Saturday, August 01, 2009

Are some serial killers created? An observation, by Len Howlett

I had been to North Miami Beach High (no, but I was sure spaced out by the time I graduated --an old throwaway punchline from Rowan and Martin's "Laugh In") to a seminar on teaching A.P. Chemistry, and there was a lunch break with a convenient little neighborhood deli across the street.

I went into the place and had a seat at a table in the small, almost full dining area which may have had a dozen tables in it. A guy I recognized from the seminar came up to my table and asked if I would mind if he sat in the chair across from mine. I invited him to join me. He was a personable guy and told me that he was from Queens or Brooklyn, or whatever borough it turned out that Dave Berkowitz lived in during his adolescence. The talk was light, and I was a curious figure to him since I was possibly one of the few people that he ever met with a Southern accent who loved Manhattan.

So, the talk went on, and it ranged from topical stuff to teaching and its pros-and-cons. I observed that maybe the best or worst of our tendencies embodied the vast potential that inadvertently plays a part in shaping future lives, which in the end, was more important and long lasting than anything they could possibly retain of the facts of Chemistry.

"After all," I said, "we could influence their view of the academic and the adult world just through example, either for the better or the worse. Then I made a statement--mostly in-jest-- that I didn't want to feel like I had helped make any serial killers or engendered resentment that twisted young psyches. Looking back, I can only believe now that I must have been reacting to some recent news about a case that was still active, and I was regarding my corned beef and half-a-sour pickle when I felt the stillness of a significant pause and a rather sobering, quiet response from him.

"I may have," he said. I looked up to catch the light humor I would expect to see in a satirical reply. It wasn't there. He was somber, like someone who feels the gravity of an act gone bad and the silent record of guilt.

He added, "Not as a teacher, but as a student."

"How so?" I asked.

There was another significant silent space and a measured response. Then he said he went to the same high school that David Berkowitz did and asked if I remembered who that was. "Of course, I did," I replied. He had been in the same class as Berkowitz.

I asked what kind of kid David was: his reply was the expected description of a friendless, lonely boy who ate every meal alone, sitting in the cafeteria at a table by himself. My lunch companion said with detectable guilt that he had been one of a group of four boys who would sit the next table over and ridicule and harass him every day while David sat and wordlessly ate his lunch.

The topic he remembered most frequently was the question, "So what you got planned, Dave? You got a hot date? I hear all the girls taking about you? They really like you. They're crazy about you, Dave." You know, the usual compassion of high schoolers and humanity when it's allowed to distract attention from it's own loneliness and self-doubt.

Then he said, "So, I come home one day some years later and open the paper and who do I see on the front page being led away by the police wearing that frightened smirk that I had watched him walk around with for years in high school?" He said he recognized Berkowitz immediately, even before he read his name, even though he hadn't thought about him in some years. And then, he said that he often found himself wondering--if just maybe--he had played a part in what happened later. "Maybe, maybe not," was all that I could say.

But nowadays, I think about it and the unknown consequences of unthinking actions.