School Climate & Safety Opinion

A Teacher Remembers the Accused Colorado Gunman

By Paul Karrer — July 27, 2012 2 min read
Mourners visit a makeshift memorial built across the street from the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., where 12 people were killed and 58 wounded in a shooting attack last week during a showing of "The Dark Knight Rises."
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When I knew James Holmes, the alleged Colorado shooter, he was Jimmy. I was his 5th grade teacher.

Back then, in 1998-99, Holmes lived in Castroville, Calif., a tiny town of 5,000. Since the theater shooting in Aurora, I’ve talked about Jimmy with one of his former classmates; let’s call him Chris.

Jimmy was well-dressed, neat, wore glasses, liked to read, and excelled in all academic areas. He had two really good friends, including Chris, both sharp like him—in fact, top of the class.

I trusted James Holmes so much that when he finished his assignments, I let him and another student create a class website. Mind you, this was 1998 and our computers were primitive; we had to write lines and lines of code to do anything. Jimmy worked on this independently, and he did it well.

Chris reminded me how I’d race students in the field behind the school: “Only two kids beat you in our year, and James was one of them.” He continued, “Mr. Karrer, those were the best years of my school years—5th grade.”

Then a pause, and: “What do you think happened to him?”

What happened to him? James had everything going for him. He lived in the wealthy part of town; I’m pretty sure both of his parents had white-collar jobs.

James Eagan Holmes passed through my life for one year. Could I have done anything that would have led to a different outcome?"

Yet Chris, who was asking the question, had been poked in the eyes by fate. His mom died before 5th grade, but he kept up with school and plugged away. He was, and still is, a sweet, lovable, biggish kid.

His dad was a Vietnam vet who worked day and night at their restaurant to make ends meet. The dad confided in me a few years ago that he had cancer, but “cancer isn’t mean enough to get me.” And he beat it: He’s still plugging away at that restaurant six years later.

So in the end, Chris turned out A-OK . . . and Jimmy didn’t.

“How can we know?” I answered Chris. “Perhaps he became psychotic. It shows up in people in their 20s. Maybe he used wicked sanity-eating drugs like OxyContin, meth, crack, and it destroyed his mind. I don’t know.

“Perhaps he just turned to the dark side? I don’t know . . . don’t know.”

I do know a few things, though. James (Jimmy) Eagan Holmes, by all accounts, has committed a brutal, evil, and, it seems, very premeditated, horrible act.

Some people snap. They’ll commit crimes of passion, commit dark acts under the influence of drugs, anger, lust, misperception, racism, ignorance, and poor or wrong decisionmaking.

And I think as a civilized society all we can do is try to minimize the impact these individuals have upon us. No civilian should have or own a military-style weapon. No civilian should be able to purchase body armor. And I say this as a gun owner.

As an educator, I’d add that we desperately need nurses, psychologists, and social workers in our elementary schools. In this era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, too often they aren’t even on the radar. Testing supersedes all.

Finally, I wonder: James Eagan Holmes passed through my life for one year. Could I have done anything that would have led to a different outcome? Probably not.

But I also fear that in schools somewhere out there, more James Holmeses are festering.

To the people of Aurora, I’m very, very, very sorry.

And to Chris, I’m so proud of you and your dad.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Teacher Remembers Accused Colo. Gunman


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