A cautionary tale

Yesterday, I read Ian Parker’s article The Story of a Suicide in the New Yorker. It’s an article that is as compelling as it is disturbing. The basic facts of the case are well-known; Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, was spied on via a webcam by his roommate , Dahrun Ravi, while engaged in an homosexual encounter. Days later, he killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

The details of the story are disturbing and Parker does a good job at writing about the case in way that is enlightening but not voyeuristic. He raises some interesting questions. For example, the case is often used as an example of how hatred and homophobia can be harmful. However, the details of the case are usually exaggerated (no “sex tape” was posted on the Internet as is usually reported and the roommate did not “out” the victim, who was openly gay). The exaggeration of the details doesn’t make it less horrible but it does show how the media and other groups can twist the facts to best use a case like this for their own purposes. Parker also explores the idea of the difference between what legally the roommate is able to be charged with and what we might feel is his ethical/moral guilt.

What was most interesting and disturbing to me however were the character sketches that emerged of both students, as well as many of their friends and what those sketches might suggest about college students in general. Both Clementi and Ravi make quick snap judgments about each other on first meeting. Ravi assumes that Clementi is poor and texts a friend that he hates poor people. Clementi texts a friend that his new roommate’s parents are obviously first generation Indian-Americans and jokes that they must own a Dunkin Donuts.  In fact, neither of these judgments are true but one must wonder about a culture of privileged youth where lack of material wealth is seen as an immediate character flaw.

In no way could we be described as poor, and yet we live in an area where material wealth is the norm. I struggle as a parent with trying to raise kids who don’t take what they have for granted. Sometimes, I wonder if this is even possible. We can do volunteer projects but even that sets the stage for “helping the less fortunate”. How do we ensure that our kids don’t see those who are less fortunate as inferior? When my oldest niece was in (public) high school she was in the school band. They had an amazing opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall. I remember being shocked to discover that the cost of the trip was $600 a person, primarily because they were flying to NYC instead of taking a bus (the bus ride would have been about 4 hours). I asked her at the time if there was anyone in the band who couldn’t afford the trip and she replied nonchalantly that “there was one girl whose parents couldn’t afford it”. My niece is a sweet girl but she seemed not at all concerned about the feelings of this one girl out of a hundred plus who had to stay home. So while we realize we are blessed, I also can see instances where my kids would be in that 1%. There isn’t much I can do about that, but it does make me wonder how they would handle it.

In addition to seeing him as poor, Ravi clearly sees his roommate as a nerdy guy. In fact, it often seems in his exchanges with other students that he is more upset about having a nerd for a roommate than the fact that his roommate is gay. I’ve written before about one of our homeschooling goals being to raise nerds. The problem is I want my nerds to be happy nerds and this article made me wonder how to achieve that.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this article to me was the extent of the online life of all the students. I do know that there is a technological dividing line between the generations but somehow this article put it in a new light for me. Every detail of their lives is texted or somehow shared online. As reprehensible as Ravi’s actions were I felt like they were partially a result of being used to living a life online. It’s not meant to be an excuse but I do wonder if some fundamental understanding of privacy has been lost in people who have grown up in a world of reality TV. Where posting your latest embarrassing encounters on you tube is hilarious.And where every detail of one’s life is posted on Twitter and Facebook. I was also amazed at how technologically savvy the students were on one hand but yet how naive on another. None of them seem to realize that everything they choose to share  online is available not only to their friends but also to Rutgers staff, the police, the courts and now the jury. Their own words “can and will be used against them in a court of law”.

Finally, I think this article is shocking because as a parent you want to believe that you can find the magic formula to ensure that your kids grow up happy, well-adjusted, and good. You want to know that they have the self-confidence to not be bothered by bullies, to stand up for themselves. You want them to know who they are and to like themselves. You  absolutely want to know that they won’t be the bullies, that they will protect those who are more vulnerable. The article doesn’t go into great depth on the parents but it sounds like all the kids in this article (Clementi, Ravi and several other friends) grew up in fairly happy and normal homes with families that had decent values, who loved them and tried to do their best for them. The tendency in reading about a tragedy like this is to want to find the reason why it happened. In the end, you are only left with the feeling that this is a truly senseless tragedy. For Clementi and his family certainly, but also for the family of Ravi.

3 thoughts on “A cautionary tale

  1. This is such a thoughtful post. My husband read this article this past week and we’ve been talking a lot about it too. When the veil is pulled back on the lives of college students, it can be shocking, even for those of us who teach them and like to think we know how they live. Kids who attend conventional school before college are often very isolated inside groups of sameness (same age, socio-economic background, ethic identity — while a school might be diverse overall, its social groups are often quite segregated), which makes it easier for them to dismiss people they perceive as different as we see both young men do in this case. I think the digital ubiquity-and-naivete in this case is part of that problem, an inability to believe in a larger world beyond one’s tweets.

    I like to think that at least by homeschooling, we’re helping our son develop his ability to connect with the many different people he encounters, rather than being unable to talk with those outside his age and interest group. I want to raise a happy nerd too. And an article like this one is so scary and sad…

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