Countless times over the past week my throat has constricted and my eyes have filled with tears as I read about the children, families, and heroes of Newtown, Connecticut.
My Facebook feed has been full of posts about gun control and the need for better care for the mentally ill. Both topics are being covered and debated in depth, and I think they are important to address. But I haven’t seen or heard much discussion about something that worries me a lot. I want us to talk about the human beings living among us who have no connection with other people.
A little boy named John wrote a letter to his best friend Jack, age 6, who died at Sandy Hook last Friday. John and Jack were good buddies. The letter and the pictures with their arms around each other’s shoulders are proof that they had connected with each other and formed a real friendship even at their tender young ages.
That connection is something the twenty-year-old shooter appears to have never had. No one seemed to know him. He walked the halls of his high school with his head down, avoiding eye contact. He didn’t interact with other people. His brother hadn’t spoken to him since 2010. I don’t know the depths of his problems or whether he had a specific diagnosis or disorder, but I think a quality connection with another person could have possibly helped him.
We are social creatures who were made to connect with others, and we cannot thrive in isolation. Babies who aren’t held and nurtured fail to thrive and often die. Young adults who don’t have relationships with other people harm themselves and others. They commit suicide, they become addicted to substances or video games, and, sometimes, they act out in violence against other people.
When I’m talking to people about camp and how it’s okay to come to camp without a friend, I often say, “It’s not like school, where you have to figure out who to eat with on the first day. You have a group that you’re already a part of, and you eat together.” Who doesn’t remember that awful feeling of looking around and trying to figure out where to sit and eat when you’re the new kid?
What about the kids who never find a lunch table? Never make a connection? I’m guessing they’re the ones more likely to drop out of school, have other problems, and suffer from emotional problems. Who will help these kids?
We need to figure out how to make sure children aren’t allowed to travel invisibly through school and fall through our society’s proverbial cracks. There are many children who are completely disconnected from others. Some of them have mental illnesses that inhibit their social skills. Some have parents who haven’t connected with them or don’t know how to respond to their behavior. Some just have poor social skills. Many may have developed more significant problems through years of isolation. It’s a chicken and egg debate that I won’t attempt to figure out, but I believe isolation can exacerbate the problem, even if it’s a mental health issue. I know it can’t make it better.
There are many kids in our schools who are alone. They won’t all become mass murderers, but they are, I suspect, profoundly unhappy, and they need our help. Their families need our help. We can’t just allow them to go on being invisible. The possible consequences are far too dangerous to them and to us.
Couldn’t we use “buddy systems,” or, as they call it at my daughter’s school, “sister to sister” or “brother to brother” programs? Assign an older, experienced student to lead and mentor younger or new kids. Everyone has a buddy. No one is alone. Or, what if we ask our kids to identify and seek out “invisible” kids and work to include and engage them? They need mentors, people who care and are willing to reach out to them, even when they act like they don’t want to be reached.
We can’t just wait for the next tragedy. We need to make these invisible kids visible and let them know they are loved and valued. We need to help them connect.
I just had my latest round of tears reading this:
I’ve posted the picture of John’s letter to Jack on my Facebook page, as I was unable to post it here: