George Carlin says public education isn't in the business of training engaged citizens; it's in the business of training obedient workers. He's 90 percent correct, but what else is new? Education has always had its caste system; Yale students "go to school to learn to rule," but they are a carefully selected elite, and that's not a slogan you'll hear at, oh, East Tennessee State. What's more, public schools deal with a huge array of social problems, and they're easy to pick on.
Increasingly, though, I see things at the public schools that make me think all the grownups with common sense have been replaced by Pod People--and at the same time, I keep seeing things that make me think the Pod People are dealing with kids who don't have grownups for parents.
This morning, there was a Washington Post story about a six-year-old boy who got reported to the police for sexual harassment because a smacked a little girl on the bottom at recess. Since when has a six-year-old been capable of sexual harassment? Since when does smacking another child on the bottom make a kid the Spawn of Satan? But according to the story, the school officials were just following orders. Or what they said they thought were orders.
"Days before the incident, at a routine meeting with district officials, principals had been reminded to report threats and assaults to the police," the story said. "'There was some confusion as to what level of threat and assault we were talking about,' said Ken Blackstone, a school system spokesman."
Yeah, I'd say so. Lots of confusion; no common sense. But let's give school officials a break here; they may have realized that calling the cops was over-reacting, but feared that if they did anything less, the little girl's parents would sue. Stranger things have happened. Which explains, maybe, why when my own six-year-old was discovered trying to tie up another kid with a jump rope (both of them had come up with the idea, and they'd been practicing on each other), the school all but called out the SWAT team. Both kids got hauled into the vice-principal's office, both got a long lecture, both sets of parents were called in the middle of the day, and my daughter was barred from using a jump-rope for the next month, even to jump rope with. Obviously, my daughter and her accomplice deserved a reprimand--never a good idea to tie people up, certain very adult situations possibly excepted--but holy cow. I'm sure, though, that the school was Following Procedures. I dared not offer so much as a comment, for fear that the school would take the next step and ban jump ropes altogether.
I don't know; maybe they need an inch-thick manual of procedures for such everyday occurrences, since weird things seem to be happening at home. I let my kids watch TV, if for no other reason than to keep track of the messages they're getting. From time to time, I ban certain shows. I'm getting ready to issue a ban on "Fairly Odd Parents" on the basis that yeah, well, Timmy is an average who no one understands--but Mom and Dad are complete idiots and his "real" parents--the fairy godparents, who live in a goldfish bowl--are Complete Enablers, existing only to grant Timmy's every wish. My kids already have a raging sense of entitlement, which I have to beat into submission on a regular basis, and they display a disturbing tendency to roll their eyes when my husband or I make some observation. You expect that at 15; at 11 and 7, we are considerably ahead of schedule--and feeding them more of this crap is the last thing we need.
"Fairly Odd Parents," however, is "Teletubbies" compared to what some of her classmates seem to be watching. Last week, my first grader told me that she'd heard a boy in her class talking about "peeing in somebody's mouth." This was in the car; I nearly drove the minivan into a ditch. Further questioning revealed that a) the kid involved had not asked her to participate in this activity, and b) it was likely he didn't even know what this activity was all about. Still, you have to wonder: how late do this kid's parents let him stay up? And what channels is he watching? And, more ominously, once he catches on, is he going to think that this looks like something fun to try at recess?
And if he does, will the teachers be so busy dealing with a jump rope Incident that they'll miss it?
We're in a vicious cycle: parents are too overworked or complacent or distracted to keep a lid on things at home, so the schools try to take up the slack by issuing another set of lawyer-vetted rules and guidelines. The result is a great big honkin' manual that teachers and school administrators regard as Holy Writ and which they follow to the letter even when the results are ridiculous. It's as if parents and schools are a dysfunctional set of parents: one's unwilling to impose consistent limits, so the other reacts by becoming a major nag and pain in the ass, which the first parent reacts to by undermining the other parent's authority, which the other parent reacts to by ramping up enforcement of all the rules, including the dumb ones.
If it sounds like I know this subject too well--well, I do. My husband and I have traversed this path. I tended to be the conflict-avoidant Good Cop; he reacted by taking on the role of the Bad Cop. The results weren't pretty. Over the years we've both worked a lot on this, which for me has meant finding a backbone and which for him has meant taking a lot of deep breaths and repeating the mantra, "They're only kids. They're only kids." It's a tough problem to address, but it can be done. For schools, it means re-introducing the concept of "common sense" to some situations, like ones involving six-year-old boys who smack little girls on the bottom because they were teasing her. For parents, this means more, not less, involvement in kids' lives the older they get. This is contrary to conventional wisdom, I know, but the older my kids get the more I find I need to keep hanging out in their vicinity to get an idea of what's going on with them: who they're having a fight with, what kind of clothes they think are fashionable, what kind of friends they have, how well they're handling disputes and deadlines and crises. It also means being willing to speak up when schools start pushing kids around for being kids, or imposing ridiculous penalties for violating Procedure 34B, subparagraph 14. Of course, any challenge to school authority these days is a perilous undertaking, but that's a whole other rant. In short, it means that all us Baby Boomers--teachers and parents--are going to have to start finding our Inner Grownup, which is not something we seem inclined to do (still another rant). But still: it's gotta be done.
Anyway, I have to go. I need to look up the manual on my television remote so I can figure out how to program the stupid V chip. "Fairly Odd Parents" comes on at 3.