This Short Story About A School Shooting Is Actually Pretty GoodCommentary • Opinion • books • ISSUE 45•03 • Jan 14, 2009 By Betty Cartwright Being a 10th-grade English teacher can be frustrating. I work hard to help my students improve their writing, but when it comes time to sit down and grade their assignments, I'm often left wondering why I bother. Once in a while, though, a student hands in something that is an absolute delight to read.A student like Brian Petersen, who wrote an incredible short story about a deadly school shooting and how nobody picked up on all the warning signs until it was too late. It's just fantastic!Sure, I might expect something this good from one of my more advanced students, but Brian? He's so quiet and withdrawn. To be honest, I was surprised to see him show up for school at all, let alone write such a good story. I guess that'll teach me to underestimate a pupil just because he seems very secretive and completely alienated from the rest of his peers.Still, what a superb piece of fiction! All year long I've been trying to get my students to write what they know, and finally someone took the lesson to heart. The characters in Brian's story feel like real flesh-and-blood human beings. His narrator—the shooter—is of course completely imaginary, but you can tell the other characters are based on people Brian knows from school. For example, there's a character called Jason, who is the captain of the basketball team at the shooter's school. Well, our school's real-life Jason is a basketball star, too! Also, there's a girl in the story called Amanda, who, if the four whole paragraphs devoted to describing her skin and hair are any indication, is based on Amanda Thomas, one of the students Brian sits next to in class.If I have one criticism, though, it's that Brian could have put a little more of himself into the story. I suppose the shooter is sort of like Brian in that none of the other kids like him, and some even mock him ruthlessly. And sure, the shooter always wears a green military jacket like Brian does, but that could be anyone.Still, let's not dwell on what the story lacks. This is a really touching and chilling piece of prose! I tried calling Brian's parents to tell them about it, but there's never any answer at home.The sparkling characters aren't the only part of the story that made me ooh and aah. It's clear that Brian did a lot of research, which is always a good idea when a piece requires a lot of facts on a subject you don't know anything about. His command of narrative flow is so true to life it almost feels as if he knows how to buy a deadly weapon on the street. What it feels like to hold a gun in one's hands. To want to shoot and kill several dozen of one's classmates. Brian's writing should really be applauded! If this story is any sign of things to come, the boy has an incredibly bright future ahead of him. Ultimately, though, it's Brian's evocative descriptions that make his story an utter joy to read. When he writes of "skull fragments and brain matter exploding like 15 years of pent-up rage," one truly begins to understand his main character. Amid the blood and shrieks of terror, it's almost as if Brian is able to empathize with his protagonist and all the pain that he's been through. Then again, maybe not, but triumphs of creative writing like this are what an English teacher dreams of! Since I couldn't keep Brian's story to myself, I passed it around the teacher's lounge, and my fellow faculty members agreed that it's quite the little masterpiece. Susan Hazelmann said that Brian has shown real progress since he took English with her last year. She said that his stories then used to all be sad, boring pieces about a reclusive kid in search of acceptance—a kid who feared growing thoughts of violence, and who wished, more than anything else, to find someone in whom he could confide. According to Susan, she nearly gave him an F!Even the principal, Don Vogt, liked the story, though I think he was just tickled to be the victim of a pipe bomb the main character puts under his office chair.In the end, though, I take peace in knowing that my labors have helped a promising young student take off. If he stays on target, Brian might have a real shot at a writing career! I think he could even make a name for himself one day.