Why Is Girl Who Empathized With Adam Lanza Being Vilified?

She was suspended for writing a poem.

I’m trying to wrap my mind around what happened with Courtni Webb, the high-school senior who got suspended for writing a poem in which she said that she understands Adam Lanza’s actions.

The facts: Courtni Webb wrote a poem in her own notebook; she did not turn it in as an assignment; she did not share it with her classmates or teacher; but somehow—and nothing I read is clear on this—a teacher “found” the poem in Courtni’s private notebook, and when she read the lines, “I understand the killings in Connecticut./I know why he pulled the trigger,” she took the poem to the principal, who promptly suspended Courtni. The length of her suspension is indefinite and expulsion is a possibility.

My questions aren’t rhetorical or facetious: I just don’t understand why this girl is being vilified by her school for having empathy, for being in touch with her own emotions. Since the Newtown murders, I’ve seen published articles titled “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” and “I married Adam Lanza,” and I’m sure there were many, many more pieces that discussed life with a mentally ill loved one. And yet, this teenager, a minor, continues to have her privacy violated, and to use her own words, she is being portrayed as “a monster.”

Her school, Life Learning Academy, is a vocational school with 60-80 students. The fact that this is a magnet school for students who had trouble in traditional learning institutions makes the Academy’s treatment of this student even more of a sick joke, or at least inexplicable to me. This girl is not having an easy time of things, may already feel ostracized, and for privately expressing those feelings she gets further ostracized?

One need not be a poet or a member of the literati to see this poem in its context. The poem itself makes clear connections: “Misery loves company,” “If I can’t be loved, no one can,” “Society never wants to take the blame,” and “Society puts these thoughts in our head.” But those connections are clearly not “violent threats,” the reason given for the suspension.

My incredulity comes from all of my roles, I think, as a professor, an editor, and a mother. When my son was in fourth grade, her teacher kept the entire class after school frequently. One day one of the kids said, “What did we do?” and the teacher said, “Sit there and figure it out.” The student pushed again, saying, “Well, how can we learn from this and be sure not to do it again if we don’t know what we did?” I was proud of this 10-year-old for being smarter than the teacher, for asking those questions, and I feel the same way about Courtni right now. Her public statement is just a simple truth: She says her poem doesn’t state agreement with Lanza’s actions; she simply states that she understands what drove them. Her punishment doesn’t seem to fit her “crime.”

I’m not at all clear on how suspending her, and possibly expelling her, would help her (or stop her from acting violently—note that she has no history of violence against herself or others—if that had been her intent). A friend and fabulous poet, Jason Schneiderman, tried to help me understand this situation by saying, “It seemed clear to me that the school’s impulse was to cover its ass. Basically, I think that the school’s behavior is not incomprehensible; it’s misguided. It’s an attempt to appear rigorous in its concern for student safety, and it’s an example of how bureaucracies are only as good as the decision makers within them.”

We cannot see the enemy, but we have to pretend that we can, in order to feel safe. So we punish the “evil” we can see in order to feel like we’re doing something. This makes as much sense as the suspension of the six-year-old who pointed his finger and said, “pow” the week before the holidays.

As Jason points out, “What’s awesome about this girl is that she’s refusing the position of powerlessness that she’s been allocated. A true Foucauldian, this girl knows that power is not held but expressed, and in activating the media, she’s making herself powerful in a way that her school couldn’t conceive.”

I think I’m reacting so strongly to this incident because a poem is garnering this attention. Poetry, shuttled out to the edges of our culture and the edges of our awareness, a sub-culture even to academics. But when do we trot it out? During life’s biggest moments: funerals, weddings, graduations, inaugurations and other life-event ceremonies. For how many centuries and in how many capacities have poets been charged, to quote Shelley, as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and now, this 17-year-old girl at a tiny vocational school is making national news for writing a poem. Maybe this is an awesome moment for poetry, since damn, some people are certainly acknowledging its power.