He was angry about being expelled from school for forging a doctor’s note.
To exact his revenge he targeted teachers within his high school. And when the rampage was over, thirteen teachers, two fellow students, a policeman and one more angry, viciously violent black-clad gunman lay dead at his own hands after one more viciously violent high school massacre.
This time it was a student in Germany. And this time he targeted teachers, not his peers. But heinous acts of violence are heinous acts of violence.
And, as always, out of heinous acts come acts of true mettle.
Rainer Heise is a sixty-year old art and history teacher at the Erfurt, Germany high school where the shootings took place last Friday. When he heard shooting, he opened the door to his classroom and saw in the hall a masked figure in black, holding a shotgun. The figure held the gun to Heise’s chest, and removed his mask. It was one of Heise’s students.
Heise told the student to shoot if he had to, but to look his victim in the eyes as he did. The gunman, 19-year-old Robert Steinhaeuser, looked his teacher in the eyes and said, “That’s enough for today.” Heise locked his student in the classroom and went to fetch authorities.
At times like this, it is human nature to sit back in awe of a man like this. It is human nature to want to be like him, to hope that in a similar situation we would act in a similar fashion. It is a normal thing to wonder where our world is going, to wonder why it is spiraling so rapidly into the bogs of moral decay. It is natural to think that, in a world as scary as this, we need more people like Heise.
Which actually may be our problem. We are all subject to sudden bouts of uncontrollable passion when times get a little heated. Chaos seems to smack us around a little while stirring up all sorts of heroic sensibilities about how we’re going to act from now on. Chaos gives everyone an opinion.
But things tend to settle down as they do, and it is easy to settle back into a comfortable ambivalence when the pressure is not on. It is easy to wistfully wish there were more people like Rainer Heise as we ourselves are drowning in the abyss of papers that finals week so wrathfully brings.
Because truly, we all want heroes and we all want to live in a world where there are men and women of caliber and passion.
But very few of us really want to be those men and women. Not really. We say we do in theory, of course. No one ever checks the “I want to be a self-centered schmuck” box. But in practice, we have far too little time to devote to the cultivation of our true heroic selves, because that paper is due at 1:10 p.m. tomorrow and we haven’t even started writing it yet.
Of course we need more people like Heise. We need more people who live a life of passion and truth and honor, regardless of where they stand on whatever issue you happen to be on at the moment. People of courage will act as people of courage all the time. But more to the point, we need to become people like Heise. Because one does not all of a sudden become heroic when one looks at a black-clad figure with a gun. One calls on all the mettle within one’s soul – mettle that’s already there – and does the right thing.
Sarah Laribee is in the English education program. She urges all of you to be well, and do the right thing. And she thanks Peter for the column suggestion this week.