Life sure seemed a lot simpler back in 1998.

At Burlington High School you could actually go outside, breathe, take a walk and then return to class – without a teacher questioning it.

Yes, it was a banner era of open campus, lunch walks to Sentry and Hardee’s, and no cell phones and limited Internet.

In November 1998, I was a much lighter (100 pounds! Geez) version of my current self, fresh off a football season and a bit lost after quitting basketball after one day.

Yup, one day.

I saw the rigorous practices associated with varsity basketball and for some reason I didn’t have the same love for a game I grew up with since age 5.

      A lot was happening beneath the surface, however, much of it out of my control.

I was spiraling out of control mentally, suffering from bipolar disorder/manic depression and floating through life undiagnosed.

While friends and girlfriends were fleeting, I was desperately trying to “fit in,” as I ignorantly didn’t know any better and thought being “cool” was what mattered in high school.

Long story short, I was involved in an embarrassing video a few weeks before the infamous plot to kill and my social life was about to change tremendously.


Bullying was the norm

The following months involved being called a homophobic slur almost daily, being picked on by strangers and reverting to illegal practices just to fit in with anyone, and I mean anyone, that would be my friend.

I was bullied at times my entire life, and I bullied kids, and after years it just became commonplace.

Sadly, it was what kids did to each other, as normal as playing football in the back yard or going to birthday parties.

But don’t get it twisted – I was still a good student with many friends and family that cared for me, along with “jock” popularity from playing three or four sports most school years.

Add membership with the school newspapers and forensics, and I wasn’t exactly prom king, but people knew me and liked me.

Enter the “Goth” crew, three of whom were convicted for their plan to shoot and kill Burlington High School personnel, including the police liaison, principal, teachers and students.

Members of this small group walked around town wearing black trench coats, fitting the “Goth” prototype – kids that were obsessed with death and being weird.

I remember vividly them showing up at the city swimming pool and starting trouble with other kids, but usually they were outnumbered by the “jocks” or “brains” or other “normal” kids – you know, the ones who didn’t call attention to themselves by just wearing something simple like jeans or T-shirts or Nike shoes.

The rebellious nature of the “Goths” was one of the results of being bullied, shunned, neglected and rejected by others.

While kids beat them up, I wouldn’t be surprised if frustrated teachers understandably dismissed them years ago.


Tragic decisions

Whatever hell these Goths were in, it likely played a role in their misguided decision to hatch a plan to shoot up the their school.

The detailed plot was very close to happening, according to officials.

The threat was as legit as they come, and exceptional preemptive action by police and school officials stopped what could have been Columbine before Columbine, which occurred only five months later in Littleton, Colo.

We didn’t know why we laughed at the Goths and their friends, we just did it. It was what everyone did.

And that is where adolescence is so dangerous – we try so desperately to fit in, sometimes it doesn’t matter who, how or why we hurt people, because the end result benefits our reputation.

Every good teacher and person in a school setting encourages the youth, even the most troubled, and paints a picture of a bright future, one where fitting in and being popular doesn’t matter.

Being cool absolutely doesn’t matter. Because when you owe $135 and you only have three days to pay or the lights go off in your apartment, it affects your family.

Or when you learn your significant other is pregnant, and you will soon be a father or mother.

Did that time a kid called you a “Goth” 20 years ago really lead to your current situation?

No, it didn’t matter in the big picture, but at the time, it hurt, and contrary to popular belief, words sting and stick in our minds, sometimes forever.


Ticking time bombs

Resentment and hatred can form after repeated bullying or criticism or abuse, and people reach a boiling point.

In this case the students involved in the plot were pushed to their limit, and they contemplated killing others and themselves, thinking it was the only way out.

At least one of the students initially involved in the plot recovered quite well from the ordeal.

He attended the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha –the same school I attended – and we actually became acquainted, catching up between classes at times.

It was only four years later, and he was a completely different person.

There are ticking time bombs in every school.

Look at what we’ve become as a country in the past 20 years.

School shootings, and mass shootings in general, have become tragically regular occurrences, as misguided, ostracized youth continue to choose weapons to “solve” their problems.

Families have been destroyed, innocent children slain and lives ruined forever.

And to think, it could have happened in Burlington.

The issue of school shootings goes much deeper than guns.

It stems from treating others with kindness, respect and compassion.

Even then, bad things happen, and in the most extreme cases, violence erupts.

But all it takes is one.

So kids, talk to a new friend at school tomorrow, or invite the “nerd” to sit with you and your friends at lunch.

Parents, hug your child and love them as much as possible, hang out with them, laugh with them, go to the movies and share your dreams, ideas, fears and secrets.

There are little things we can do to make our schools safer places.

All it takes is the courage to choose love.