Disclaimer: There are some things you just don’t joke about, and school shootings is definitely one of them. Though the events of this book are fictional, school shootings are very real and an incredibly sensitive topic. I write with a sarcastic, humorous tone, but no disrespect is intended towards anyone that has been affected by a school shooting.
Trigger warning (honest to god, this book has some pretty heavy stuff): mentions of homophobia, abuse, rape, and murder
“Dear Diary: My teen angst bullsh** now has a body count.” ~Heathers
If there’s a situation more terrifying to imagine taking place in a school (other than, like, standardized testing), it’s a school shooting. Hearing about it on the news, reading survivors’ accounts, seeing parents breaking down over a lost or injured child-- it’s ugly, it’s scary, and it hits far too close to home. When we look at the mentality of school shooters, we see kids pushed down, bullied, forgotten, the same kids we may walk amongst every day. This is the experience of Tyler, the school shooter and antagonist in This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp. As the story unfolds from four students’ perspectives, not only do we learn more about the conditions and struggles Tyler faced, but how all the students-- now hostages-- have their own hidden, painful stories. And amongst these, two contrasting themes are found: freedom and community . This book is not just a tale of a senseless tragedy, but the complex lives of the characters in it. Each character’s perspective on entrapment and freedom, loneliness and community, provides fitting contrasts within the narrative itself.
“That’s the thing about Opportunity. We all love to hate it. We all want to get out, but we never want to leave” (Nijkamp 119). Opportunity is a fictional small town in Alabama, with the a misnomer that, at first glance, seems as laughably ironic as Uncle Monty from A Series of Unfortunate Events naming The Incredibly Deadly Viper… well, that. But as we’re taken through each character’s account of the story, we see how they perceive their own futures and possibilities in their hometown. For example, Autumn (Tyler’s sister) has dreamed of getting out of Opportunity and into a college for dance all her life, a dream that was encouraged by her mother. “‘...But you made me believe fulfilling Mom’s dream-- my dream-- was still possible… to get out of here’” (Nijkamp 147). Spurred on by the encouragement of her girlfriend Sylvia, Autumn hopes for a future away from this suffocating, isolated town, away from her abusive father, and away from a homophobic community. She feels trapped in Opportunity and the tantalizing freedom is a college scholarship to pursue dance. Her view is a reflection of many of the other students-- they all talk about getting out, making something greater than anything they could do here, and the prospects waiting for them “out there.” Think something like the phenomenon known as “senioritis”-- the kind of “Screw it, let’s blow this popsicle stand” mentality. This is a stark contrast to Tyler’s point of view on her “freedom”. “‘‘I wanted to be your excuse to stay home… you told me there was nothing keeping you here. Not even me’” (Nijkamp 147). Tyler, the unwanted, cast-aside high school dropout, shunned by his peers, wants to stay in Opportunity. Or, rather, wanted to-- at this point, he’s lost all hope for being a part of the community, or anything else positive to come of his time left. All that’s left is that bitter, lonely feeling, that morphed into murderous intent, which he all blames on Autumn. She was the only one he could talk to, the only person who meant anything to him, and seeing her aspirations towards the outside world broke what last bit of sentimentality or, say, humanity left in him.
Trying to sympathize with Tyler is at some times easy, and sometimes really, really not. His mom died when he was a teenager, his dad’s an abusive alcoholic, his sister wants to leave his hometown and never come back, so his bitterness and anger at the world is understandable. However, he’s also a homophobe, murderer, rapist, and abuser, so it’s not all that difficult to see why he was a social outcast. Say it with me, kids: A tragic backstory explains actions, it does not excuse them. He was so lonely, so goddamn lonely, not only isolated from his peers but his family, and evidently from his own conscience. Opportunity had a small-town-tight-knit community, but Tyler believes they failed when it came to protecting their own. Everyone knew about Tyler and Autumn’s home life, but their complete inaction frustrated Tyler, adding yet another layer to the school-shooter-psychosis sandwich. Eventually, his anger manifested in outbursts with truly awful results-- for instance, raping his sister’s girlfriend as revenge for “perverting” her, beating up her brother when he retaliated, and, of course, eventually shooting up his high school. “‘But you really don’t care, do you? After Mom died, I had no one anymore. Do you know what it feels like to be all alone?’” (Nijkamp 147). And, his very last words before shooting himself: “‘I just don’t want to be alone anymore.’” (Nijkamp 261). Boiling it all down to the simplest, most base of motives: Tyler was alone, in a community full of people who looked out for each other.
The aftereffects of Tyler’s actions, however, are what are truly telling of the Opportunity community. The tragedy of losing so many people, especially who were just teenagers, brings the community together closer than ever. A scene that strongly demonstrates this is from Claire’s point of view, right after almost everyone has been evacuated. Claire had been outside during the shooting, with the rest of the track team, and called the police when they heard the first shots. Now, as survivors swarm outside, they are taken to a tent, where the police allow Claire and the track team to speak to the students, listen to and comfort them. “My heart is empty and my head is full. The stories tumble over one another. We’re grief counselors simply because we’re there” (Nijkamp 246). The students, even those who weren’t personally there, are leaning on and supporting each other, friend or foe doesn’t matter anymore. Everyone is tired and hurting, but for each person who collapses from exhaustion, there is another who holds them up. They’ve seen what happens when there’s no one there for someone. And afterwards, when several students and staff gather at an unofficial memorial to release lanterns for those lost, a speech given by another student sums up the new, stronger sense of community between them all: “We are not better because we survived. We are not brighter or more deserving. We are not stronger. But we are here… We will remember the thirty-nine tonight. We will remember them tomorrow. We will remember them for all our tomorrows. And there will be many tomorrows; there’ll be thousands of them… We are Opportunity, and we will live.” (Nijkamp 281).
I’ll be honest, I was nearly bawling towards the end of this book. Unfortunately, I was on an eight hour flight at the time, so I resorted to sobbing silently into my airport-issued blanket, no exaggeration. This is not a happy story, or a funny one. It’s dark and sad and really, truly makes you look around and appreciate the people around you. There are so many people who are lonely, so many who feel like no one is there for them, so many who may feel driven to commit a violent act against themselves or others out of rage or numbness or pain. And everyone says that of course, they’d listen and talk and help if they could, but you can. The time is now. What you would do is what you are doing. The tiny notes of hope at the end of this book aren’t for some cheap, sappy ending-- it’s how you heal.
Go forth, my friends.
Heal and be healed.