photo: Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult

Nineteen Minutes

Nineteen Minutes examines a school shooting in a riveting, poignant, and thought-provoking novel that asks a haunting question: Do we really ever know someone? …more

Bestseller Picoult takes on another contemporary hot-button issue in her brilliantly told new thriller…the author’s insights into her characters’ deep-seated emotions brings this ripped-from-the-headlines read chillingly alive.”
Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review

Helpful resources on bullying, school violence and prevention

Are you an educator looking to use 19 Minutes for an anti-bullying curriculum?. The “Fish Bowl” discussion structure is an effective way to facilitate group conversations. Jodi put together these 19 Minutes excerpts and questions as a resource for educators and others developing their own anti-bullying curriculum. Check out these online resources about school violence and prevention. Enhance your book club meeting: discuss ways to prevent bullying and school violence in your community!

The Story Behind 19 Minutes

ABOUT

About Nineteen Minutes

In this emotionally charged novel, Jodi Picoult delves beneath the surface of a small town to explore what it means to be different in our society.


The publisher: Atria Books, 2007. (Book 14)

In Sterling, New Hampshire, 17-year-old high school student Peter Houghton has endured years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of classmates. His best friend, Josie Cormier, succumbed to peer pressure and now hangs out with the popular crowd that often instigates the harassment. One final incident of bullying sends Peter over the edge and leads him to commit an act of violence that forever changes the lives of Sterling’s residents.

Even those who were not inside the school that morning find their lives in an upheaval, including Alex Cormier. The superior court judge assigned to the Houghton case, Alex—whose daughter, Josie, witnessed the events that unfolded—must decide whether or not to step down. She’s torn between presiding over the biggest case of her career and knowing that doing so will cause an even wider chasm in her relationship with her emotionally fragile daughter. Josie, meanwhile, claims she can’t remember what happened in the last fatal minutes of Peter’s rampage. Or can she? And Peter’s parents, Lacy and Lewis Houghton, ceaselessly examine the past to see what they might have said or done to compel their son to such extremes. Nineteen Minutes also features the return of two of Jodi Picoult’s characters—defense attorney Jordan McAfee from The Pact and Salem Falls, and Patrick DuCharme, the intrepid detective introduced in Perfect Match.

Rich with psychological and social insight, Nineteen Minutes is a riveting, poignant, and thought-provoking novel that has at its center a haunting question. Do we ever really know someone?

Nineteen Minutes trailer

CHAT

A conversation with Jodi about Nineteen Minutes

What drew you to the subject of school shootings for the premise of a novel?

As a mom of three, I’ve seen my own children struggle with fitting in, and being bullied. It was listening to their experiences, and my own frustrations, that led me to consider the topic. I also kept thinking about how it’s not just in high school where we have this public persona that might be different from what we truly feel inside…everyone wonders if they’re good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, no matter how old they are. It’s an archetypical moral dilemm do you act like yourself, and risk becoming an outcast? Or do you pretend to be someone you’re not, and hope no one finds out you’re faking?

How did you go about conducting research for Nineteen Minutes? Given the heart wrenching and emotional topic of the book, in what ways was the research process more challenging than for your previous novels?

This book was VERY hard to research. I actually began through my longtime legal research helper, who had a colleague that had worked in the FBI and put me in touch with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office – the people who investigated the Columbine shootings. I spoke with them, and they sent me DVDs and material that had never been made available to the public, which helped a bit to get into the mindset of the shooters. The next contact I made was with a woman who served as a grief counselor to the families who lost children at Columbine. However, I really wanted to talk to a school shooting survivor…and yet I didn’t want to cause anyone undue pain by bringing up what will always be a difficult subject. I was actually in Minneapolis, doing a reading, when the Red Lake shootings occurred. It was the most surreal feeling: there I was in a hotel, writing a scene in the book, and on the TV next to me was a reporter saying exactly what I was typing into my fiction. I went to the bookstore event that night and was telling folks about the way my two worlds had collided…and a woman came up to me afterward. She knew someone who’d survived the Rocori shootings in MN, and was willing to put me in touch with her. Through that connection, I not only spoke with two teachers who shared with me their story of the shooting…but also a young man whose friend died that day. It was his commentary that shook me the most – as a writer and a parent – and that became the most important research I did for this book.

What facts did you uncover during your research that might surprise readers whose knowledge of school shootings comes solely from media coverage?

Although the media is quick to list the “aberrant” characteristics of a school shooter, the truth is that they fit all teens at some point in their adolescence! Or in other words – these kids who resort to violence are not all that different from the one living upstairs in your own house, most likely – as scary as that is to imagine. Two other facts that surprised me: for many of these shooters, there is the thinnest line between suicide and homicide. They go to the school planning to kill themselves and decide at the last minute to shoot others too. And that, psychologically, a single act of childhood bullying is as scarring emotionally as a single act of sexual abuse. From the point of view of the survivors, I remember being stunned when this young man I interviewed said that afterward, when his parents were trying to be solicitous and ask him if he needed anything, he turned away from them…because he was angry that they hadn’t been like that yesterday, BEFORE. Historically, one of the most upsetting things I learned was that after Columbine, more than one family was told that their child was the first to be killed. It was theoretically supposed to offer them comfort (“my child went first, and didn’t suffer”) but backfired when several families realized they’d been told the same thing.

What appealed to you about bringing back two characters from previous novels: defense lawyer Jordan McAfee and detective Patrick DuCharme? Why the romantic resolution for Patrick this time?

Okay, I’m just going to admit it to the world: I have a crush on Patrick DuCharme. And of course, he DIDN’T get the girl at the end of Perfect Match. So I really wanted him to star in another story, where he was front and center. (For those really savvy readers, who want to torture themselves with unanswered questions – scroll back to Chapter 1 of Nineteen Minutes and do the math: how old is Nina’s little girl? And how long ago was Perfect Match. Hmm….) As for Jordan – as soon as I realized that I had a murder trial in New Hampshire, I started thinking of who might defend Peter. And Jordan happened to be free…! It’s always great fun to bring a character back, because you get to catch up on his/her life; and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel – you already know how he speaks, acts, thinks.

In Nineteen Minutes, Lewis Houghton is a college professor whose area of expertise is the economics of happiness. Does such a profession actually exist? How does Lewis’ job relate to the story as a whole?

It does exist! There are economics professors who run statistics about how different elements of a person’s life (marriage, sexual orientation, salary, etc.) can add to or detract from overall happiness, by giving those elements a dollar value. Lewis’s equation – that happiness equals reality divided by expectations – is from real research. However,I sort of fudged the other equation he devises: that expectation divided by reality equals hope. As for how the profession relates to the story – well, you have to love the irony of a guy who studies happiness for a living, and yet isn’t aware of the discontent simmering beneath his own roof.

As the mother of three children, was the subject of popularity and the cruel ways in which children often treat one another a difficult one for you to address?

It is always hardest for me to write a book that has kids in it close to my kids’ ages – and Nineteen Minutes does. I think that every parent has probably experienced bullying in some form – either from the POV of the bully or the victim – so it’s a pretty universal subject. But in many ways, watching my children as they struggled to find their own place in the social hierarchy of school did make them guinea pigs for me, as I was writing the book. I know that many of my readers are the age of the young characters in this book, and over the years, some have written me to ask if I’d write a book about bullying. But it wasn’t until I began to connect what kids experience in school with how adults treat other adults who are somehow different that I began to piece together the story. Discrimination and difference at the high school level will never end until the adults running these schools can go about their own lives without judging others for their race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. How ridiculous is it that America prides itself on being a melting pot, when – as Peter says in the novel – that just means it makes everyone the same?

Did you have the surprise ending in mind when you began writing Nineteen Minutes, or did it evolve later in the process?

As with all my books, I knew the ending before I wrote the first word.

You’re the author of fourteen novels. As you write more and more books, is it harder to come up with ideas? How do you know when an idea is the right one?

The right idea is the one you can’t stop thinking about; the one that’s in your head first thing in the morning. The ideas choose me, not the other way around. And as for a shortage (I’m knocking on wood, here) I haven’t faced that yet. I could tell you what the next four books I’m writing will address.

You once remarked about your previous novel, My Sister’s Keeper, that “there are so many shades of gray in real life.” How might this statement also apply to Nineteen Minutes?

It’s funny you should compare Nineteen Minutes to My Sister’s Keeper because I see them as very similar books – they are both very emotional, very gut-wrenching, and they’re situations that every parent dreads. And like the moral and ethical complications of MSK, you have a kid in Nineteen Minutes who does something that, on the surface, is absolutely devastating and destructive and will end the lives of others. But – given what these characters have endured – can you blame them? Do I condone school shootings? Absolutely not. But I can understand why a child who’s been victimized might feel like he’s justified in fighting back. I also think it’s fascinating to look at how two good parents might find themselves with a child they do not recognize – a child who does something they can’t swallow. Do you stop loving your son just because he’s done something horrible? And if you don’t, do you start hating yourself? There are so many questions raised by Nineteen Minutes – it’s one big gray area to wallow in with your book group!

Many of your books center on topics that are front and center in the headlines. Is it important for you to not only entertain readers with a riveting storyline but to challenge them to think about timely and often controversial topics? Why do you suppose you have gravitated toward this type of storytelling?

I think that sometimes when we don’t want to talk about issues that are hard to discuss or difficult to face, it’s easier to digest it in fiction instead of nonfiction. I mean, no one goes into their bookstore and says, “Hey, can I read the most recent book about the sexual molestation of kids!?” but if you pick up a novel that has that as its center, you will become involved with the characters and the plot and find yourself dissecting the issue without even realizing it. Fiction allows for moral questioning, but through the back door. Personally, I like books that make you think – books you’re still wondering about three days after you finish them; books you hand to a friend and say “Read this, so we can talk about it.” I suppose I’m just writing the kind of novel I like to read!

In the Acknowledgements section, you write: “To the thousands of kids out there who are a little bit different, a little bit scared, a little bit unpopular: this one’s for you.” What might readers, particularly younger readers, take from this book and apply to their own lives?

If I could say one thing to the legions of teens out there who wake up every morning and wish they didn’t have to go to school, it would be this – and I’m saying it as both a mom and a writer: Stay the course. You WILL find someone like you; you WILL fit in one day. And know that even the cool kids, the popular kids, worry that someone will find out their secret: that they worry about fitting in, just like you do.

Nineteen Minutes
Q + A

Book club discussion questions for Nineteen Minutes

  1. Alex and Lacy’s friendship comes to an end when they discover Peter and Josie playing with guns in the Houghton house. Why does Alex decide that it’s in Josie’s best interest to keep her daughter away from Peter? What significance is there to the fact that Alex is the first one to prevent Josie from being friends with Peter?
  2. Alex often has trouble separating her roles as a judge and a mother. How does this affect her relationship with Josie? Discuss whether or not Alex’s job is more important to her than being a mother.
  3. A theme throughout the novel is the idea of masks and personas, and pretending to be someone you’re not. To which characters does this apply, and why?
  4. At one point defense attorney Jordan McAfee refers to himself as a “spin doctor,” and he believes that at the end of Peter’s trial he “will be either reviled or canonized” (250). What is your view of Jordan? As you were reading the book, did you find it difficult or not to remain objective about the judicial system’s standing that every defendant (no matter how heinous his or her crime) has the right to a fair trial?
  5. Peter was a victim of bullying for twelve years at the hands of certain classmates, many of whom repeatedly tormented him. But he also shot and killed students he had never met or who had never done anything wrong to him. What empathy, if any, did you have for Peter both before and after the shooting?
  6. Josie and Peter were friends until the sixth grade. Is it understandable that Josie decided not to hang out with Peter in favor of the popular crowd? Why or why not? How accurate and believable did you find the author’s depiction of high school peer pressure and the quest for popularity? Do you believe, as Picoult suggests, that even the popular kids are afraid that their own friends will turn on them?
  7. Josie admits she often witnessed Matt’s cruelty toward other students. Why then does it come as such a surprise to Josie when Matt abuses her verbally and physically? How much did you empathize with Josie?
  8. Regarding Lacy, Patrick notes that “in a different way, this woman was a victim of her son’s actions, too” (53). How much responsibility do Lewis and Lacy bear for Peter’s actions? How about Lewis in particular, who taught his son how to handle guns and hunt?
  9. At one point during Peter’s bullying, Lacy is encouraged by an elementary school teacher to force Peter to stand up for himself. She threatens to cancel his playdates with Josie if he doesn’t fight back. How did you feel, when you read that scene? Do you blame Lacy for Peter’s future actions because of it? Do you agree or disagree with the idea that it a parent’s job to teach a child the skills necessary to defend himself?
  10. Discuss the novel’s structure. In what ways do the alternating narratives between past and present enhance the story? How do the scenes in the past give you further insight into the characters and their actions, particularly Peter and Josie?
  11. When Patrick arrives at Sterling High after the shooting, “his entire body began to shake, knowing that for so many students and parents and citizens today, he had once again been too late” (24). Why does Patrick blame himself for not preventing an incident he had no way of knowing was going to happen?
  12. Dr. King, an expert witness for the defense, states that Peter was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of chronic victimization. “But a big part of it, too,” he adds, “is the society that created both Peter and those bullies” (409). What reasons does Dr. King give to support his assertion that society is partly to blame for Peter’s actions as well as those of the bullies? Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
  13. Why does Josie choose to shoot Matt instead of shooting Peter? Why does Peter remain silent about Josie’s role in the shooting? In the end, has justice been satisfactorily dealt to Peter and to Josie?
  14. Discuss the very ending of the novel, which concludes on the one-year anniversary of the Sterling High shooting. Why do you suppose the author chose to leave readers with an image of Patrick and Alex, who is pregnant? In what way does the final image of the book predict the future?
  15. Shootings have occurred at a number of high schools across the country over the last several years. Did Nineteen Minutes make you think about these incidents in a more immediate way than reading about them in the newspaper or seeing coverage on television? How so? In what ways did the novel impact your opinion of the parties generally involved in school shootings—perpetrators, victims, fellow students, teachers, parents, attorneys, and law enforcement officials?
  16. What do you think the author is proposing as the root of the problem of school violence? What have you heard, in the media and in political forums, as solutions? Do you think they will work? Why or why not?
PRAISE

What others are saying about Nineteen Minutes

NH Flume Award logo

Honors and Awards

2009 Winner of the Flume Award: New Hampshire Teen Reader’s Choice award sponsored by the NH Library Association

Winner of the 2010 Iowa HS Book Award (given by the Iowa Association of School Librarians)

Finalist for the 2010 Abraham Lincoln Illinois HS Book Award

“With Nineteen Minutes, Picoult once again proves she's one of the best storytellers in the business, presenting a fast-paced, contemporary tale from every imaginable angle, giving her readers a chance to understand the motivations of a veritable army of players, all of whom are well-rounded, distinct and memorable.”

— Edmunton Journal

“Superb, many-stranded, and grimly topical…Picoult binds together precarious alliances with sensitivity, giving depth to characters without losing pace. Inhabited by contradictory, flawed individuals, this intelligent novel draws suspense, moral complexity, and a stunning final twist.”

— Financial Times

“Bestselling author Jodi Picoult has done it again, with the griipping novel about a shooting incident ... THIS SUMMERS BEST PAGE-TURNER.”

— SHE (UK)

“A grim subject, but Picoult is a best-seller for good reason - tight plots and a style that reads easily, but is never glib. ”

— Marie Claire UK

“Picoult, once again, grabs a razor-sharp issue and uses her brilliantly intricate pen to expose all the shades of grey with PERFECTION. ”

— Cosmopolitan UK

“Her addictive prose hooks you ... she also has an uncanny talent for capturing the complex details of human interaction. ... her mission: to keep readers on the treacherous edge of making their own minds up. ”

— Good Housekeeping UK

“There are reasons why Picoult's books are so widely read. ... she writes articulately and clearly, making her all too much of a rarity among popular authors. ”

— Scotland on Sunday

“Lots of humor, assured writing, and a meaty, provocative plot: Nineteen Minutes deserves to be where it is - at the top of the best-seller list.”

— Philadelphia Inquirer

“With Nineteen Minutes, Picoult once again proves she's one of the best storytellers in the business, presenting a fast-paced, contemporary tale from every imaginable angle, giving her readers a chance to understand the motivations of a veritable army of players, all of whom are well-rounded, distinct and memorable.”

— Edmonton Journal

“Picoult gives us a fresh and thought-provoking new look into a subject we may not really have plumbed before.”

— Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“With Nineteen Minutes, Picoult once again proves she's one of the best storytellers in the business, presenting a fast-paced, contemporary tale from every imaginable angle, giving her readers a chance to understand the motivations of a veritable army of players, all of whom are well-rounded, distinct and memorable.”

— Edmonton Journal

“Picoult gives us a fresh and thought-provoking new look into a subject we may not really have plumbed before.”

— Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“(Nineteen Minutes is) absorbing and expertly made. On one level, it's a thriller, complete with dismaying carnage, urgent discoveries and 11th-hour revelations, but it also asks serious moral questions about the relationship between the weak and the strong, questions that provide what school people call 'teachable moments.' If compassion can be taught, Picoult may be just the one to teach it. ”

— Washington Post

“ Nineteen Minutes (is) a provocative cautionary tale that should hit close to home for every community.... (It) is less a narrative about a horrific event than an insightful deconstruction of youthful alienation, of the shattering repercussions of bullying, and the disturbing effects of benign neglect.”

— Boston Globe

“The best thing about a Jodi Picoult novel is that she makes 450 pages fly by like 150… Picoult's genius as a novelist is her ability to take a one-dimensional archetype —the jock, the golden girl, the loser— and flesh it out into the faceted, entirely sympathetic beings that people her landscape.”

— San Antonio Express-News

“ Even though shootings, most notably that of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., are now part of the public psyche, Picoult manages to go beyond the cold, sterile statistics that are intoned today when retelling those events. Her book reminds us of the heartbreak and the loss of innocence. It's also breathtaking storytelling by a best-selling writer... At a time when a slew of teen movies make light of social ostracism and social climbing in schools, Picoult's novel is a reminder that too large a dose of anything can be poisonous. It also makes you want to grab every kid who feels like an outcast and say,.'I promise, this, too, shall pass.'”

— Associated Press

“Picoult paints a troubling portrait of families and kids, especially the bullies and the bullied…(the book's) ordinariness gives it surprising power. This could be your community, your neighbor, your family.”

— USA Today

“Picoult's fiction is intelligent, often moving and always ripe for book club discussion…Who knows? Oprah has been unpredictable with her picks of late, but maybe "Nineteen Minutes" will turn her on to fiction again.”

— New York Daily News

“This is vintage Picoult, expertly crafted, thought-provoking, and compelling.” GRADE A, Entertainment Weekly Pick

— Entertainment Weekly

“Nineteen Minutes (is) a brilliantly told tale - one that dares to remind us that someone loved the killer too.”

— CRITICS CHOICE, People Magazine

“Bestseller Picoult takes on another contemporary hot-button issue in her brilliantly told new thriller…the author’s insights into her characters’ deep-seated emotions brings this ripped-from-the-headlines read chillingly alive.”

— Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review

An excerpt from Nineteen Minutes

In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn; color your hair; watch a third of a hockey game. In nineteen minutes, you can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist; you can fold laundry for a family of five.

Nineteen minutes is how long it took the Tennessee Titans to sell out of tickets to the playoffs. It’s the amount of time it takes to listen to the Yes song Close to the Edge. It’s the length of a sitcom, minus the commercials. It’s the driving distance from the Vermont border to the town of Sterling, NH.

In nineteen minutes, you can order a pizza and get it delivered. You can read a story to a child or have your oil changed. You can walk two miles. You can sew a hem.

In nineteen minutes, you can stop the world; or you can just jump off it.

In nineteen minutes, you can get revenge.

· · · · · ·

As usual, Alex Cormier’s life was running late. It took thirty-two minutes to drive from her house in Sterling to the Superior Court in Grafton County, NH, and that was only if she speeded through Orford. She hurried downstairs in her stockings, carrying her heels and the files she’d brought home with her over the weekend. She twisted her thick copper hair into a knot and anchored it at the base of her neck with bobby pins, transforming herself into the person she needed to be before she left her house.

Alex had been a superior court judge now for thirty-four days. She’d believed that, having proved her mettle as a district court judge for the past five years, this time around the appointment might be easier. But at forty, she was still the youngest judge in the state. She still had to fight to establish herself as a fair justice -- her history as a public defender preceded her into her courtroom, and prosecutors assumed she’d side with the defense, although her district court decisions had been meticulously fair. When Alex had submitted her name years ago for the bench, it had been with the sincere desire to make sure people in this legal system were innocent until proven guilty. She just never anticipated that, as a judge, she might not be given the same benefit of the doubt.

The smell of freshly brewed coffee drew Alex into the kitchen. Josie was hunched over a steaming mug at the kitchen table, poring over a textbook. She looked exhausted – her grey eyes were bloodshot; her chestnut hair was a knotty ponytail. “Tell me you haven’t been up all night,” Alex said.

Her daughter didn’t even glance up. “I haven’t been up all night,” Josie parroted.

Alex poured herself a cup of coffee and slid into the chair across from her. “Honestly?”

“You asked me to tell you something,” Josie said absently. “You didn’t ask for the truth.”

Alex frowned. “You shouldn’t be drinking coffee.”

“And you shouldn’t be smoking cigarettes,” Josie replied.

Alex felt her face heat up. “I don’t – “

“Mom,” Josie sighed, “Even when you open up the bathroom windows, I can still smell it on the towels.” She glanced up, as if daring Alex to challenge her other vices.

Alex didn’t have any other vices. She didn’t have time for any vices. She would have liked to say that she knew with authority that Josie didn’t have any vices, either, but she would only be making the same inference the rest of the world would when they met Josie: a pretty, popular, straight-A student who knew better than most the consequences of falling off the straight-and-narrow. A girl who was destined for great things. A young woman who was exactly what Alex had hoped her daughter would grow to become.

Josie had once been so proud to have a mother as a judge. Alex could remember Josie broadcasting her career to the tellers at the bank; the baggers in the grocery store; the flight attendants on planes. She’d ask Alex about her cases, and her decisions. That had all changed three years ago, when Josie entered high school, and the tunnel of communication between them bricked slowly shut. Alex didn’t necessarily think that Josie was hiding anything more than any other teenager, but it was different: a normal parent might metaphorically judge her child’s friends; whereas Alex could do it legally.

As a mother, you spent years leading your child, teaching her by example how to function on her own with confidence and integrity. So why, then, was it such a surprise to realize that you were no longer tugging her weight behind you, but watching her move along a parallel track?

“What’s on the docket today?” Alex said.

“Unit test. What about you?”

“Arraignments,” Alex replied. She squinted across the table, trying to read Josie’s textbook upside down. “Chemistry?”

“Catalysts.” Josie rubbed her temples. “Substances that speed up a reaction, but stay unchanged by it. Like if you’ve got carbon monoxide gas and hydrogen gas and you toss in zinc and chromium oxide, and…what’s the matter?”

“Just having a little flashback of why I got a C in Orgo. Have you had breakfast?”

“Coffee,” Josie said.

“Coffee doesn’t count.”

“It does when you’re in a rush,” Josie pointed out.

Alex weighed the costs of being even five minutes later, or getting another black mark against her in the cosmic good parenting tally. Frustrated – shouldn’t a sixteen year old be able to take care of herself in the morning? -- Alex started pulling items out of the refrigerator: eggs, milk, bacon. “I once presided over an Involuntary Emergency Admission at the state mental hospital for a woman who thought she was Emeril. Her husband had her committed when she put a pound of bacon in the blender and chased him around the kitchen with a knife, yelling Bam!”

Josie glanced up from her textbook. “Really?”

“Oh, believe me, I can’t make these things up.” Alex cracked an egg into a skillet. “When I asked her why she’d put a pound of bacon in the blender; she looked at me and said that she and I must just cook differently.”

Josie stood up and leaned against the counter, watching her mother cook. Domesticity wasn’t Alex’s strong point – she didn’t know how to make a pot roast but was proud to have memorized the phone numbers of every pizza place and Chinese restaurant in Sterling that offered free delivery. “Relax,” Alex said dryly. “I think I can do this without setting the house on fire.”

But Josie didn’t seem to be listening. She tilted her head to one side. “How come you dress like that?”

Alex glanced down at her skirt, blouse, and heels and frowned. “Why? Is it too Margaret Thatcher?”

“No, I mean…why do you bother? No one knows what you have on under your robe. You could wear, like, pajama pants. Or that sweater you have from college that’s got holes in the elbows.”

“Whether or not people see it, I’m still expected to dress…well, judiciously.”

A cloud passed over Josie’s face, and she slipped back into her chair again, as if Alex had somehow given the wrong answer. She stared at her daughter – the bitten half-moon fingernails, the freckle behind her ear, the zigzag part of her hair – and saw instead the toddler who’d wait at the babysitter’s window at sundown, because she knew that was when Alex came to get her. “I’ve never worn pajamas to work,” Alex admitted, “but I do sometimes close the door to chambers and take a nap on the floor.”

A slow, surprised smile played over Josie’s face. She held her mother’s admission as if it were a butterfly lighting on her hand by accident: an event so startling you could not call attention to it without risking its loss. But there were miles to drive and defendants to arraign and chemical equations to interpret, and by the time Alex set a plate of food in front of Josie, the moment had winged away.

“I still don’t get why I have to eat breakfast if you don’t,” Josie muttered.

“Because you have to be a certain age to earn the right to ruin your own life.” Alex washed her hands and wiped them on a dishtowel. “Promise me you’ll finish that?”

Josie met her gaze. “Promise.”

“Then I’m headed out.” Alex glanced around the kitchen, satisfied that she had played the role of mother to the best of her abilities given her time constraints, and then grabbed her travel mug of coffee.

By the time she backed her car out of the garage, her head was already focused on the decision she had to write that afternoon; the number of arraignments the clerk would have stuffed onto her docket; the motions that would fallen like shadows across her desk between Friday afternoon and this morning. She was caught up in a world far away from home, where at that very moment her daughter stood up and scraped her breakfast plate into the trash can without ever taking a single bite.

· · · · · ·

Patrick DuCharme, the sole detective on the Sterling Police force, sat on a bench on the far side of the locker room, listening to the patrol officers on the morning shift pick on a rookie with a little extra padding around the middle. “Hey, Fisher,” Eddie Odenkirk said, “are you the one who’s having the baby, or is it your wife?”

As the rest of the guys laughed, Patrick took pity on the kid. “It’s early, Eddie,” he said. “Can’t you at least wait to start in until we’ve all had a cup of coffee?”

“I would, Captain,” Eddie laughed, “but it looks like Fisher already ate all the donuts and – what the hell is that?”

Patrick followed Eddie’s gaze downward, to his own feet. He did not, as a matter of course, change in the locker room with the patrol officers – but he’d jogged to work this morning instead of driving, to work off too much good cooking consumed over the weekend. He’d spent Saturday and Sunday in Maine with the girl who currently held his heart – his goddaughter, a four year old named Tara Frost. Her mother, Nina, was Patrick’s oldest friend, and the one love he probably would never get over, although she managed to be doing quite well without him. Over the course of the weekend, Patrick had played approximately ten thousand games of Candyland, had given countless piggy-back rides, had his hair done, and – here was his cardinal mistake – allowed Tara to put bright pink nailpolish on his toes, which Patrick had forgotten to remove.

He glanced down at his feet, and curled his toes under. “Chicks think it’s hot,” he said gruffly, as the seven men in the locker room struggled not to snicker at someone who was technically their superior. Patrick yanked his dress socks on, slipped into his loafers, and walked out, still holding his tie. One, he counted. Two, three. On cue, laughter spilled out of the locker room, following him down the hallway.

In his office, Patrick closed the door and peered at himself in the tiny mirror on the back. His black hair was still damp from his shower; his face was flushed from his run. He shimmied the knot of his tie up his neck, fashioning the noose, and then sat down at his desk.

Being a small-town detective required Patrick to be firing on all cylinders, all the time. Unlike cops he knew who worked for city departments, where they had twenty-four hours to solve a case before it was considered cold, Patrick’s job was to take everything that came across his desk – not to cherry-pick for the interesting ones. It was hard to get excited about a bad check case, or theft that would net the perp a $200 fine, when it cost the taxpayers five times that to have Patrick focus on it for a week. But every time he started thinking that his cases weren’t particularly important, he’d find himself face to face with a victim: the hysterical mother whose wallet was stolen; the mom-and-pop jewelry store owners who’d been robbed of their retirement income; the rattled professor who was a victim of identity theft. Hope, Patrick knew, was the exact measure of distance between himself and the person who’d come for help. If Patrick didn’t get involved, if he didn’t give a hundred percent, then that victim was going to be a victim forever – which was why, since Patrick had joined the Sterling Police, he had managed to solve every single case.

And yet.

Whenever he walked around the perimeter of a vandalized barn or found the stolen car stripped down and dumped in the woods or handed the tissue to the sobbing teenager who’d gotten date raped, Patrick couldn’t help but feel that he was too late. He was a detective, but he didn’t detect anything. It fell into his lap, already broken, every time. And even if he could put the pieces back together, that wasn’t the same as keeping it from happening in the first place.

Patrick’s boss, the police chief, told him to get over his Superman complex. He’d knock on the wood of his desk and say Patrick was just damn lucky to have a flawless track record, and that he should be grateful. But in the night, when Patrick was lying in his bed alone and letting his mind sew a seam across the hem of his life, he did not remember the proven successes – only the potential failures. He would look into the hazy faces of the victims he hadn’t yet met, and wonder when his good fortune would run dry.

· · · · · ·

In a town the size of Sterling, everyone knew everyone else, and always had. In some ways, this was comforting – like a great big extended family that you sometimes loved and sometimes fell out of favor with. At other times, it haunted Josie. Like right now, when she was standing in the cafeteria line behind Natalie Zlenko, a dyke of the first order who – way back in second grade, when no one was popular or unpopular yet – had invited Josie over to play and had convinced her to pee on the front lawn like a boy. What were you thinking, her mother had said, when she’d come to pick her up and saw them bare-bottomed and squatting over the daffodils. Even now, a decade later, Josie couldn’t look at Natalie Zlenko with her buzz cut and her everpresent SLR camera without wondering if Natalie still thought about that too.

On Josie’s other side was Courtney Ignatio – the alpha-female of Sterling High. With her honey blonde hair hanging over her shoulders like a shawl made of silk and her low-rise jeans mail-ordered from Fred Segal, she’d spawned an entourage of clones. On Courtney’s tray was a bottle of water and a banana. On Josie’s was a platter of French fries. It was third period, and just like her mother had predicted, she was famished.

“Hey,” Courtney said, loud enough for Natalie to overhear. “Can you tell the vagitarian to let us pass?”

Natalie’s cheeks burned with color, and she flattened herself up against the sneeze guard of the salad bar so that Courtney and Josie could slip by. They paid for their food and walked across the cafeteria.

Whenever she came into the caf during third period, Josie felt like a naturalist -- observing different species in their natural, non-academic habitat. There were the geeks, bent over their textbooks and laughing at math jokes nobody else even wanted to understand. Behind them were the Art Freaks, who smoked cloves on the ropes course behind the school and drew manga comics in the margins of their notes. Near the condiment bar were the skanks, who drank black coffee and waited for the bus that would bring them to the technical high school three towns over for their afternoon classes; and the druggies, already strung out by ten o’clock in the morning. There were misfits, too – kids like Natalie and Angela Phlug, friends by default, because nobody else would have them.

And then there was Josie’s posse of friends. They took over two tables during third period, not because there were so many of them, but because they were larger than life. Emma, Maddie, Haley, John, Brady, Trey, Drew – monikers that you always saw at the top of the Baby Name lists. Josie could remember how – when she first started hanging around – she’d get everyone’s names confused. They were that interchangeable.

They all sort of looked alike, too – the boys all wearing their maroon home hockey jerseys and their hats backward, bright thatches of hair stuck through the loops at their foreheads like the start of a fire; the girls carbon copies of Courtney, by studious design. Josie slipped inconspicuously into the heart of them, because she looked like Courtney, too. Her tangle of hair had been blown glass-straight; her heels were three inches high, even though there was still snow on the ground. If she appeared the same on the outside, it was that much easier to ignore the fact that she didn’t really know how she felt on the inside.

“Hey,” Maddie said, as Courtney sat down beside her.

“Hey.”

“Did you hear about Fiona Kierland?”

Courtney’s eyes lit up; gossip – Josie realized – was as good a catalyst as any chemical. “The one whose boobs are two different sizes?”

“No, that’s Fiona the Sophomore. I’m talking about Fiona the Freshman.”

“The one who always carries a box of tissues for her allergies?” Josie said, sliding into a seat.

“Or not,” Haley said. “Guess who got sent to rehab for snorting coke.”

“Get out.”

“That’s not even the whole scandal,” Emma added. “Her dealer was the head of the bible study group that meets before school in the band room.”

“Oh my God!” Courtney said.

“Exactly.”

“Hey.” Matt slipped into the chair beside Josie. “What took you so long?”

She turned to him. At this end of the table, the guys were rolling straw wrappers into spitballs and talking about the end of spring skiing. “How long do you think the half-pipe will stay open at Sunapee?” John asked, lobbing a spitball toward a kid one table away, who’d fallen asleep.

The boy had been in Josie’s Sign Language elective last year. He was a junior, too, but somehow puberty had passed him by. His arms and legs were skinny and white and splayed like a stickbug; his head was tipped backward on the lip of the chair; his mouth, as he snored, was wide open.

“You missed, loser. If Sunapee closes, Killington’s still good. They have snow until, like, August,” Drew said, and his spitball landed in the boy’s hair.

Derek. The kid’s name was Derek.

Matt glanced at Josie’s French fries. “You’re not going to eat those, are you?”

“I’m starving.”

He pinched the side of her waist, a caliper and a criticism all at once. Josie looked down at the fries. Ten seconds ago, they’d looked golden brown and smelled like heaven; now, all she could see was the grease that stained the paper plate.

Matt took a handful and passed the rest to Drew, who threw a spitball that landed in the sleeping boy’s mouth. With a choke and a sputter, Derek startled awake.

“Sweet!” Drew high-fived John.

“You da man,” John laughed.

Derek spat into a napkin and rubbed his mouth hard. He glanced around to see who else had been watching. Josie suddenly remembered a sign from her ASL elective, almost all of which she’d forgotten the moment she’d taken the final. A hand moved in a circle over the heart meant I’m sorry.

Matt leaned over and kissed her neck. “Let’s get out of here,” he murmured. He drew Josie to her feet and then turned to his friends. “Later,” he said.

· · · · · ·

Zoe Patterson was wondering what it was like to kiss a guy who had braces. Not that it was a remote possibility for her anytime in the near future, but she figured that it was something she ought to consider before the moment actually caught her off guard. In fact, she wondered what it would be like to kiss a guy, period – even one who wasn’t orthodontically challenged, like her. And honestly, was there any place better than a stupid math class to let your mind wander?

Mr. McCabe, who thought he was the Chris Rock of algebra, was doing his daily stand-up routine. “What do my mother and the square root of two have in common? Anyone…?” He waited a beat, and then grinned at the class. “They’re both irrational!”

As he turned to the board, Zoe looked up at the clock. She counted along with the second hand until it was 10:40 on the dot and then popped out of her seat to hand Mr. McCabe a pass. “Ah, orthodontia,” he read out loud. “Well, make sure he doesn’t wire your mouth shut, Ms. Patterson. Now, an irrational number is, contrary to what you might be thinking, not one taking Prozac for mood swings, but merely one that can’t be written as a fraction…”

Zoe hefted her backpack onto her shoulders and walked out of the classroom. She had to meet her mom in front of the school at 10:45 – parking was killer, so it would be a drive-by pickup. Mid-class, the halls were hollow and resonant; it felt like trudging through the belly of a whale. Zoe detoured into the Main Office to sign out on the secretary’s clipboard, and then nearly mowed down a kid in her hurry to get outside.

It was warm enough outside to unzip her jacket and tilt her face to the sky, thinking of summer and soccer camp and what it would be like when her palate expander was finally removed. If you kissed a guy who didn’t have braces, and you pressed too hard, could you cut their gums? Something told Zoe that if you made a guy bleed, you probably wouldn’t be hooking up with him again. What if he had braces too, like that blonde kid from Chicago who’d just transferred and sat in front of her in English (not that she liked him or anything, swear to God, although he had turned around to hand her back her homework paper and held onto it just a smidgen too long, which was pretty awesome…)? Would they get stuck together like jammed gears and have to be taken to the Emergency room at the hospital, and how totally humiliating would that be?

Zoe ran her tongue along the ragged metal fenceposts in her mouth. Maybe she should just temporarily join a convent.

She sighed and peered down the block to see whether she could make out her mom’s green Explorer from the congo line of passing cars. And just about then, something exploded.

· · · · · ·

Patrick sat at a red light in his unmarked police car, waiting to turn onto the highway. Beside him, on the passenger seat, was a paper bag with a brick of cocaine inside it. The dealer they’d busted at the high school had admitted it was cocaine; and yet Patrick had to waste half his day taking it to the State lab so that someone in a lab coat could tell him what he already knew. He fiddled with the volume button of the dispatch radio just in time to hear the fire department being sent to the high school for some kind of explosion. Probably the boiler; the school was old enough for its internal structure to be falling apart. He tried to remember where the boiler was located in Sterling High; if they’d be lucky enough to come out of that kind of situation without anyone being hurt.

Shots fired…

The light turned green, but Patrick didn’t move. The discharge of a gun in Sterling was rare enough to have him narrow his attention to the voice on the dispatch radio, waiting for an explanation.

At the high school…Sterling High…

The dispatcher’s voice was getting faster, more intense. Patrick wheeled the car in a U-turn and started toward the school with his lights flashing. Other voices began to transmit in static bursts: officers stating their positions in town; the on-duty supervisor trying to coordinate manpower and calling for mutual aid from Hanover and Lebanon. Their voices knotted and tangled, blocking each other so that everything and nothing was being said at once.

Signal 1000, the dispatcher said. Signal 1000.

In Patrick’s entire career as a detective, he’d only heard that call twice. Once was in Maine, when a deadbeat dad had taken an officer hostage. Once was in Sterling, during a potential bank robbery that turned out to be a false alarm. Signal 1000 meant that everyone, immediately, was to get off the radio and free dispatch up for the emergency. It was a clear acknowledgment that what they were dealing with was not routine.

It was life or death.

· · · · · ·

Chaos was a constellation of students, running out of the school and trampling the injured. Chaos was the boy holding a handmade sign in an upstairs window that read HELP US. Chaos was two girls, hugging each other and sobbing. Chaos was blood melting pink on the snow; it was the drip of parents that turned into a stream and then a raging river, screaming out the names of their missing children. Chaos was a TV camera in your face; not enough ambulances; not enough officers; and no plan for how to react when the world as you knew it went to pieces.

Patrick pulled halfway onto the sidewalk and grabbed his bulletproof vest from the back of the car. Already, adrenaline was pulsing through him, making the edges of his vision swim and his senses more acute. He found Chief O’Rourke standing with a megaphone in the middle of the melee. “SOU’s on its way.”

Patrick didn’t give a damn about the Special Operations Unit. By the time the SWAT team got here, a hundred more shots might be fired; a kid might be killed. He drew his gun. “I’m going in.”

“The hell you are,” O’Rourke said. “That’s not protocol.”

“There is no fucking protocol for this,” Patrick snapped. “You can fire me later.”

As he raced up the steps to the school, he was vaguely aware of two other patrol officers bucking the chief’s commands and joining him in the fray. Patrick pushed through the double doors, past students who were shoving each other in an effort to get outside. Fire alarms blared, pulsing so loud that at first Patrick had to strain to hear the gunshots. He grabbed the coat of a boy streaking past him. “Who is it?” he yelled. “Who’s shooting?”

“Some kid…I don’t know his last name.”

The boy wrenched away from Patrick. “Is there more than one?” he called after him, but by then, the boy had opened the door and burst into a rectangle of sunlight.

Homework papers were scattered on the floor; shell casings rolled beneath the heels of Patrick’s shoes. Ceiling tiles had been shot off and a fine grey dust coated the broken bodies that lay twisted on the floor. Patrick ignored all of this, going against most of his training – running past doors that might hide a perp, disregarding rooms that should have been searched – instead driving toward the direction of the noise and the shrieks with his weapon drawn and his heart beating through every inch of his skin. Later, he would remember other sights that he didn’t have time to register right now: the heating duct covers that had been pried loose, so that students could hide in the crawl space; the shoes left behind by kids who literally ran out of them; the eerie prescience of crime-scene outlines on the floor outside the biology classrooms, where students had been tracing their own bodies on butcher paper for an assignment.

Turning a corner, Patrick slipped on blood and heard another gunshot – this one loud enough to ring in his ears like a nightmare. Gesturing to the two cops beside him, they swept into the open double doors of the gymnasium. Patrick scanned the space – the handful of sprawled bodies, the basketball cart overturned and the globes resting against the far wall – and no shooter. He knew, from the overtime detail he’d taken on Friday nights to monitor high school ball games, that he’d reached the end of the road; the far end of Sterling High. Which meant that the shooter was either hiding somewhere, here; or had doubled back past them when Patrick hadn’t noticed…and could even now have cornered them in this gym.

Patrick spun around to the entrance again, to see if that was the case, and then heard another shot. His head whipped toward a side door that led out from the gym, one he hadn’t noticed in his first quick visual sweep of the area. It was a locker room, tiled white on the walls and the floor. He glanced down, saw the fanned spray of blood at his feet, and edged his gun around the corner wall.

Two bodies lay unmoving at one end of the locker room. At the other, closer to Patrick, a slight boy crouched beside a bank of lockers. He wore a t-shirt that read Have a Whale of a Time! and wire-rimmed glasses, crooked on his thin face. He held a pistol up to his head with one shaking hand.

A new rush of blood surged through Patrick. “Don’t fucking move,” he shouted, drawing a bead on the boy. “Drop the gun or I will fucking kill you.” Sweat broke out down his back and on his forehead, and he could feel his cupped hands shifting on the butt on the gun as he aimed, completely ready to lace the kid with bullets if he had to. Anticipation crouched at the back of Patrick’s throat, swelling so that he had to hold his breath and hope for the best.

Patrick let his forefinger brush gently against the trigger just as the boy opened his fingers wide as a starfish. The pistol fell to the floor, skittering across the tile.

Immediately, he pounced, while one of the other officers provided cover and the second retrieved the boy’s weapon. Patrick dropped the kid onto his stomach and cuffed him, grinding his knee into the boy’s spine. His head was spinning and his nose was running and his pulse was a military tattoo, but he could vaguely hear one of the other officers calling this in over the radio: Sterling, we have one in custody.

Just as seamlessly as it had started, it was over – at least as much as something like this could be considered over, anytime soon. Patrick didn’t know if there were booby traps or bombs in the school; he didn’t know how many wounded or dead there were; he didn’t know how many wounded DHMC and Alice Peck Day Hospital could take; he didn’t know how to go about processing a crime scene this massive. But the target had been taken out, and for that reason alone, Patrick’s entire body began to shake with the aftermath of what might had happened, if – again – he hadn’t been quite so lucky.

He sank down to his knees, mostly because his legs simply gave out from underneath them, and pretended that this was intentional; that he wanted to check out the two bodies lying just feet away from the shooter. He was vaguely aware of the shooter being pushed out of the locker room by one of the officers, to a waiting cruiser downstairs. He didn’t turn to watch the kid go; instead he focused on the body directly in front of him.

A boy, dressed in a hockey jersey. There was a puddle of blood underneath his side, and a gunshot wound through his forehead. Patrick reached out for a baseball cap that had fallen a few feet away, with the words STERLING HOCKEY embroidered across it. He turned the brim around in his hands, an imperfect circle.

The girl lying next to him was face down, blood spreading out from beneath her temple. She was barefoot, and on her toenails was bright pink polish – just like the stuff Tara had put on Patrick. It made his heart catch. This girl, just like his goddaughter and her brother and a million other kids in this country, had gotten up today and gone to school never imagining she would be in danger. She trusted all the grownups and teachers and principals to keep her safe. It was why these schools, post 9/11, had teachers wearing ID all the time and doors locked during the day – the enemy was always supposed to be an outsider; not the kid who was sitting right next to you.

Suddenly, the girl shifted. “Help…me…”

Stunned, Patrick knelt beside her. “I’m here,” he soothed, gently turning her enough to see that the blood was coming from a cut at her scalp, not a gunshot wound, as he’d assumed. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Josie…” The girl started to thrash, trying to sit up. Patrick put the bulk of his body strategically between her and the other boy’s – she’d be in shock already; he didn’t need her to go over the edge. She touched her hand to her forehead, and when it came away oily with blood, she panicked. “What…happened?”

He should have stayed there, and waited for the medics to come get her. He should have radioed for help. But should hardly seemed to apply anymore; and so Patrick lifted Josie into his arms. He carried her out of the locker room where she’d nearly been killed, hurried down the stairs, and pushed through the front door of the school, as if he might be able to save them both.

Helpful resources on bullying, school violence and prevention


Enhance your book club meeting: discuss ways to prevent bullying and school violence

Watch Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore’s Academy Award-winning documentary, in which the filmmaker explores the roots of America's predilection for gun violence.

Have a roundtable discussion on the nonfiction aspects raised in the book, such as the role of defense attorneys, peer pressure and the quest for popularity, victimization and bullying, and how school shootings are portrayed in the media.

Read “10 Myths about School Shootings

Which ones apply to Peter and other characters in the book?

View a timeline of worldwide school shootings since 1996

Are you an educator looking to use 19 minutes for an anti-bullying curriculum?

In 2010, I had the opportunity to witness a leadership conference in Connecticut, where seventy-five high school students from the greater Hartford, CT area all came together to discuss Improving School Climates, using 19 Minutes as a springboard for discussion. The moderators, JoAnn Freiberg and Nancy Pugliese - both working with the State Dept. of Education - created a curriculum and format that they have kindly volunteered to let me post on this website so that other educators can benefit from it! Using a “fishbowl discussion” format, they used excerpts from the book and based questions off those excerpts for discussion.

Resources for educators: an anti-bullying curriculum and format:

At the day’s end, students split up by school and formulated action steps that they could take away from their discussion to use in their own school settings.  It was an amazing event to witness - to see kids committed to being the change they want to see in the world. If you have any further questions, you can contact [email protected].

Helpful resources on school violence and prevention

  1. The Why Files - The Science Behind the New
  2. Constitutional Rights Foundation -School Violence
  3. National Crime Prevention Council
  4. Keep Schools Safe
  5. Should You Worry About School Violence?
  6. Center for the Prevention of School Violence.
  7. U.S. Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) Initiative
  8. i-SAFE Inc. - the worldwide leader in Internet safety education
  9. In Memory of Ryan Patrick Halligan

Visit teenadvice.about.com for articles, fact sheets, crisis hotlines, web links, and additional resources on peer pressure, violence and bullying, and other topics.

Resources for educators looking to use 19 Minutes for an anti-bullying curriculum

Fish Bowl Discussion

The “Fish Bowl” discussion structure is an excellent way to facilitate a large group conversation. It is simple to use and can be implemented in a variety of settings to solicit thoughtful and reflective information. It is an especially effective tool to use with middle and high school aged students.

Physical set-up: Arrange a circle of chairs in the center of the room. The number of chairs should range from approximately a minimum of eight to a maximum of fifteen. The chairs should be filled with those who will be in the discussion except for one empty chair. So, for example, if twelve individuals will be part of the discussion, then thirteen chairs should be arranged in the circle. This “extra” chair is essential to the format. The extra chair is positioned within the circle but must be accessible for those “audience” members (those who are listening) not in the discussion who wish to enter into the conversation as the discussion takes place. All of those not participating in the discussion surround the center circle either sitting or standing.

Discussion Boundaries: The individuals who are in the center circle are given either a question or a statement to answer/discuss among themselves. An identified moderator (teacher) facilitates the conversation. Those seated in the circle are told to “pretend” that they are the only individuals in the room while speaking loudly enough to enable everyone in the room to hear the discussion. They are instructed to discuss the posed issue in a conversational manner, as though they were having a “living room” discussion. If an individual who is observing and listening to the conversation outside of the center circle wishes to enter into the conversation, he or she occupies the empty chair, makes the statement and then immediately leaves the circle to allow others from the “audience” to participate as desired. The empty chair thus allows any number of individuals not placed in the center circle to join the discussion as the conversation proceeds. It is important that those sitting in the empty chair only make statements and not ask questions. The reason for this is to insure that the evolving conversation is not redirected by asking the participants in the center circle a question that would change the essential content of the existing discussion.

The question/statement can be discussed for any period of time determined by the moderator. Members of the audience should be invited to switch with those in the center circle and occupy those chairs when the question/statement changes. Typically, the question/statement is changed after about a fifteen to twenty minutes of a discussion. If the fish bowl model is going to be used during a class period lasting approximately an hour, in general, about four to five questions can be posed. Thus, four to five different core groups of discussants can be accommodated, always allowing for the inclusion of other individuals from the audience as they wish to join, and then leave the center circle.

For more information about school bullying…

Visit the website of the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center at safeyouth.org, as well as stopbullying.gov, a site designed by and for kids and teens.

19 Minutes excerpts and questions —by Jodi Picoult

She expected the teacher to talk about a time-out chair, or some retributive punishment that would be handed out if Peter was again taunted by the in crowd. But instead, the young woman said, “I’m showing Peter how to stand up for himself. If someone cuts him in the lunch line, or if he’s teased, to say something in return instead of just accepting it.”

Lacy blinked at her. “I…I can’t believe I’m hearing this. So if he gets shoved, he’s supposed to shove back? When his food gets knocked on the floor, he should reciprocate?”

“Of course not—“

“You’re telling me that for Peter to feel safe in school, he’s going to have to start acting like the boys who do this to him?”

No, I’m telling you about the reality of grade school,” the teacher corrected. “Look, Mrs. Houghton. I can tell you what you want to hear. I can say that Peter is a wonderful child, which he is. I can tell you that the school will teach tolerance and will discipline the boys who’ve been making Peter’s life miserable, and that this will be enough to stop it. But the sad fact is that if Peter wants it to end, he’s going to have to be part of the solution.” (pp. 72 – 73)

Questions:

What does SAFETY IN SCHOOL mean?

Is it fair to ask everyone to advocate for him/herself?

Where does the responsibility lie for ending peer cruelty?

“We live in a country where American kids are dying because we’re sending them overseas to kill people for oil. But when one sad, distraught child who doesn’t see the beauty in life goes and wrongly acts on his rage by shooting up a school, people start pointing a finger at heavy metal music. The problem isn’t with rock lyrics, it’s with the fabric of this society itself.” (p. 110)

Questions:

What is the FABRIC OF SOCIETY?

What can YOU as individuals do to change the fabric of your SCHOOLS?

He was staring in a way that cut her to the quick. Josie shivered. “I’m not,” she said quickly, and she took a deep breath. “I just…I don’t like the way you treat kids who aren’t like us, all right? Just because you don’t want to hang out with losers doesn’t mean you have to torture them, does it??

“Yeah, it does,” Matt said. “Because if there isn’t a them, thee can’t be an us.” His eyes narrowed. “You should know that better than anyone.” (pp. 218 – 219)

Questions:

What is your role to step in when you see others being treated inappropriately?

In a high school setting…talk about the “them” vs. “us.”

Can high school ever break down the barriers so that each and every student feels a part of the school?

“Derek,” Drew picked.

“All right,” Matt said, “I’ll take the homo.”

Peter shuffled toward the back of Matt’s team. “You ought to be good at this game, Peter,” Matt said, loud enough so that everyone else could hear. “Just keep your hands on the balls.”

Peter leaned against a floor mat that had been strung on the wall, like the inside of an insane asylum. A rubber room, where all hell could break loose.

He sort of wished he was as sure of who he was as everyone else seemed to be.

“All right, “ Coach Spears said. “Let’s play.” (p. 228)

Questions:

What are the adults’ roles in helping diminish peer cruelty?

Discuss the pervasiveness of homophobic language.

What can you do to intervene when others are cruel?

Ask a random kid today if she wants to be popular and she’ll tell you no, even if the truth is that if she was in a desert dying of thirst and had the choice between a glass of water and instant popularity, she’d probably choose the latter. See, you can’t admit to wanting it, because that makes you less cool. To be truly popular, it has to look like it’s something you are, when in reality, it’s what you make yourself.

I wonder if anyone works any harder at anything than kids do at being popular. I mean, even air-traffic controllers and the president of the United States take vacations, but look at your average high school student, and you’ll see someone who’s putting in time twenty-four hours a day, for the entire length of the school year.

So how do you crack that inner sanctum? Well, here’s the catch: it’s not up to you. What’s important is what everyone else thinks of how you dress, what you eat for lunch, what shows you TiVo, what music is on your iPod.

I’ve always sort of wondered, though: If everyone else’s opinion is what matters, then do you ever really have one of your own? (p. 241)

Questions:

Is popularity more important than anything else…dying of thirst?

What is the difference between being popular and belonging to the group?

Can everyone be popular?

Selena sat down with the principal of Sterling High in his modified elementary school office. Arthur McAllister had a sandy beard and a round belly and teeth that he didn’t show when he smiled. He reminded Selena of one of those freaky talking bears that had come onto the market when she was a kid – Teddy Ruxpin – which made it all the more strange when he started answering her questions about anti-bullying policies at the high school. “It’s not tolerated,” McAllister said, although Selena had expected that party line. “We’re completely on top of it.”

“So, if a kid comes to you to complain about being picked on, what are the repercussions for the bully?”

“One of the things we’ve found, Selena – can I call you Selena? – is that if the administration intervenes, it makes it worse for the kid who’s being bullied.” He hesitated. “I know what people are saying about the shooting. How they’re comparing it to Columbine and Paducah and the ones that came before them. But I truly believe that it wasn’t bullying, per se, that led Peter to do what he did.”

“What he allegedly did,” Selena automatically corrected. “Do you keep records of bullying incidents?”

“If it escalates, and the kids are brought in to me, then yes.”

“Was anyone ever brought to you for bullying Peter Houghton?”

McAllister stood up and pulled a file out of a cabinet. He began to leaf through it, and then stopped at a page. “Actually, Peter was brought in to see me twice this year. He was put into detention for fighting in the halls.”

“Fighting?” Selena said. “Or fighting back?” (p. 271)

Questions:

If somebody strikes someone else…does it matter if they were provoked?

Should anyone care if a student who strikes another was teased and taunted?

Do any of you have a responsibility to intervene when peers are hurt emotionally?

Josie already knew the answer. This group of kids – they weren’t her friends. Popular kids didn’t really have friends; they had alliances. You were safe only as long as you hid your trust – at any moment someone might make you the laughingstock, because then they knew no one was laughing at them. (p. 318)

Questions:

Is Josie right? Are alliances different from friends? Are they more important?

What is more important? Alliances? Or friends?

Do popular kids not have friends? Is this important?

“Did you every bully him?”

“No, Ma’am,” he said.

Patrick felt his hands curl into fists. He knew, from interviewing hundreds of kids, that Drew Girard had stuffed Peter Houghton into lockers; had tripped him while he was walking down the stairs; had thrown spitballs into his hair. None of that condoned what Peter had done…but still. There was a kid rotting in jail; there were ten people decomposing in graves; there were dozens in rehab and corrective surgery; there were hundreds – like Josie – who still could not get through the day without bursting into tears; there were parents – like Alex – who trusted Diana to get justices done on their behalf. And this little asshole was lying through his teeth.

Diana looked up from her notes and stared at Drew. “So if you get asked under oath whether you’ve ever picked on Peter, what’s your answer going to be?”

“Let me ask you again, Drew,” she said smoothly. “Did you ever bully Peter Houghton?”

Drew glanced at Patrick and swallowed. Then he opened his mouth and started to speak. (pp. 352 – 353)

Questions:

Is it a badge of honor to “bully” another?

Have any of you “bullied” another person? How do you feel afterward?

Why would Drew have lied about bullying Peter?

“Derek,” the lawyer said, “you’ve been friends with Peter since sixth grade, right?”

“Yes.”

“You spent a lot of time with him both in and outside school.”

“Yeah.”

“Did you ever see Peter getting picked on by other kids?”

“All the time,” Derek said. “They’d call us fags and homos. They’d give us wedgies. When we walked down the hall, they’d trip us or slam us into lockers. Things. Like that.”

“Did you ever talk to a teacher about this?”

“I used to, but that just made it worse. I got creamed for being a tattletale.” (p. 383)

Questions:

Telling a teacher. What are the ramifications?

What has happened when you’ve tried to tell a teacher that someone is doing something to hurt another person?

Have you thought about telling a teacher but decided it wasn’t worth the effort?

She [Lacy, Peter’s mother] did not know quite what to feel when confronted with Josie Cormier. They’d spent the day playing hangman – the irony of which, given her son’s fate, wasn’t lost on her. Lacy had known Josie as a newborn, but also as a little girl and as a playmate for Peter. Because of this, there had been a point where she had viscerally hated Josie in a way that even Peter never seemed to, for being cruel enough to leave her son behind. Josie may not have initiated the teasing that Peter suffered over his middle and high school years, but she didn’t intervene either, and in Lacy’s book, that had made her equally responsible. (p. 385)

Questions:

Talk about any time you have been a witness to the teasing of others. How did you feel? What did you do?

Is it OK to witness, but not participate in hurtful behaviors?

Is there any responsibility for students to step in and attempt to stop peer cruelty?

Being unpopular was a communicable disease. Josie could remember Peter in elementary school, fashioning the tinfoil from his lunch sandwich into a beanie with antennae, and wearing it around the playground to try to pick up radio transmissions from aliens. He hadn’t realized that people were making fun of him. He never had.

She had a sudden flash of him standing in the cafeteria, a statue with his hands trying to cover his groin, his pants pooled around his ankles. She remembered Matt’s comment afterward: Objects in mirror are way smaller than they appear.

Maybe Peter had finally understood what people thought of him.

“I didn’t want to be treated like him, “ Josie said, answering her mother, when what she really meant was, I wasn’t brave enough. (p. 387)

Questions:

Talk about what is needed to stand up to peers who hurt others.

Have you ever thought to yourself: I’m not responsible for stepping in and helping a peer?

What responsibility do you have to a student who has difficulty being integrated into the social fabric of the school? Does that student have a responsibility to try to fit in?

Jail wasn’t all that different from public school, really. The correctional officers were just like the teachers – their job was to keep everyone in place, to feed them, and to make sure nobody got seriously hurt. Beyond that, you were left to your own devices. And like school, jail was an artificial society, with its own hierarchy and rules. If you did any work, it was pointless – cleaning the toilets every morning or pushing a library cart around minimum security wasn’t really that different from writing an essay on the definition of civitas or memorizing prime numbers – you weren’t going to be using them daily in your real life. And as with high school, the only way to get through jail was to stick it out and do your time. (p. 388)

Questions:

School and jail…are there similarities? Differences?

Students are free to make choices in school. What choices do you have to help peers who struggle?

When I was little I used to pour salt on slugs. I like watching them dissolve before my eyes. Cruelty is always sort of fun until you realize that something’s getting hurt.

It would be one thing to be a loser if it meant no one paid attention to you, but in school, it means you’re actively sought out. You’re the slug, and they’re holding all the salt. And they haven’t developed a conscience. (p. 391)

Questions:

Is cruelty fun?

Are certain students “fair game” to hurt?

If just one teacher had stopped a kid, once, from tormenting Peter in the hall. (p. 395)

Questions:

Should teachers intervene when they witness peer cruelty? To what extent?

What role should adults in school have to diminish peer cruelty?

Do you think teachers “get it”? Why or why not?

“I didn’t ask him any more questions,” Ducharme said evenly. “I have no idea what kind of shape he was in.”

“So you took a kid – a seventeen-year-old kid, who was crying for his mother – back to your holding cell?”

“Yes. But I told him I wanted to help him”

Jordan glanced at the jury and let that statement sink in for a moment. “What was Peter’s response?”

“He looked at me,” the detective answered, “and he said, ‘They started it.’” (p. 399)

Questions:

Is it important who “started it?”

When in the cycle of peer cruelty should you step in, if ever, and help another peer?

“When he first reached the school and saw a friend in the parking lot, he tried to warn him off, for safety. He lit a pipe bomb in a car before going into the school, to serve as a diversion so that he could enter unimpeded with his guns. He concealed weapons that were preloaded. He targeted areas in the school where he himself had been victimized. These are not the acts of someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing – they’re the hallmarks of a rational, angry – perhaps suffering, but certainly not delusional – young man.” (p. 400)

Questions:

Are there areas of your school that are more unsafe than others? What should be done?

Does being “victimized” give anyone license for revenge? What should be done?

How do you feel and think when you hear that there was planning for an attack of this sort?

“Most of Peter’s childhood memories involved situations where he was victimized either by other children or by adults whom he’d perceived as being able to help him, yet didn’t. He described everything from physical threats – Get out of my way or I’m going to punch your lights out; to physical actions – doing nothing more than walking down a hallway and being slammed up against the wall because he happened to get too close to someone walking past him; to emotional taunts – like being called homo or queer.”

“Yes. Peter loved his parents, but didn’t feel he could rely on them for protection.” (p. 405)

Questions:

Do you think parents can help students in school-related social problems?

What is parents’ role in helping?

When parents help their children, does it work? Or does it make things worse?

“A child who suffers from PTSD has made unsuccessful attempts to get help, and as the victimization continues, he stops asking for it. He withdraws socially, because he’s never quite sure when interaction is going to lead to another incident of bullying. He probably thinks of killing himself. He escapes into a fantasy world, where he can call the shots. However, he starts retreating there so often that it gets harder and harder to separate that from reality. During the actual incidents of bullying, a child with PTSD might retreat into an altered state of consciousness – a dissociation from reality to keep him from feeling pain or humiliation while the incident occurs.” (pp. 407 – 408)

Questions:

How does it feel to be hurt socially at school? Rejected, made fun of, laughed at or pushed around?

Whose responsibility is it to stop peer cruelty?

Have any of you witnessed the kind of cruelty Peter experienced? What goes on in your head?

“In Peter’s case, I saw an extreme emotional vulnerability, which, in fact, was the reason he was teased. Peter didn’t play by the codes of boys. He wasn’t a big athlete. He wasn’t tough. He was sensitive. And difference is not always respected – particularly when you’re a teenager. Adolescence is about fitting in, not standing out.”

“How does a child who is emotionally vulnerable wind up one day carrying four guns into a school and shooting twenty-nine people?”

“Part of it is the PTSD – Peter’s response to chronic victimization. But a big part of it, too, is the society that created both Peter and those bullies.” (pp. 408 – 409)

Questions:

Is adolescence really about fitting in and not standing out?

Is there a CODE OF BOYS at your school? And, is there a CODE OF GIRLS? What do these codes allow you to do?

Your peers who do not fit in socially and stand out…Do you have any responsibility to them?

“There were instances in the school records where bullying was mentioned – although there was no response from the administration. The police package I received supported Peter’s statement about his email being sent out to several hundred members of the school community.” (p. 414)

Questions:

How does cyber-bullying impact your school? Is there a lot of it? What is done about it?

Is being mean or cruel the same thing as bullying? What difference does it make what it is called?

Do administrators respond to “bullying” in your school? How often and what do they do to manage it?

“I tried,” Lacy admitted, “to toughen him up.” As she spoke she directed her words at Peter, and hoped he could read it as an apology. “What does any mother do when she sees her child being teased by someone else? I told Peter I loved him; that kids like that didn’t know anything. I told him that he was amazing and compassionate and kind and smart, all the things we want adults to be. I knew that all the attributes he was teased for at age five, were going to work in his favor by the time he was thirty-five…but I couldn’t get him there overnight. You can’t fast-forward your child’s life, no matter how much you want to.” (p. 418)

Questions:

Is it enough for parents to tell their children to ignore the hurt and rejection? Does it make a difference?

Should children/students who are shy and don’t easily integrate social become tougher?

Do parents and teachers have any responsibility to intervene when a child/student is hurt socially? Do peers?

“I [Peter] tried out for soccer, but never got any time on the field. Once, I helped some kids play a practical joke on a teacher by moving his car from the parking lot into the gym….I got detention, but the other kids didn’t, because they were on the basketball team and had a game on Saturday.” (p. 425)

Questions:

Is discipline fairly administered at your schools?

Do some students get preferential treatment when it comes to discipline?

How “fair” are your schools in general?

She stared at Peter, and she realized that in that one moment, when she hadn’t been thinking, she knew exactly what he’d felt as he moved through the school with his backpack and his guns. Every kid in this school played a role: jock, brain, beauty, freak.” (p. 440)

Questions:

Are your schools as easy to describe as the roles suggested here?

If there are “freaks” in your schools, how are they a part of the school?

Are some groups in school safer (physically, emotionally and intellectually) than others?

“I loved Matt. And I hated him. I hated myself for loving him, but if I wasn’t with him, I wasn’t anyone anymore.”

“I don’t understand…”

“How could you? You’re perfect.” Josie shook her head. “The rest of us, we’re all like Peter. Some of us just do a better job of hiding it. What’s the difference between spending your life trying to be invisible, or pretending to be the person you think everyone wants you to be? Either way, you’re faking.” (pp. 446 – 447)

Questions:

Do kids “fake” who they are at school? Should they? What happens if they do?

Is your identity determined by whom you hang with? What impact is there socially for choosing to be with some peers over others?

Do all students see themselves as different and not truly a part of the school?