Jon's Hellmouth series stands as one of the most important things that have ever appeared on Slashdot. When the dust settled following its original posting, we started talking about ways to get its message to those outside of the Slashdot community. Read on to see what we decided, what happened, and finally the first chapter of the Hellmouth book.
Originally we simply planned to release Hellmouth as a book. It made sense: the people who needed to hear what the story had to say simply weren't Slashdot readers. By spinning it out on its own, it would hopefully find the audience that needs it. The book was edited (at great time and expense I might add) and pieced together. We were all very proud of it. The profits were to be donated to charity. And the message would be heard.
When we announced our intentions, we were quite surprised (although looking back, we probably shouldn't have been) at the amount of hostility some people had towards the idea. Our hearts were certainly in the right place and people knew that, but a lot of people cried foul over our use of their words outside of the Slashdot domain. We had to stand back and rethink our decision.
Ironically enough, we contacted everyone we possibly could to get their permission. Of course there were many anonymous posts, and many email addresses that just bounced, but of the messages that got through, not a single person refused to give us permission to include their words in the Hellmouth book. As with so many things, the perception of a problem is more problematic then the actual problem.
We've decided to hold off printing Hellmouth for now, and instead to put it online. It won't reach as great of an audience as it might have in bookstores and libraries, but we hope that it will still find readers far outside of the Slashdot community: teachers, parents, school administrators. Hopefully even the ones that don't live online like we do. We hope it will reach many of them, and maybe they'll understand a little more of what happened, and what continues to happen.
The original comments have all been linked up so that proper credit can be given, and so that each message can be read within its original context. The first and last chapters will be posted to Slashdot's homepage, but the middle chapters will be moved off the mainpage, and linked in our regular Slashback stories. Our intention here is not to push this on people, but to let those who want to see this go and get it.
When the last part is posted, we'll rethink putting this into print. If you see one of your comments, think seriously about sending Hemos your permission to use these words. If we get permission from enough people, perhaps this book will still get printed. I think that there's something here worth sharing.
I had a hard time in high school. I have many stories that end with me getting assaulted verbablly or physically, just because I was different. I didn't go to parties or talk smoothly with the girls. I found my refuge in computers and technology, and found my friends and voice online.
I'm glad I got out of there before Columbine hit. It only made things harder for the outcasts. They've already got a tough trip. Hopefully the right people will read this, take it to heart, and do what they can. Growing up will never be easy, but we don't need to make it harder.
--Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda
Jeff "Hemos" Bates
I think that the story Jon Katz began to tell in his series of columns about the Hellmouth, the story that you will read here, has always been there. In places where people have come together, there have always been differences. But the stories you will read here go far beyond that. For many of the people writing in this book, high school was a time of trial. While we are attempting to create an accepting and tolerant society, what emerged last May in the writings on Slashdot was a picture that was opposite of what society has tried to paint. Instead of people being accepting of one another -- accepting of difference and of a system that values the contributions of all people -- these writings reveal a system that stigmatizes difference. Everyone is expected to be like the rest of their classmates, and failure to conform to the norm is cause for being marked.
I'm not so far from the educational system. The memory of having been mocked for not wanting to go to basketball games, or (horror of horrors!) for reading books because I actually wanted to is something I still remember. A persistent rumor among some of the girls in my school was that I had spell books. Yes, having Lord of the Rings on your bookshelf can be a black mark.
But I was lucky enough to have parents who had confidence in me, despite the fact that they didn't understand what I was doing on the computer all the time. I had a number of very good teachers in high school; although I was also confronted with my share of teachers I would never want children of my own to have.
These two things helped me immeasurably, but I also had BBS and the Internet. Yes, Virginia, there was an Internet before the Web. I would post on Usenet and on local BBS in the town where I lived. And it was because of many of the people I met there that I was able to develop confidence -- and confidants.
Rob Malda and I, despite having attended the same school system, became friends because of the BBS. And I also met people who ranged in age from eight years younger than me to thirty years older. The BBS community in our town was the model for a lot of the community ideas we've created in Slashdot. Rob and I had a desire to create a system like the one we had grown up with, one in which people could talk to one another, discuss ideas, and learn from each other without the standard noise of human interaction.
Sometimes, for people to really talk and know each other, you can't physically talk. That's what the BBS did for me. Over time, I met more and more people, and I still talk to some. But I was also able to talk to an enormous number of different people who valued me for my opinion, for my thoughts, and for who I was.
When the Hellmouth writing began, I felt the same keen sense of fear that many of the posters had. But I was also overjoyed that there was at least some place for them to talk to each other and listen to each other's experiences, and also-for people who made it through those years-to offer counsel and support. That's something that is sorely lacking in our public schools today.
While we place police officers in our schools, "protecting" the student body, we cut back on the presence of social workers and counselors, thereby eliminating out what kids-all of us, really need the most: Someone who will listen to them and understand. I wish that people would get over their fear of young people today. They aren't any different from anyone else-they just want someone to listen to them, someone to understand them, and most of all, someone to be their friend. They-we-want what everyone wants: We want to be accepted for who and what we are.
I was never going to be the star basketball player, and I certainly was not going to be the no-hitter pitcher for the baseball team. Unfortunately, what that means for many is that I simply wasn't going to matter. Fight this trend. If you are in a similar situation, try to remember that the people around you feel the same as you. And if you are persecuted by your peers, try to take heart in the fact that this too shall pass, but don't be afraid to talk to someone you trust. If you are a teacher, parent, or someone in authority, get over your fear. Fight the trend to demonize young people. Most of all shut up and listen to them. We don't need to be told what's wrong with us. We can tell you just fine, if you're willing to listen.
Voices from the HellmouthIn the days after the Littleton, Colorado massacre on April 20, 1999, the country went on a panicked hunt for the oddballs in high school, a profoundly ignorant and unthinking response to a tragedy that left geeks, nerds, non-conformists and the alienated in an even worse situation than they were before. Stories emerged from all over the country about these witch-hunts, which amounted to little more than Geek Profiling. These voiceless kids-invisible in media and on TV talk shows and powerless in their own schools-have been e-mailing me with stories of what has happened to them in the past few days. What follows are some of those stories in their own words, with my gratitude and admiration for the courage it took in sending them. The big story out of Littleton isn't about violence on the Internet; it isn't about video games turning our kids into killers. It's about the fact that for some of the best, brightest and most interesting school kids, high school is a nightmare of exclusion, cruelty, loneliness, warped values and rage. In short, high school is the Hellmouth.
From Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Todd Solondz's Welcome To The Dollhouse, and a string of comically bitter teen movies coming from Hollywood, pop culture has been trying to get this message out for years. For many kids- often the most intelligent and vulnerable - high school is a nightmare.
People who are different are reviled as geeks, nerds, and dorks. The lucky ones are excluded; the unfortunate ones are harassed, humiliated and sometimes assaulted literally as well as socially. Odd values -- unthinking school spirit, proms, and jocks -- are exalted, while the best values -- free thinking, non-conformity, and curiosity -- are ridiculed. Maybe the one positive legacy the Trench coat Mafia left was to ensure that this message be heard by a society that seems desperate not to hear it.
Minutes after the "Kids That Kill" column was posted on Slashdot and all through the weekend, I received a steady stream of e-mail from middle and high school kids from across the country -- especially from self-described oddballs. They were in trouble, or saw themselves that way, to one degree or another, in the hysteria that swept the nation after the shootings in Colorado.
Many of these kids saw themselves as targets of a new hunt for oddballs -- suspects in a bizarre, systematic search for the strange and the alienated. Suddenly, in this tyranny of the normal, to be different wasn't just about feeling unhappy, it was to be dangerous.
Schools everywhere openly embraced Geek Profiling. One group calling itself the National School Safety Center issued a checklist of "dangerous signs" to watch for in kids: It included mood swings, a fondness for violent TV or video games, cursing depression, antisocial behavior and attitudes. (I don't know about you, but I bat a thousand).
The panic was fueled by a ceaseless bombardment of powerful, televised images of the mourning and grief in Colorado, images that stir the emotions and demand some sort of response, even when it isn't clear what the problem is.
The reliably blockheaded media response didn't help either. "60 Minutes" devoted a whole hour to a broadcast about screen violence and its impact on the young. The show was heavily promoted with the tease: "Are video games turning your kids into killers?" The already embattled loners were besieged.
"This is not a rational world. Can anybody help?" asked Jamie, head of an intense Dungeons and Dragons club, whose private school guidance counselor gave him a choice: Give up the game or face counseling, possibly suspension. Suzanne, who e-mailed me, was told to go home and leave her black ankle-length raincoat there.
On the Web, kids flocked to talk to each other. On Star Wars and X-Files mailing lists and Websites and on AOL chat rooms and ICQ message boards, teenagers traded countless stories about being harassed, beaten, ostracized and ridiculed by teachers, students and administrators for dressing and thinking differently. Many said they had some understanding of why the killers in Littleton had gone over the edge.
"We want to be different," wrote one of the Colorado killers in a diary found by police. "We want to be strange and we don't want jocks or other people putting us down." The sentiment, if not the response to it, was echoed by kids all across America. The Littleton killings made their lives much worse.
"It was horrible, definitely," e-mailed Brandy. "I'm a Quake freak, I play it day and night. I'm really into it. I play Doom a lot too, though not so much anymore. I'm up till 3a.m. every night. I really love it. But after Colorado, things got horrible. People were actually talking to me like I could come in and kill them. It wasn't like they were really afraid of me- they just seemed to think it was okay to hate me even more. People asked me if I had guns at home. This is a whole new level of exclusion, another excuse for the preppies of the universe to put down and isolate people like me."
It wasn't just the popular who were suspicious of the odd and the alienated, though.
The e-mailed stories ranged from suspensions and expulsions for "antisocial behavior" to censorship of student publications to school and parental restrictions on computing, Web browsing, and especially gaming. There were unconfirmed reports that the sale of blocking software had skyrocketed. Everywhere, school administrators pandered and panicked, rushing to show that they were highly sensitive to parent's fears, even if they were oblivious to the needs and problems of many of their students.
In a private school in the East, a girl was expelled for showing classmates a pocketknife. School administrators sent a letter home: "In light of the recent tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, we all share a heightened sensitivity to potential threats to our children. I urge you to take the time to discuss with your children the importance of turning to adults when they have concerns about the behavior of others."
This solution was straight out of "1984." In fact, this was one of the reasons that its protagonist Winston was jailed for: For refusing to report his friends for behavior that Big Brother deemed abnormal and disturbing.
Few of the week's media stories -- in fact, none that I saw -- pointed out that the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, issued biannually, along with the Justice Department's reports indicate that violence among the young is dropping across the country, even as computing, gaming, cable TV and other media use rises.
Unhappy, alienated, isolated teens are legion in schools, voiceless in media, education and politics. But theirs are the most important voice of all in understanding what happened and perhaps even how to keep it from happening again.
I referred some of my e-mailers to peacefire.org, a children's rights Website, for help in dealing with blocking and filtering software. I sent other to freedomforum.org (the website Free!) for help with censorship and free speech issues, and to geek Websites, especially some on ICQ.com, where kids can talk freely.
Note: I've chosen some e-mailers to partially reprint here. Although almost all these correspondents were willing to be publicly identified -- some demanded it -- I'm only using their initials or first names, since some of their stories would put them in peril from parents, peers or school administrators --JK.
"I stood up in social studies class -- the teacher wanted a discussion and said I could never kill anyone or condone anyone who did kill anyone. But I could, on some level, understand these kids in Colorado, the killers. Because day after day, slight after slight, exclusion after exclusion, you can learn how to hate, and that hatred grows and takes you over sometimes, especially when you come to see that you're hated only because you're smart and different, or sometimes even because you are online a lot, which is still so uncool to many kids? After class, I was called to the principal's office and told that I had to agree to undergo five sessions of counseling or be expelled from school, as I had expressed sympathy with the killers in Colorado, and the school had to be able to explain itself if I acted out. In other words, for speaking freely, and to cover their ass, I was not only branded a weird geek, but a potential killer. That will sure help deal with violence in America." ---Jay (Original Comment #1)
"To be honest, I sympathized much more with the shooters than the shootees. I am them. They are me. This is not to say I will end the lives of my classmates in a hail of bullets, but that their former situation bears a striking resemblance to my own. For the most part, the media are clueless. They have never experienced social rejection, or chosen non-conformity. Also, I would like to postulate that the kind of measures taken by school administration have a direct effect on school violence. School is generally an oppressive place; the parallels to fascist society are tantalizing. Following a school shooting, a week or two-week crackdown ensues, where student's constitutional rights are violated with impunity, at a greater rate than previous." ---Andrew (Original Comment #2)
"I was stopped at the door of my high school because I was wearing a trench coat. I don't game, but I'm a geek chick, and I'm on the Web a lot. (I love geek guys and there aren't many of us.) I was given a choice - go home and ditch the coat, or go to the principal. I refused to go home. I have never been a member of any group or trench coat mob or any hate thing, online or any other, so why should they tell me what coat to wear?
Two Security guards took me into an office, called the school nurse, who was female, and they ordered me to take my coat off. The nurse asked me to undress (privately) while the guards outside went through every inch of my coat. I wouldn't undress, and she didn't make me (I think she felt creepy about the whole thing). Then I was called into the principal's office and he asked me if I was a member of any hate group, or any online group, or if I had ever played Doom or Quake. He mentioned some other games, but I don't remember them. I'm not a gamer, though my boyfriends have been. I lost it then. I thought I was going to be brave and defiant, but I just fell apart. I cried and cried. I think I hated that worse than anything." ---A.O. (Original Comment #3)
"High school favors people with a certain look and attitude -- the adolescent equivalent of Aryans. They are the chosen ones, and they want to get rid of anyone who doesn't look and think the way they do. One of the things, which makes this so infuriating is that the system favors shallow people. Anyone who took time to think about things would realize that things like the prom; school spirit and who won the football game are utterly insignificant in the larger scheme of things. So anyone with depth of thought is almost automatically excluded from the main high school social structure. It's like some horribly twisted form of Social Darwinism. I would never, ever do anything at all like what was done in Colorado. I can't understand how anyone could. But I do understand the hatred of high school life, which, I guess, prompted it." ---E.S. (Original Comment #4)
"Dear Mr. Katz. I am 10. My parents took my computer away today, because of what they saw on television. They told me they just couldn't be around enough to make sure that I'm doing the right things on the Internet. My mom and Dad told me they didn't want to be standing at my funeral some day because of things I was doing that they didn't know about. I am at my best friend's house, and am pretty bummed, because things are boring now. I hope I'll get it back."---J.O. (Original Comment #5)
"I'm in my late 20s and coming up on my high school reunion. I remember as early as third grade that I didn't fit in. Not being able to sit with the other kids at lunch, being teased and left out at recess. It wasn't anything specific, I just wasn't the same and I didn't know how to conform. I was thin and looking back at pictures, no matter how ugly I felt and the kids told me I was, I was a cute kid and pretty teen-albeit a little geeky. Being smart and later liking computers (when my high school got Apple+ machines) made me a total outcast. College was the same. I remember sitting in my dorm room crying often and wondering what I could do so that I could have friends and be invited to parties too. I did all the wrong things. I ended up marrying the first stable guy who liked me and told me I was pretty- we eventually got divorced.
Point is, I am pretty and I am smart and I found a place to be and a guy who loves me for who I am. I'm making phenomenal money for being an Internet developer and I can't wait to go to reunion and show how wonderful my life is- despite all the nasty things that people said and did. Being on the cheerleading team for four years can't compare to the lifetime success that being a freethinker brings. High school feels like it takes forever, but hang in there- "soon you'll find your niche." ---A.C. (Original Comment #6)
"It's true - the world after high school is a big, beautiful place. Of course, it is messed up in many ways, but I feel there is a tremendous amount of potential in it, especially if young people like yourselves - people with courage, free minds and spirits, IMAGINATION! - Can find the places in the world that want and need change, vision, a kick in the butt. Please hang on, find solace in gaming or poetry or music or whatever trips your trigger, build your own safe havens and learn to build them for others. You are the ones who are going to make a difference, maybe even someday for kids exactly like yourselves. I know, believe me, I KNOW, high school is not an easy time, but whatever you do, be true to yourself. You won't regret it, and with age, your peers will start to look up to you, and wish they had the courage to be "different."
"And as for now, DON"T let them censor you. Call the ACLU and ask what legal recourse you have, send the articles they won't publish to your local paper, ask your parents to listen with you to your music and then listen with them to some of theirs -- whatever you do, remember that (I am stealing this line from the poet Diane diPrima) the only war that matters is the war against the imagination."--- A high school teacher (Original Comment #7)
"I don't believe that ridicule of nerds, geeks, whatever you call it in the mainstream is anything new. Read biographies of people like Feynman and Einstein. They were viewed as oddballs too. In my view of the world, there is no free lunch. Either you conform (and die of crushing boredom) and be popular, else you do your own thing, be ridiculed. Since I chose to (and still choose to) do my own thing, I accept that I'll never be Mr. Popularity. That's how it is. You may call it a defense mechanism, but in my view who cares what The Suit in the corner cube thinks of me, as long as I get my work done. Just as I didn't care what teachers thought of me, or the giggly (but pretty, oh-so pretty) girls thought of me in school or college."---Teddy (Original Comment #8)
"I've been involved in computers from the age of 6, when I got my first real PC, a 286/16 (currently I'm almost 17 and a sophomore in high school.) Ever since then I've been hooked, in the little gray box there is a world of possibilities and adventures, and the only thing holding you back (if you aren't using some shitty OS like 'doze) is your will, knowledge and imagination. In the past I've done a lot like running a BBS, programming since I was like 10 or so, adminstering computers and networks, etc. Currently I'm working on my own CRPG (online, static-world, high-capacity roleplaying game ... www.avalonet.org) and I love it, I feel like a god whenever I work at the code, creating my own world. But there's another side to life, and it certainly isn't all that great for me at this time... Where I live is known for being a very liberal town, hell, even the mayor is gay. But I still take plenty of crap for being different. I've become really good at hiding what makes me what I am rather than risking being ostracized for it, the state of the public school system in America is rather sad. I don't really pretend I'm someone else, I just don't openly share who I am with others, if I do it's usually on a very superfical level. Some would say to "be yourself and don't care what others think about you", but I've been there and done that, and in high achool it only makes your life hell, or at least it did mine. Right now I fit in alright, I'm not popular or anything, but at the same time I'm well-liked by most others. But I feel that I'm not living my life, my potential is constanyl oppressed and I can't really talk to anyone about who I really am because they just can't understand me, so I've all but given up trying. This is a good indication as to the fact that I've never gone to see school counselors, etc."
"I'm really a good guy at the root. I hate being mean to people (I'm sure it bothers me more than them when I do it) and I just love having fun, fun that doesn't involve putting others down to make yourself feel better (that's certainly hard to find in my enviroment.) For me understanding comes from children, I love kids. Just spending time with them makes me feel somehow fulfilled as a human being, all you have to do is give them attention and love and they'll love you back for who you are. I don't have to pretend in front of them, and that's what I love about it. Of course they most likely can't understand what I do, nor do I expect them to try, just the fact that they're there and smiling at you is enough. It's sad to see them grow up and be filled with stereotypes and misconceptions, but it's inevitable these days. People fill that void in different ways, for me it's children, for you hopefully it's your finacee, hopefully I can find an understanding woman in my future, one who is fine with me being myself. I'm sorry that I really can't offer any advice but I can only share my short story and hope that you find that you're not alone, there are plenty of others like you and I who have been "shown the door" concerning inclusion in society, some more than others. The world is a scary place, and those who brave it while staying true to themselves are the real winners." ---Robby (Original Comment #9)
"I feel rejected and oppressed by all the cool kids in this college. I believe I'll wander down to the commons and take them all out. I have zero sympathy for the TCM. I really don't see their 'solution' to their problems as having any positive benefits." ---Derek (Original Comment #10)