Students respond to "Bowling for Columbine" Last week a group of 22 high school students from the Key Learning Community, along with teacher Gari Williams, watched Michael Moore"s Bowling for Columbine and discussed their reactions afterward. Moore"s film examines the culture of gun violence in America, and struggles with the question of why America has so many gun deaths, even compared to other heavily-armed nations. The oldest of the students in the discussion were in junior high school when the Columbine High School shootings took place. The youngest were in fifth grade. Before long, high schools will be filled with a generation of students who will never remember a time without Columbine.
"Meredith Caudle, foreground, with Corinne McWilliams: "The more guns we get, actually the more dangerous it gets around us.""
These 22 remember and are speaking out. Mixed ethnicities? Late in the film, Moore interviews Charlton Heston, actor and president of the National Rifle Association. Eventually, Heston walks off as Moore pleads with him to look at a photo of a six-year-old shooting victim. Prior to that, Moore asks him what he believes is the root of America"s high rate of gun deaths. Charlton Heston: We have mixed ethnicities Ö We had enough problems with civil rights. Those remarks elicited gasps of shock around the theater. Afterwards, it"s the first thing they talk about during the long bus ride back to school. "I thought that was very disrespectful," says Alicia Grant. "For him [Heston] to sit there and not even look at the little girl that got shot. He walked off because he was a coward." Grant remains angered about Moore"s heartbreaking depiction of a single mother spending hours a day being bused back and forth to work in a Dick Clark-owned restaurant for minimum wage as part of a welfare-to-work program. "$5.50 an hour?" she says in disbelief. "A 13-year-old could live on that, but not much more. It"s not enough for any kind of grown woman with a child to live on!" Exactly the opposite Moore also interviews South Park co-creator Matt Stone, who grew up in Littleton, Colorado, and discusses high school culture with him. Matt Stone: The teachers and principals are no help. They tell you if you don"t do well on this test, you"re going to end up poor and alone and there"s nothing you can do to change that Ö A lot of times it"s exactly the opposite. The Key students are the fortunate ones; they say that they"re blessed with a supportive system and small class sizes that allow them the personal attention they need to thrive. "We"re lucky to go to a school like this one," Grant says. "A lot of other high schools, you start skipping, you don"t do your homework, and they"ll just say, "Okay, whatever, just give him an F." They give up on you. It"s not like that here. Ms. Williams, she won"t give up on me when I screw up." "And neither will any of the other teachers here," Gari Williams, the teacher, adds. "This is such a small school, we can"t begin to form cliques," Gabe Smith says. "There aren"t enough people to be that selective." "Look at the way the adults were talking about teenagers after the Columbine parts," says Corinne McWilliams. "They talked like we were monsters or aliens!" "Sometimes people don"t know what to be afraid of," Jennifer Buchanan adds. "The attitude becomes, "There"s so much to be afraid of, why not just be afraid of everything and be done with it?" Michael Moore: After Columbine, it REALLY sucked to be a teenager in America. "[The days after Columbine] made us watch our language," Elise Ramey says. "Everybody used to talk a lot more violent, and then they were a lot more polite." Moore makes a special point of criticizing media consumption and encouraging cynicism, which the students pick up on quickly. "I used to really trust the media," Chuck Staples says. "It"s scary. I never really thought about what I was being told until I saw this movie." And the first target of this newborn cynicism is Moore himself. "He"s against [media manipulation], but he used it to get the point across, which is interesting," Jeff Williams notes. So how has the movie changed your views? I ask them. "Next time I hear somebody say, "America"s great," my view is going to be tainted by what I"ve heard, how messed up things are," McWilliams says. "The more guns we get, actually the more dangerous it gets around us," observes Meredith Caudle. "It was really eye-opening, to see how we give weapons to Israel and all those countries in the Middle East, and they use them to kill each other, and eventually they start shooting at us. It"s a vicious cycle." "It doesn"t matter if there"s guns or not," Jeff Williams pipes up. "If there"s fear, people will go for what they think will protect them. You can turn anything into a weapon." At one point in the film, Moore and two injured victims of the Columbine shootings travel to K-Mart headquarters and wait hours on end, only to be ignored by a succession of talking heads. They finally get results when they bring a gaggle of news cameras along. "Let"s say, for example, I don"t like the way IPS spends their money," Jennifer Buchanan says. "If I had the power to go and do something about it, I would. But I"m just a student." "So were those students," Gari Williams reminds her. "But he had all the press with him," Lisa Hardwick interjects. "Maybe it"s the camera that is the most powerful tool at our disposal," Smith muses. "People in corporate worlds seem to be more afraid of cameras than they are of guns." Many of the students were struck by the stark security camera footage of the Columbine attack itself. Though we never see a single bullet fired, we see Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stalking through the cafeteria, admiring their work, and many shots of students in sheer panic. "I was looking at their body language," observes Angela Werle, one of several members of an improvisational theater troupe working on skits about bullying. "I"ve seen people scared. I"ve seen people scared really badly. But I"ve never seen so many people really scared." Equally affecting was Moore"s cavalcade of shame, presenting one incident after another of U.S. foreign policy gone awry and quoting death figures in the hundreds of thousands. "If [teenagers] see that the president can kill all these people he doesn"t know, they think, why can"t I do the same thing?" Ashanti Harris says. "It was just terrifying to see all those people being thrown around as if they were dolls," Veronica Petree says. "They were human beings, and then they are no more." "I"d never heard of any of that," Werle says, nodding slowly. "It was just so heart-wrenching," Petree continues. "And now I can"t get it out of my head." Listening Singer Marilyn Manson was blamed for inspiring the attacks by many commentators in the days after Columbine. One of the most memorable moments from the film takes place when Moore interviews Manson and asks him what he"d say to the Columbine students if given the chance. Marilyn Manson: I wouldn"t say anything to them at all. I"d listen to what they had to say. Perhaps the most poignant remarks from the students are the questions they themselves ask. Like Moore in the film, they receive no answers. "Why is it that America has so many more gun deaths than all these other countries?" McWilliams asks. "What is it that affects us so differently?" "What happened to innocent until proven guilty?" Ashanti Harris wants to know. "Why were people so ready to believe those black people are guilty?" "I keep thinking about those last lines in "The Star Spangled Banner,"" Buchanan says. "The land of the free and the home of the brave. We might be free, but if we"re so brave, why do we have to have all these guns, shooting each other? We"re supposed to be a family. Why do we have to be so afraid of ourselves and each other?" Jeff Williams concludes: "We"ve gotten to a point that we like it this way and it won"t change."