Jaylen Fryberg: Lonely in the Crowd ~ Charles Russell, MS

Jaylen Fryberg was a handsome, happy, popular young man who was voted Homecoming Prince just a week ago. His relationships with is immediate family, especially his father, seem very close. Jaylen also seems to have been proud of his Native America heritage that many consider a liability. Yet, on Friday October 24, 2014, he began firing a gun at his cousins and friends in the school cafeteria, all before taking his own life. The foggy details may ever remain that way. What surely remains is that Jaylen does not fit our established profile for a school-shooter, and frankly, it makes his actions seem so much more senseless. Still if there is anything we know about human behavior, it is that behavior always serves a purpose, no matter how incongruous.

News agencies, like a modern lynch mob, have descended on Jaylen’s life as if to expose a monster but, failing with that lead, are left merely trying to make sense of his actions. What have they found? He reported being bullied for reasons unknown, and was recently kicked off the football team for supposedly defending himself. Discovering Jaylen’s Twitter account, news outlets have called him a very heartbroken, frustrated young man. Reading his tweets myself, I too perceive a young man who is heartbroken by what seem to be feelings of inadequacy and repeated relationship failures. With whom, you ask? It is unclear. What is clear is that he was using social media as a means of expressing his inner life, the way many people do. Were his tweets a proverbial “cry for help”? Possibly, but they seem more like a cry for care. Perhaps he felt forced to elicit concern from others. Whatever his motivation, it was as if he was looking for someone to say, “This hurts so badly, Jaylen. You’re still loved; you’re lovable. You’re going to get through this. I’m here with you. We’re going to get through this together.”

Ironically, in the face of what must have been unwitting isolation, Jaylen turned to a medium that would allow him to express, but that left him without the very connection he was likely seeking. One might expect that to be a trend in his life. That trend is evidenced by the most striking and perhaps the saddest aspect of his tweets: many if not most of the responses he received have come in the past 24 hours, from people who did not know him, from people who were not supposed to care for him, or to care about him.

Frustratingly, even if we put these pieces together and can understand why Jaylen fell apart, the dead will still be in their graves. Scars, both emotional and physical, will still haunt survivors. So why investigate? Why write? Why look for answers if it will not change what happened? I write because, while the past is indelible, the future does not need to be. We can change, so that lives end in their natural course, and not at the end of a gun. I do not condemn social media for its coldness. I do not censure a grieving family or mourning friends who did not see past Jaylen’s blithe façade, his smiling eyes, or his jovial exuberance.

I write as a reminder that things, that people, are not always as they appear, but that most often there are cues that reveal the truth if we but take the time to look. It is so easy to be consumed by the exigencies of life, and miss the people, the unrepeatable human beings that mean the most to us. So be present to the people in your life, and attend to those you meet along the way – that is the price of love, and sometimes that price is steep. You will never know the difference you might be making.