"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
A few months before he was shot in the head, Marshall Coulter passed me in the hallway.
“Ms. Selker! Remember how otters hold hands when they sleep?”
Of course I did. I was the one who had told him about otters, one afternoon in the fall. I’d run into him after class and noticed he looked upset — school wasn’t always easy for Marshall. So I showed him a silly photo a friend had emailed me — two sea otters floating with their tiny paws interlocked. If you’ve never Googled “otters holding hands,” you should; it’s pretty irresistible. They do it so they don’t float away in the waves while they sleep. It’s how they stay safe at night.
Marshall loved the photo, and his anger thawed. He’d been fist-clenched and tight-lipped before, but he went on his way smiling. Later, he’d remind me about the otters, whenever he thought I looked tired or sad. He could be a challenging kid, but he noticed things like that.
And then, in July, he was shot. Unarmed, just a few blocks from home. He remains in critical condition.
The man who shot him, Merritt Landry, says he was afraid Marshall was going to break into his home. According to our local paper, the Times-Picayune, the police declared Marshall was not “an imminent threat” of any kind. The article draws a parallel to Trayvon Martin’s case, not simply because the victims were young and black, but also because Landry is arguing innocence for more or less “standing his ground.” But Marshall’s situation is unlikely to generate the outrage of Trayvon.
For one, Marshall had a criminal record for burglary. For another, he scaled Landry’s fence at 1:40 a.m. Marshall’s injuries have left him unable to speak, so I can’t ask him why he was there. But in the court of public opinion, he seems to have been convicted already. Reading through comments sections for the Times-Picayune and the New York Daily News, it’s hard to find readers outraged by the notion of a homeowner shooting someone on his property in the middle of the night. “I am appalled at this story,” reads one comment. “Why was he only shot once?”
And then I feel sick. I, too, am appalled – that he was shot in the first place. And that more people aren’t furious about the fact that a 14-year-old boy can step off his bike in the Marigny, one of our city’s “safest” neighborhoods, and get a bullet through the brain.
My favorite coffee shop is near Landry’s house, and as I walked out a few days ago, I heard some residents chatting about the event.
“This neighborhood isn’t safe anymore because of kids like that boy. Why was he here in the first place?” they said, then walked their dog around the corner.
I bristled at their mention of “kids like that” — the police hadn’t even released Marshall’s name at that point; how could they know what he was really like? And it was Marshall, not these two residents, who ended up unsafe that night.
This isn’t to say Marshall was perfect. To be honest, Marshall and I spent a lot of our time together in detention. That’s where I got to know him. I was the proctor, and he ended up there quite a bit. I don’t see detention as a place for “bad kids.” I’ve yet to meet a kid I think is bad, but I do know kids that push the limits for all sorts of reasons. They learn from the consequences of those decisions — detention was one of them. Most kids wanted to complain and sulk their way through their hour and a half under my supervision, but Marshall would make use of it. He’d always take my extra classwork and get started; once he helped organize a detention-wide spelling bee. As the year progressed, I saw less of him at that block in the end of the day. He was not a hopeless case.
Before he’d left elementary school, Marshall had lost his father to cancer, lived through Hurricane Katrina and witnessed serious violence and poverty — his circumstances weren’t easy. I don’t deny that plenty of kids live through similar things and make different choices, but plenty more make similar choices and see different results.
When I heard what had happened, I thought back to what my life was like at Marshall’s age. I grew up in a small town. I was gangly. I had braces. I wore dresses. I am white. There were plenty of times I trespassed — chasing a cat through backyards in fourth grade, peeking at a neighbor’s pool with my first boyfriend, touring the vacant house next door on a break home from college — and nothing ever happened. Growing up, I knew many kids who boldly threw down their towels on hotel beaches or climbed the school fence at night. They faced no consequence.
To be fair, they didn’t have criminal records. They were living with privilege in a small Massachusetts town. But like me, they made it to seventh grade to learn that punishment for crimes is dealt after trial by jury — not a man with a gun in his hands. At this point, I’m worried Marshall won’t make it back to class able to learn this himself.
Legally, it may turn out that Landry had a right to do what he did. There’s a doctrine in Louisiana that says you can shoot someone on your property, if they’re going to hurt you. I know many are thinking, despite the police account, that Marshall may have been a threat. But I can’t help thinking it’s just as likely he was lost. Maybe he jumped the fence on a dare. Maybe, like me, he was nothing but curious and young.
Maybe, if he had looked like me, he wouldn’t have seen the same fate. Landry didn’t know the boy I do — who liked spelling bees and otters, who stood tall in defense of his little brother. He shot a boy, because he was scared. He nearly took a child’s life because he didn’t like what that child might be up to.
As a teacher, it’s my job to prepare kids for the future. If they’re up to no good, I believe they should get counseling and consequence — not gunfire. I want my students to enter the world proud and articulate, informed and brave; right now, I feel that world isn’t worthy of their promise.
The last time I saw Marshall before he was shot, we were standing on the playground in the sun. He showed the kindness I was used to by then. I needed to get Marshall’s little brother, Devin, our class’ summer reading list. Devin was out sick that day, but Marshall offered to help.
“I can do it,” he said.
He asked for the list, folded it up carefully, and zipped it tight in his backpack. Then he told me he’d bring it home safe.
Kate Selker is a writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has taught in, and continues to be involved in, the New Orleans Public School System.More Kate Selker.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)