Cook: Things broken, things restored

Cook: Things broken, things restored

August 17th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Aaron Roden broke so much.

The little desks in Mrs. Eller's class. The tiny urinals in the kindergarten bathroom. The televisions on the wall where students watch morning announcements. The windows, smudged with fingerprints. The $10,000 smartboard projectors that took a year of car washes and bake sales to buy.

As hundreds of students slept bed-headed and dreaming early Tuesday morning, Roden smashed into Westview Elementary, police say, and caused more than $60,000 in damages. Vandalism? More like his own private riot.

(But how do you say this to a 5-year-old? One mom translated the adult violence into kindergarten words: He made a huge mess. He was not being nice or respectful to our school.)

But of all the broken things in this story, none are as broken as Aaron Roden himself.

Roden is 22, with a history of mental illness. His parents -- his father is an assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville -- say they've tried everything: medication, special schools, wilderness therapy.

They've watched their son get arrested. Stop-then-start-then-stop his meds. They are heartbroken -- and have been and will remain so -- in ways most of us can never understand.

"Our son is not a criminal. Our son has an illness," Aaron's mother wrote in a letter. "We love our son."

Know who else loves him?

Know who else wants to help put him back together again?

The kids at Westview Elementary.

"They are honestly worried about him," said Whitney Webb, mom to Henry, 6, and Helen, 9.

If you are looking for sadness in the world, look at Roden's destruction.

But if you are looking for something sweetly beautiful, then look at Westview's response.

On the morning school reopened -- once the glass had been swept up and tears wiped away -- the kids listened as teachers, principals and police officers spoke to them about what happened.

Then, they got to ask questions.

"A lot of the questions were about Aaron Roden," Whitney said.

Was he hurt?

Was he OK?

Was he going to hurt anyone? Did anyone hurt him?

"They wanted to know what was going to happen to him," remembered Whitney, who's also a PTO board member.

When did you and I lose such innocence? What stole that from us, replacing it with eye-for-an-eye anger and remaking our heart into a fist?

Sure, such big love comes naturally to kids.

But it can also be taught.

Meet their principal: Margo Williams. (I also suspect she is a saint-in-waiting.)

"The damages he caused at the school are worth it in my eyes if this young man can get help and the children can grow to learn more about forgiveness," Williams said. "If he would come back to the school and sincerely apologize to the teachers, students, and the building -- I would welcome him."

During that first-day-back meeting, Williams spoke clearly to the kids, giving them the lesson of a lifetime.

We are not mad at him, she said.

We hope he gets help.

It's not your job to worry about this anymore.

And we're going to have a wonderful year.

All week long, the rest of us have been talking about Robin Williams. How sad he must have been on the inside. How we need to start paying closer attention to the signs of depression.

Know what? Aaron Roden is Robin Williams: troubled, mentally haunted and in need of real professional help.

"We love him," Laura Roden wrote. "We have loved him from the day we picked him up from the adoption agency. We have loved him from the day I said to my husband, 'There's something wrong with this baby'."

When he turned 16, they almost found out what it was.

"He was given a possible diagnosis of being bi-polar," Laura Roden wrote. "Despite our numerous requests, he has never had a complete mental health assessment because our insurance would not pay."

Odds are, one of those children at Westview Elementary -- 1 in 10 children suffer from serious emotional and mental disorders, experts say -- will become like Roden later in life.

Odds are, he or she will then encounter a national policy rooted in dysfunction: prison instead of treatment, alienation, stigmatization and under-funded policies. Mental illness is a curse that we make incurable.

Who knows what was going through Aaron Roden's mind that night. He could have gone anywhere and done anything with his rage.

But he chose Westview.

And now, they're teaching the rest of us how to love him back.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.