had never experienced a shelter in place situation. They were truly afraid. But the students--late teens and early twenties, born in another era--were mostly worried about whether or not they had snacks while they waited it out in their classrooms. This is the world they grew up in. It's just part of the day to day life. Should it be? Absolutely not. We want to live in a world where there aren't cataclysmic events every few weeks. But there is no denying that everyone who grew up in the US under a certain age has experienced the very real threat of a school shooting every single day of their lives.
Why wouldn't this effect their writing? Why wouldn't this be a scenario that might lead them to write a dark, futuristic story?
On the one hand, it's understandable why administration and law enforcement might raise an eyebrow. Certainly youthful indiscretion isn't an excuse given the ages of many of the perpetrators in the recent past of extreme violent actions. But by the same token, this launches full speed over the line into censorship and thought police territory. It not only silences one writer, it sets a tone in which the creative process is under attack, where any number of creative students might see what happened to this educator and wonder if their own thoughts might be similarly censored and shut down.
Is there a right thing to do here? Could have have told his bosses he had written this book and explained his reasons behind it? Or would that have simply sped up the process for the investigation? And on the flip side, there would be no forgiveness for an administrator who did nothing if a catastrophe did happen. Their actions are influenced by our culture of paranoia and blame as well.
I don't have an answer. I can say I'm uncomfortable with censorship, and that I am terribly sad we live in a time when reality forces us to be vigilant if not outright paranoid about violence on a massive scale. And that we should all watch how this story plays out. the outcome will be significant.
Matthew Phillion is the writer of "The Indestructibles," part-time actor, occasional filmmaker. Currently on the lam in Salem with his trusty dog, Watson.