In the space of five days, we honor Jackie Robinson’s finally breaking into the major leagues by having every baseball player wear his number and we also memorialize Eric Harris and Dylan Klebolt’s massacre at Columbine High School ten years ago. Looking at the similarities and differences between the three people is instructive. They each faced a failed system – but in opposite directions – and they illustrate character and courage – but at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The Rotten Systems Jackie Robinson was 28 when he was first allowed to play in the major leagues. Think of what his records would have been had he not lost about 6 of his best years. The stories about what was done and said to him fill volumes. For starters, he couldn’t get a cab to Ebbets field on April 15, 1947 because he was black. Some of his teammates were so racist that they wouldn’t play on the same team with him. He couldn’t stay in many of the same hotels or eat in many of the same restaurants as the rest of the team, even after his fabulous rookie season. Players on other teams threw balls at his head and spiked him on the base paths. His and his family’s lives were continually threatened.
I grew up in Brooklyn and was old enough to go to Ebbets Field to see Robinson play in his second year. The insults, curses and threats from the players and fans were still going on. It was my personal introduction to racism.
The system that kept Robinson out of baseball and harassed him for years was rotten – full of anger, hatred and the very real possibility of killing him and his family.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebolt faced a rotten system on the other extreme. They were allowed to act out and show the world what they meant to do, but instead of being removed from contact with other students who were their victims, the two were coddled.
Part of what made their shooting spree so horrible for many people not directly connected with the slain students and teacher, was that it showed a generation that their basic assumption about rehabilitating even the most psychopathic-psychotic teenagers were wrong and could have terrible consequences for their own children. The assumption was that if you kept extremely troubled kids in contact with the rest of us and gave them lots of counseling and even more chances, the troubled kids would stop being crazy bullies and would become nice people and good citizens.
Previously, kids like Harris and Klebolt would have been called juvenile delinquents and removed in order to protect the rest of us. Of course, a few of those were removed unjustly and could have been rehabilitated if treated differently. So we swung the pendulum all the way to the side of ignoring the signs, keeping the juvenile delinquents with the rest of us and hoping for the best. Harris and Klebolt showed a generation what the price was for living that false educational philosophy; each one of those psychopaths could kill about ten innocent people.
That coddling attitude is very much like letting drunk drivers continue driving. You don’t know who the next victims will be, but you know there is a very high percentage that there will be next victims.
We still haven’t righted the pendulum. Maybe that will take a kind of well-publicized, civil rights movement or maybe just the eventual dying off of the generation that espoused such weird ideas supported by spurious educational research. Thousands of innocent kids are bullied and harassed at school each day while society, the legal system and school principals don’t stop the bullying juvenile delinquents, psychopaths and psychotics.
Character and Courage Jackie Robinson had the character and courage to endure and surmount far worse than the bullying that is claimed to have pushed Harris and Klebolt over the edge. Robinson kept his promise to himself and to Branch Rickey, Brooklyn Dodgers’ President, to hold himself in check until he had proven his quality as a baseball player. He endured in order to make a point for his race. He endured when most of us, with less character and courage, would either have given up or exploded.
Neither Harris nor Klebolt had character or courage. Bullying didn’t push them over the edge. They ran willingly and repeatedly right to the edge and then jumped off. None of the adults stopped them or removed them.
When will we swing the pendulum back to the middle and start protecting the rest of us from the bullies and crazies?