55. Undertow

January 28, 2009

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Nancy opened her laptop and wrote a review online, for her friend the dressmaker:

Excellent Service!

She is professional and courteous. Whether an item of clothing needs a complicated overhaul or a simple adjustment, her meticulous attention to detail makes everything look great! As a bonus, she showed me how to accessorize…

Nancy’s friend had given her a big makeover back when she and Peter first split, and now, with the official divorce proceedings underway, Nancy felt like it was time for the next upgrade. And she knew she could amply afford one: the alimony paperwork was just being finalized, and she could count on a $10,000 payment every two weeks. That was just to start: the total would increase year-over-year, from an annual total of $240,000 in 2010, to $298,800 by 2015.

Peter was also, as Nancy had promised, going to “solely finance the cost of the Children’s four year college educations and graduate school programs.” And, finally, Peter agreed to purchase a car for their youngest son, “if and when he shall wish to have one.”

Peter didn’t fight any of it; as his attorney remembers, “He was very upset that he was getting divorced, but he didn’t want to take it out on anybody.” He would come in for a consultation, and the lawyer would crunch some numbers and say, “This is what your obligation is.”

“That’s not enough,” Peter would reply. “I want to do more.”

The Lanzas even agreed to peacefully share their season tickets at Fenway Park, splitting up the nine home games evenly — “The parties will alternate attending either five games or four games each year.” If the Red Sox made the playoffs, Nancy and Peter agreed to work that out game-by-game.

February 2009

Western Connecticut State University

Nancy again drove her son to every class. He was registered for two that spring: American History Since 1877, and Introduction to German Speaking.

His history professor would remember that he “stood out” to her, “because he was so much younger than the other students,” and he “looked like a scrawny 12 year old with oversized clothing.” He was always very quiet, and “would look away when she would look in his direction.” During sessions when the students were supposed to work with each other, he “tended not to interact.”

Her course focused on “the rise of industry, World War I, and the Civil Rights movement.” When finals came around, the scrawny, quiet kid told her he was planning to write his paper about the creation of the Federal Reserve, and its history; that was perfectly fine, she thought, but when he later turned in the essay, she was surprised to find that he “went on a tangent [about] the US government going off the gold standard.” She found it especially odd because, in her experience, “typically college students are not familiar with these ideas and do not have such strong opinions.” It was rhetoric that the professor more associated with “libertarians to the extreme,” who “embrace an array of conspiracy theories.” (When investigators asked if she could clarify what she meant, the interviewing officer wrote that she “provided to me the example of Timothy McVeigh as being someone who participates in this type of thinking.”)

Meanwhile, at 36 Yogananda, Nancy’s son had been reading a book by Ron Paul (a more likely source for criticisms of the Fed). He would talk with his dad, the accountant, about economic policy when they had weekend visits. And it was a particularly vivid time to be studying the topic, with more foreclosure signs appearing every day, all around them. The nation’s economy was in flames.

* * *

A note in Nancy’s records shows that she told the IEP team that her son’s schooling was going “much better” at WCSU. She recorded that he was not receiving — and did not need — any psychiatric services.

At another checkup, his height had grown to fully 5’10, but he still weighed just 112 pounds. The provider checked off boxes showing that “anticipatory guidance” was provided to Nancy regarding the “issue areas” on the form; these included “nutrition advice,” “siblings/peer relationship” and “internet safety.” The sections for listing “peer relations” and “after school activities” were left blank. Under “Assessment,” the provider filled in the bubble next to “well child/normal growth and development.”

Perhaps the biggest change taking place at this time was something more personal: Nancy’s son was working. He had apparently taken an internship with someone his mother knew, fixing up old computers. It was the same sort of stuff that the Tech Club used to do to fund their operations; this employer wrote a letter (apparently to the IEP team) that March, confirming they had hired the teen as an “independent contractor,” and had observed that he was “cordial, professional, and displayed expert attributes.”

“My Place” Restaurant — Newtown, Connecticut

There was a regular at the bar who had known Nancy since about 2002. She had told the man that she had two sons, and that one of them had “issues” of some kind, but that he was smart — she said she decided to move him to college courses because he was “brilliant” — and he enjoyed fixing computers.

One night at the bar, Nancy’s friend mentioned that he was a Mac user, but found that he wanted to be able to run some Windows programs on his machine when he needed to. He knew it was possible to do that, but he couldn’t figure it out. Nancy said don’t worry: her son can do it.

Not long after, Nancy was pulling up outside her friend’s house, with her nervous-looking son in the passenger seat. The man greeted them at the door, and shook the meek 16-year-old’s hand. Then Nancy’s son took the computer into another room, while Nancy stayed behind and chatted with her friend. She casually mentioned that she was actually considering moving out of Newtown in a couple years, once the real estate market brought 36 Yogananda’s mortgage back above water. Maybe to Seattle. She said there was a special school there that would be good for her son. He was trying to overcome his fears, and she wanted to help; she said that during the drive over, he had “contemplated whether to shake hands or not.” At least on this particular day, when the moment came, he was able to do it.

After about an hour, Nancy’s son came back into the room, and said he needed to bring the Mac back home. He had more resources to work with at 36 Yogananda. The man said sure, and they talked briefly about it. He noticed that Nancy’s son was “very polite,” but also that he only spoke if you asked him a direct question.

* * *

A few nights later, Nancy showed up at My Place, and saw her friend drinking a beer. Wait right there, she told him — she had his computer for him in her car, all ready to go. When she handed it over, it came with a note: her son had handwritten a meticulous list of the steps he took to fix the problem, just in case anything went wrong.

Thankful, Nancy’s friend said he wanted to pay for the service. But Nancy said no; her son just enjoyed working with computers. He didn’t need money. She asked him to write a letter of reference instead; they were starting to make college plans.

As neither were ever identified, it’s possible that Nancy’s bar friend was the same “employer” who said he hired her son as an “independent contractor.” But if so, that was a bit of an exaggeration; it was only one job.

April 3, 2009

American Civic Association — Binghamton, New York

The shooter parked at the rear entrance of the building. He pulled right up to the doors, blocking them from opening with the front bumper of his car. Then he went around to the front. He had taken classes there before, trying to improve his English, but this time, he walked in wearing body armor, immediately drew two handguns, and started shooting. He blasted a path to his old classroom — where he had never been disruptive before at all — and shot everyone there, then himself.

The police found that he had sent a letter to a television station, just before he launched the attack. It appeared to be a list of paranoid hallucinations — hampered by a poor grasp of the English language — detailing how the “undercover police” were coming into his apartment when he was sleeping, or were trying to get into traffic accidents with him, or were spreading rumors about him around town:

I can not accepted my poor life. Before I cut my poor life I must oneself get a judge job for make an impartial with undercover cop by at least two people with me go to return to the dust of earth. Already impartial now. Cop bring about this shooting, cop must responsible. And you have a nice day.

…None of it made any sense.

* * *

Washington was consumed with drafting a budget that week, trying to get the spiraling economy under control. President Obama released a statement, saying that he and his family were “shocked and deeply saddened to learn about the act of senseless violence in Binghamton, NY, today.” They didn’t know all the facts yet, but they were monitoring the situation. That was it, for the first mass shooting President Obama would have opportunity to respond to in office.

130 Morgan Street — Stamford, Connecticut

On April 22, 2009, Nancy’s son had his 17th birthday. He did not want to celebrate it. He did, however, obtain his learner’s permit. And when Peter came to pick him up for visits after that — to go on a day hike, or to an arcade or a coin show — he would offer his son the wheel. Eventually, reluctantly, he took it; Peter found that he drove much like he maneuvered the halls at NHS. His son was “the most cautious driver on the face of the earth.”

Now and then, Peter wondered about Nancy. It would just be some little thing, a behavior he noticed or something she said, but for all the time she spent with their son, sometimes it seemed like her perception of him, and what his capabilities were, didn’t quite match reality. Like one time recently, when Peter was dropping their son back off at 36 Yogananda after a hiking trip; he was telling her how the trip went, and mentioned that at one point their son had paused to tie his shoe. Nancy suddenly interrupted the story, astonished: “He tied his own shoes?”

The divorce was grinding along, in the background. His son knew that he was dating, but Peter decided not to introduce him to his new girlfriend. Peter figured that would be “more than he could handle.”

He sensed that his son might be slipping away from him, like the distance between them had somehow increased every time they saw each other. But Peter chalked it up as adolescent angst; when he was a teenager himself, after all, he too had become alienated from his parents. Maybe it was just part of growing up.

Peter strove to see further down the path that his son was traveling, hoping to anticipate where he would next need help. He was researching a program called GRASP — Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership — hoping that through its support group meetings, maybe one day, his son might even find a soulmate, and settle down. It wasn’t the most comprehensive plan, but it was something. Time was running out. His son was going to be an adult soon.

April 28, 2009

Western Connecticut State University

Nancy came into the college registrar’s office. She said that her son was a student there, for high school credits, and he needed to drop his German class. She handed them a note he had written: his signed “drop request.”

The registrar printed out the revised course load, with the German class marked a “W.” They scribbled a note on the office copy: “MOTHER CAME IN @ 2:14pm.”

Nothing bad had happened in the class, as far as anyone could tell. The German professor wouldn’t even remember Nancy’s son was there. His classmates did, though; one, a young woman named Dot, would tell the Wall Street Journal a familiar story: “We tried to say hi to him every so often,” but “he just seemed nervous.” Still, they were nice to him. He seemed to follow along in conversations — “We’d joke, he’d laugh, that kind of thing.” Certainly, there was no bullying at the college; they were all adults.

Another classmate, Gretchen, even invited him to come along with a group of them to get beers after class. “No, I can’t, I’m 17,” he responded.

“We were like ‘oh, okay,’ and then he went home.” Dot figured the age difference was why he was so quiet in the first place. “He didn’t have anybody to connect with because we were all older,” she says. “I assumed he was this super smart kid who was just doing extra course work.”

They didn’t know he was getting close to failing the class — and that inside, he was an emotional mess. Only his mother could sense that.

Nancy had sent Peter a series of emails that spring, documenting the rapid decline in their son’s capacity to study: “He was exhausted and lethargic all day, and said he was unable to concentrate and his homework isn’t done.” She continued, “He is on the verge of tears over not having his journal entries ready to pass in. He said he tried to concentrate and couldn’t and has been wondering why he is ‘such a loser’ and if there is anything he can do about it.”

Just before she headed over to WCSU to drop the course, she wrote, “He finally and tearfully said that he can’t complete the German. He can’t understand it. He has spent hours on the worksheets and can’t comprehend them.”

Once again, as it had been throughout elementary school, language was the hurdle he couldn’t clear. And with his years of Latin already done, they didn’t need the foreign language credits anyway. It just wasn’t worth the stress.

Nancy, likely, was not concerned that her son might fall behind-schedule for graduation. In fact, she had been going back and forth with the school district to see what they could do to have the remaining goals met ahead of schedule.

* * *

After the term ended, and the German class was over, Dot was working her shift at the local Gamestop store, when the quiet, “super-smart kid” came in. They chatted, briefly, as she rang him up, both of them laughing about how hard the class was. Dot said she failed one of the exams. He said he got a D on it.

She saw him come in a bunch of times after that, an avid gamer. But they didn’t talk. “He was one of those customers that came in, got his stuff and left.”

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Beginning about this time — right around the end of the 2008-2009 school year — anyone monitoring the traffic coming and going from the internet connection at 36 Yogananda would have seen a sudden flurry of activity; the shedding of one identity, for another.

On May 2nd, a user visited the website NortheastShooters.com — advertised as “New England’s premiere shooting forum,” it hosted such discussions as, “So is a pistol-grip shotgun a handgun?”, and “Things I learned when shooting my new AR-15”, as well as sub-forums on each New England state’s gun laws. One was for Connecticut.

The visitor clicked to create a new profile, and entered their new username: Kaynbred.

It is not known if they ever posted anything to that forum, but they had plans for the name. They went over to Glocktalk.com, and made a Kaynbred profile there, too. Then another, at Saiga.com — a site for owners (and aspiring owners) of an exotic semi-automatic shotgun patterned off the AK-47, with a detachable magazine.

On June 6th, the user “Blarvink” logged back into the doodling website 2draw.com — it had been four years, almost to the day, since they uploaded “Elder Crying Over Nuclear Weapon.” Now they reopened the picture of the Granny-like figure in front of the mushroom cloud, and tried to erase it… but there didn’t seem to be a function to do that. “Agh, I do not know how to delete this” he commented below the drawing. So instead, he did the next best thing: clicked “edit” to reopen the clumsy old doodle, clicked the paint bucket, the color white, and then bleached the whole canvas away.

The next day, a Wikipedia user created a new profile: “Kaynbred” didn’t change any wiki pages, yet. But the profile Blarvink was never used there again.

Summer 2009

Western Connecticut State University

Nancy did wind up taking a class that June: a Parenting Education Program course, the same that Peter would complete per the terms of their divorce. It was one afternoon, held at a non-profit Family Center in Stamford. They went on different days.

She only had to drive her son to one class that summer. Macroeconomics. But it didn’t go well. He got frustrated, and eventually started refusing to go to class. Nancy arranged for a tutor for him, but then he would refuse to leave the house for the sessions.

She got an email from Peter, asking for a status update; he had been emailing his son directly, but wasn’t getting any response. She wrote back:

He wouldn’t go to the tutor today. He seemed like he would all along… I checked with him several times during the day and he said he would go, and even 10 minutes before we should leave he was getting ready to go, but then had a meltdown and began to cry and couldn’t go. He said things like its pointless, and he doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know. I tried everything to assure him and let him know it wouldn’t matter if he hadn’t finished the work, or couldn’t finish, or didn’t understand, and that’s what the tutor would figure out… even if we go back and review Algebra 1… but he couldn’t stop crying, so I said we could try again next week.

She sent an update a few weeks later:

Something must have gone wrong with class today. He wouldn’t speak on the way home and had his hood completely covering his face. He went straight to his room and won’t eat. I gave him time alone to compose and have tried to speak to him twice now, but he just keeps saying “It does not matter” and “leave me” “I don’t want to speak of it.” Did you look at the syllabus? Is it possible he has already missed a deadline or not been prepared for a quiz/test? I don’t know what I should do. I don’t want to try to talk to him again because he sounds like he is on the verge of crying.

Peter stepped in; his son had been talking lately about enrolling in college as a regular full-time student next fall, meaning far more classes — and yet here he was, falling apart with just one on his plate.

He wrote to his son:

As we discussed, we will be working on your study skills in order to better prepare you for your upcoming increased college class load. Teaching post-graduate classes for the last 15 years makes me qualified to coach you.

I have cc’d your mother on this email and asked that she print it out and place it on the counter. I will continue to include your mother on these emails until such time that you regularly check for, and respond to, emails from me.

We will review your Math homework this weekend when I am in Newtown. Please complete your Math homework by Friday night at midnight. This deadline is not arbitrary. Learning to set and meet deadlines is a critical factor in time management. Time management in turn, is a key study skill. Over the years I had had a number of students that have encountered problems because they have under estimated the amount of time required to complete their assignments. I find that students who are good at time management always do better than their less disciplined peers. Let me know if you have any questions.

Dad.

His son passed the class, eventually. He earned a B, and three more credits. And that, somehow, turned out to be enough.

June 25, 2009

Newtown High School

The NHS yearbook came out, and Nancy’s son was listed in the Juniors section, once again under “not photographed.”

Next year, his name wouldn’t be there at all; it’s not clear exactly how, but the course work he had been putting in at WCSU was enough for him to graduate a year early. That had been his final IEP.

The high school’s guidance counselor and special education teacher wrote a few messages back and forth, getting things squared away for early graduation. The student “did not wish to participate in any graduation activities,” but had expressed that he “would like to receive his diploma and a handshake from the principal.”

The Newtown staff had to have felt some relief. It had practically been a war between Nancy and the school district at times, but together, they managed to get him through to the finish. Finally.

Back when Nancy had crossed this same milestone herself, she had been standing in a giant “78,” in the parking lot of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston. And although her son’s path to the finish line had been much more circuitous than her own, Nancy was proud of him for having made it, and surely felt some relief for him. The tide that started pulling him out of the pale yellow house just as soon as they moved in, coming back every fall, year after year, was finally gone. No more deadlines, no more class bells, no more crowded hallways. No IEPs, no grades, no forced conversations. It would be up to him when he wanted to leave 36 Yogananda. He would still be a minor for another ten months, but as long as his mother allowed it, he could do as he pleased.

Nancy asked her son what his plan was. His answer hadn’t changed since their Depot Road days: he still wanted to be a soldier.