Like most people I know, I was shocked and saddened by the recent suicide of Tyler Clementi.
I have to admit, though, that I am also disturbed by the intensity of expressed rage at the two students who violated his privacy. What they did was wrong, even unconscionable — but they are eighteen years old, by definition works-in-progress.
When I have expressed this concern to friends, it is most frequently countered with, “Can you imagine yourself ever doing something like this? Can you imagine Ben playing such a prank?”
I don’t think I would have exposed a fellow student, or anyone, to that sort of public humiliation when I was eighteen. I’d had enough experience of being bullied myself so that, although I had developed a sometimes hurtful layer of self-protective sarcasm, I really didn’t enjoy embarrassing others. And my son simply doesn’t have a mean streak, as improbable as that may sound.
But, as chronicled here, he has done other things that seemed harmless or fun at the time, and turned out to have potentially serious consequences. And so did I when I was a teenager — driving with friends who were drunk or stoned, for example, which could have ended in tragedy. I’m not a constitutionally thoughtless person; it’s just that my brain was not fully developed and I had not had enough life experience to develop good judgment.
I’m reminded, too, of seeing the movie MASH with friends when I was eighteen. We all laughed hilariously when Hawkeye and Trapper John broadcast an erotic encounter between Frank and Margaret (who becomes known as “Hot Lips” ever after because everyone hears Frank refer to her “hot lips”) live throughout the base. It wasn’t until I saw the movie again as an adult that I realized how cruel this behavior was, or would have been in “real life.”
It’s hard for adolescents to think things through. They get caught up in the moment. They don’t imagine consequences the way adults do. Often, they have grown up on video games that offer endless opportunities for do-overs. They tend to be surprised by the finality of actual life.
None of this is to make light of the terrible tragedy that occurred as a result of a series of cruel and seemingly callous decisions. I just think it’s important to keep in mind that three potentially promising lives have now been ruined.