A recess bell rings, and a numberless horde of children erupt from the school building and onto the playground, venting a gladsome Shriek as they scatter. One among them, a blond-haired lad, pauses for a moment to survey the scene, then strides purposefully toward the basketball court. He is small for his age (8 or 9), but sturdily built, and with a confident manner; he appears in no way different from the other children. He is different though, at least in one respect: this is his first day here, albeit it is the middle of the school year. A scant minute or two passes, there seems to be a disturbance of some sort over yonder, and then I see this child being led back to the building by another playground monitor. His face mottled with rage, he flings epithets and abuse upon her in such language as would make a stevedore wince. He is a "disciplinary transfer", a child whose behavior has proven so intractable at one school that after the last crisis, he has been summarily transferred to a different venue. Evidently, he will have no any easier time at this school, and in point of fact, it becomes known after a week or so that he was once more shuffled away to be a trial to some other hapless school authority.
When I was working as an educational assistant in the public school system, we saw a fair number of this sort of child. A much, much larger number of children were adversarial and ill- mannered to a degree not far removed from this extreme. I always wondered where they came from. When I was their age (ye Gods, how like my parents sound I...), one simply didn't contemplate the sort of turbulent and irascible behavior thought commonplace today. To vent even one of the words I heard regularly from all sorts of students would have been grounds for a hefty suspension. To no lesser degree would the blatant, in-your-face refusals to cooperate and obey one sees daily have been met. One did occasionally hear of such a child; they were the subject of awed whisperings in the lunchroom; but they were exceedingly rare birds, indeed. And no, I am not the product of a parochial school, I moved through quite ordinary public schools from 1958 to 1969.
Commentators dwell quite often nowadays upon the Decay Of Societal Values, or even the Imminent Demise Of Western Civilization. If Something Isn't Done... thunder these voices, the barbarians will hurl themselves at the gates, and we will go the way of Egypt, Persia, and Rome. I dislike raining on parades, but I'm afraid that from where I sit and mix metaphors, that particular barn door was opened quite some time ago, and the horses of Civic Virtue, Public Obedience, and Filial Piety have long since left for high ground. Like it or not, this is the future we have been warning each other about, and we either learn to adapt, or we will well and truly disappear. For the past thirty years, children have been taught that authority is to be questioned, that nothing is so permanent that a smart lawyer can't change it, and that truth is relative. Personally, I am skeptical of some of these axioms, but what of that? My understanding or approval will not affect in any degree the progress of current thought. What is important is an understanding of how to preserve the best that we have created while allowing the rest to transmute into whatever it must. Let me suggest several points which may be useful.
The first is that a more general acceptence of the fact that ones right to a happy and fulfilling lifestyle is strictly limited by the Universe's right to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, for any or no reason at all, without appeal. Misery, adversity, or simple inconvenience are the common lot of all of us at one time or another, but ever increasingly it seems that such conditions are viewed as someones fault, a situation to be rectified and rebalanced at any cost. Daily we hear of lawsuits against corporations who fail to warn their customers of the dangers inherent in placing hot coffee cups between ones legs in a moving car, or of outrageous conduct by drivers whose need to be first in line outweighs all considerations of road safety, or of boorish and infantile behavior on the part of those who should be role models to us all. Get a clue, people: life is often unfair and unreasonable. Take what joy and satisfaction you can out of what you have accomplished, that you may better endure the rest without causing others around you to suffer as well.
Turning from the philosophical to the entirely practical, a drastic reform of our middle schools is required. We are known to have better than average elementary programs, and our high schools do alright with what they have, but our secondary grades are a very weak link. The reasons are complex, and vary from state to state, but the results are plain to see. Outmoded textbooks, lacklustre programs, little faculty support, it all adds up. The middle grades are exactly the point when children take their first steps toward adulthood. It is a time when new ideas burst like thunderclaps in a mind, and it is a time which deserves a great deal more priority from educators, parents, and policy-makers alike.
Finally, I would like to point out that much happens today that we can justifiably take pride in (the space program, the collapse of the Cold War, and the advent of personal computers are among my personal favorites). It would behoove us all to recognize that while there may be things happening today that we find abhorrent, nevertheless society as a whole is still in reasonable health. Enjoy what the world has to offer. Be secure in the knowledge that while circumstances and patterns may shift in a rapid a frightful manner, ideas and things of lasting value will continue to endure. Just ask any modern Egyptian, Irani, or Italian.
April 10, 1998
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