The Misfits’ Club
Back in the late 1990s, when I was teaching in Brooklyn, NY, I had a student named Uran Dragon Kolenovic, and it seemed that the dragon lived inside Uran’s head.
Uran Kolenovic was a 14-year-old immigrant from Kosovo whose mother and father had sent him to America to live with his grandmother when he was nine. He hadn’t spoken with his parents since. He and grandma lived in a horror of an apartment in Brooklyn’s Little Albania, and by all reports, which he later shared with me, it was a miserable existence. His grandmother hated him. Or resented him. Or resented having to feed him. Or having to look at him.
To express her feelings she refused to touch him, ever. Most of the time when I heard kids talk about problems at home I imagined some level of exaggeration. But with Uran, I felt in my gut that he was telling the devil’s-honest truth.
Uran was a damaged kid if ever I knew one, and I loved him.
In the first few weeks of class I didn’t much notice Uran, though he sat in the center seat of the middle row. He was quiet and didn’t do much work, nor care too deeply about ancient civilizations. He seemed, at the time, like a very normal boy on my roster of 170 students each day.
Then, once, about six weeks into the term, while I was lecturing, I noticed Uran was methodically pounding his fist onto his desk and muttering something. I kept talking to the class and walked closer to his seat. What he was saying, and what he began saying, just a bit louder, as I got close to him was, “Kill Mr. Tallon… Kill Mr. Tallon… Kill Mr. Tallon…”
I stopped by his desk, while continuing to prattle on about the ancient Mesopotamians. Uran kept muttering and pounding his fist. After a minute I held my hand beneath his fist. He hit it in the same rhythm for some time while continuing to mutter, “Kill Mr. Tallon… Kill Mr. Tallon… Kill Mr. Tallon…” Then, after a few more beats, the pounding began to slow and eventually stopped altogether. Uran set his fist in my hand, while continuing to make the slow, striking motion but softer, more gently. Sometime around the development of cuneiform writing, I closed my hand around his fist, and with the rest of the world and its history oblivious, an intimacy and a friendship took root.
Some months later, when we were hanging out after school in my classroom, Uran told me about his grandmother and his parents and his living conditions. It was then that I realized that the day of the fist pounding was likely the first time in years that Uran had been touched by another human being.
How awful that must be. Can you imagine not having physical contact with another human being for years? Fall and skin your knee. Alone. Ace a test. Alone. Breathe the polluted air of Brooklyn. Alone. Be afraid. Alone. Be a child. Alone.
Uran was a bit nuts, and he continued to have problems after that first contact, of course, but from that day he seemed marginally better. Much of this, I think, was because I did manage to introduce him to a few other boys in that class who also felt ostracized by the unforgiving and hierarchical culture of an American high school. “Group work might be worth something after all,” I remember thinking. Uran started hanging out with this clique after school and, for a while, seemed to smile more and mutter less.
When we were near the end of the semester, Uran’s best friend, Tommy, approached me after class. Tommy said he needed to talk to me after school. I told him to meet me after ninth period and didn’t think much of it for the rest of the workday. When he came in, with their other two friends, I asked where Uran was.
Tommy said he’d gone home, but that’s “kinda what we need to talk about.”
Then, being rather elliptical, Tommy, speaking for the other boys and himself, thanked me.
“For what, Tommy?”
“For helping us to find friends,” he said.
I’ll always remember what he said next.
“You see, we all feel kinda like misfits.”
To which I responded, “Fitting-in in this fucking world is overrated, Tommy.”
They laughed. They all appreciated that I respected and liked them enough to not censor myself when we were speaking privately. That respect was mutual. For me, I had four interesting students, each brilliant in their own way and so different from the “happy kids,” if such kids actually exist. I instinctively respected and loved them because they seemed so much like my friends from high school. For them, I was the one adult in their lives who promised to really listen and not to rat them out. They could trust me implicitly. Or so they thought.
To encourage Tommy back to the conversation about Uran, I came again to that central theme of trust. I’d said this to them before:
“You know everything here is confidential unless I think you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else.”
“Yeah, we know…” said Tommy.
Remaining evasive, Tommy then talked about how they were worried that next semester we wouldn’t get to hang out as much, since they’d be in different classes and I wouldn’t be their teacher. I suggested starting an afterschool club.
“We’ll make up some stupid name for it and I’ll be your advisor…” I offered.
“Like the Misfits’ Club?” Tommy said.
“Sure, why not,” I said.
“Uran, too, right?” asked Tommy.
“Hell, yes. It wouldn’t be much of a Misfits’ Club without him.”
We all laughed.
Then Tommy got quiet for a while. He put his head in his hands and said that he had to tell me something. Something about Uran. Something that might get him in trouble.
I settled into my chair and waited for him to continue.
“Uran brought a grenade to school today.”
Over my years teaching I heard a number of bone chilling stories, but this one stands alone for its sheer, implicit terror. Honestly, I knew that Uran was a bit damaged, but I also felt – and still feel – that he was damaged for real reasons and that the solution was to give him love and affection. But, also, I knew that I was in over my head on this one, so after street hugging The Misfits, I went directly to the principal’s office.
I did not trust the principal, at all, to address this situation with the necessary sensitivity, but neither did I want to carry the burden of having a potential Columbine massacre hanging on my karmic balance sheet for the rest of this life.
I told the principal what Tommy had told me. She thanked me for the information and informed me that “a full-scale investigation” would be conducted immediately.
The police went to Uran’s home. He was arrested.
The kids were each interrogated separately, their stories being checked and cross-checked for signs of a violent conspiracy. All of them were sent to mandatory “counseling.”
I was called into the office the next day and accused by the principal of having called Uran and his friends, “a bunch of misfits” and was officially barred from having any connection with them ever again if I wanted to keep my job.
The arrest went away, but Uran was expelled and placed in a school for troubled kids.
Aside from passing in the hallways and one last meeting with Uran years later, I never talked to my friends, again. That principal died several years ago, but I am still bitter about her decision to the point that I can not mourn her passing without filaments of anger shooting through the humanity of just letting go. Maybe writing this story will help. Probably not.
The grenade, which turned out to be a dummy, never exploded – but something still might, and I worry to this day if a fuse that could have been doused all those years ago by a god-damned after-school club is still burning somewhere out there, waiting to splash blood and death across the television screens of a desensitized nation.
I worry that someday I’ll look at my television screen and see a picture of Uran Dragon Kolenovic staring back at me from a history of missed opportunities to just be decent to one another.
Bloodbath in Binghamton
There was one full day of coverage of the mass murder in Binghamton, NY on Fox News, partial coverage on CNN International.
Day One – Under the Simpsonsesque red and black graphic reading “Bloodbath in Binghamton,” Geraldo Rivera is deeply saddened, troubled by the violent nature of our society, the transient connections between neighbors, the meaninglessness of tragic violence. He is wondering aloud how this could happen in a “bucolic” small city in America.
Day Two – Geraldo is yucking it up with a manicured political jester about Michele Obama’s physique. The “Bloodbath in Binghamton,” having washed quickly from his hands by that which passes for witticisms about Jackie O(bama!). The high pressure center of murder-as-theater has moved to Pittsburgh. Three police officers and three fatal head wounds trump twelve immigrants, one teacher and a suicide. My hometown, Binghamton, fades again from the collective consciousness – with just a lingering sense of pity. Maybe this is as it should be. Grief is physical, mourning is private and familial. Geraldo has no place here.
In reality, Binghamton is neither bucolic, nor is it bloodbathian. To steal an image from Robert Penn Warren: Binghamton is a bubble on the receding tide of empire. But it’s my bubble. Or if you feel safer stealing from Horton, it’s my dust speck.
I’ve been back to Binghamton several times a year since leaving the States in 2004 and when I’m home, I still take ritual walks through Recreation Park and remember being young – and now, as then, comes the flood: The Tree. Halloween night at 15 with Adam pounding holes into neighbors’ front lawns with his Dr. Frank-n-Furter high heels. The Electronic Cave. Colella. Mill Hill. Ryk’s basement. Jason’s big hairy legs. Craig of the North. Nym and Nantucket Vacations. The slow crawl to school down Main Street. Cloves, dashikis and downers. Palmatier’s broken arm. Kevin’s Mohawk. The Reservoir. Amy on a moonlit night.
You don’t know the characters or the settings, but you damn well know the play. In the sense that we all are our own stories, our hometowns, and the early, formative, scenes of misery and rapture – regardless of how far we’ve wandered – remain gravitationally important to who we are.
In so many human ways, Binghamton is my epicenter and it has been devastated by a violent quake: The all-too-common-in-America mass murder.
The hard facts of the crime are well established. Jiverly Voong, aka Jiverly Wong, a 41-year-old Vietnamese immigrant of Chinese ancestry, pulled his car up to the rear entrance of the American Civic Association on Front Street, blocking it closed, before walking around to the front door, entering the Center and opening fire. He was wearing body armor and reportedly fired 98 shots from two hand guns in under three minutes, killing two employees and 11 immigrant students who were preparing to take a citizenship examination. One of the victims, Roberta “Bobbie” King, a substitute teacher at the center, was the mother of an old friend of mine, Ellen.
On the television the talking heads elocuted their empathetic script and asked their existential (and teleprompted) questions about “how this could have happened?” A rhetorical question they promised to rhetorically answer. After the commercial break, of course.
Mr. Voong, it was patiently explained, had lost his job when the local vacuum cleaner plant closed down in November of 2008. Moreover, he thought people were always making fun of him because of his poor English. He was a loner. He worked hard but had few, if any, friends. He liked guns and had been practicing at local shooting ranges for several weeks. The police chief of Binghamton described him as an “accomplished marksman.” When I heard this strangely out of place praise my reaction was that it might have been nice if someone had complimented him about anything in his life before he decided to shoot my friend’s mom.
Deeper investigation, in the days after the event, revealed that he apparently had some pronounced signs of mental illness. He believed that the police were harassing him by sneaking into his room at night and touching him while he slept. He thought people were “putting music in his ears.” Reading that, my thought was that it might have been nice if someone in his family would have noticed these signs and sought out help before he turned his guns on 13 innocent people and himself.
Reading bloggers’ responses about the events of April 2, 2009, I’ve found a fairly consistent theme that breaks radically from my beliefs. Maybe it’s just the sites I’ve visited, but the commentary from the ‘merican public tilts rather heavily towards xenophobia and racism towards immigrants. A typical post being that “all the damned immigrants who hate America should just go home!”
That sickens me, but it is also worth noting that such pettiness was decidedly not the response from members of the Binghamton community. They took this wound, they felt it go all the way in, and they embraced one another. God bless them.
Still, at a greater distance to the crime, the inchoate rage at “the other” bubbled up from the pit. That anger is both part of what inspired such an act of cruelty and is also completely empty of useful sentiment for the future – and yet it is there, raging just as violently, if more dissipatedly, as the dragon in Uran’s head or the scorpions in Mr. Voong’s.
Closer to the violence and the wreckage left behind, one question rings out: Why did he do this?
For the briefest of moments, the talking heads paused the montage of brutality on Binghamton and asked that question. Why did Jiverly Voong “turn the gun” on innocent people and then himself? That question, inevitably, is answered with a collective shrug of the shoulders and an admission that “we’ll never truly know.”
Watching the coverage and how quickly it disappeared from the national conversation, I’m left believing that very few people even want an answer to that question. No one wants to understand the killer because so doing moves the locus of empathy from the victims. The generalized feeling about Mr. Voong, is that the planet is probably a better place without him. I get that. Still, from my heart’s heart, I know that we should feel some great sadness for Jiverly Voong. His wiring may have been screwy from the jump by the randomness of genetic preconditioning. He may have played a large part in messing up his existence through self-medication and an aching loneliness that kept him from building relationships with the other human beings. Maybe he overloaded after a lifetime of tragic madness, or parents who abandoned him, or never having been touched by another human being for half a decade – but he was a real person and at some point in his life he kicked a ball with his friends, he laughed, he had a crush, he whistled a song and felt an indefinable joy at seeing sunlight splayed across a field of freshly cut grass.
Clearly we can’t – each one of us on our own – heal the spirit of the planet or bring peace to this world writ large, but we can act. We can – as Candide advised us – tend our own gardens and care for the creatures within. All of them. Particularly the bungled and the botched – because there is no greater truth than this: They did not want to end up the way they did. Not when they were children.
The last time I saw Uran was after he graduated with a GED from the school for troubled teens. He came back to see me and to thank me for caring about him. “No one else did,” he said. After failing him so tragically, I nearly cried. Uran said he was thinking about joining the military. He said it was the most logical way for him to make a living. I gave him a hug and chose not to press back on what that might mean.
I’ve gone over in my head a thousand times if, rather than turning Uran and our friends over to the imperfect care of the state, I should have risked the karmic debt of the unexploded grenade and handled it on my own. Each time I do, though the call still runs close, I always break the same way. I’d make the same decision. Still, I’m wounded by the violence with which our Misfit’s Club was torn apart and I pray that we’ve heard the final echo of that unnecessary cruelty.
Dehumanization abounds and while I’m not so foolish as to believe that this can all be resolved by holding hands, it is a reasonable – maybe even a beautiful – place to start.
In this story the names of the students and some geographic and personal details have been altered to respect their privacy.