Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Schools of Violence

I was driving past a few elementary and middle schools yesterday on my way into Knoxville, and I had to wonder how many of the parents, teachers, and of course the kids, were thinking about the three most recent violent attacks inside schools in America.

One of the schools I passed was the scene last August of an incident where a fight over a weapon in a bathroom led to one teen being shot in the leg and two students being charged with planning to kill a teacher. So even in the most rural of settings, violence erupts in a school.

The horrific events in the small Amish school were created by a very disturbed adult, and not a child. In just about every way, I'm glad I do not easily grasp how such a thing can happen. Even though there may be explanations and reasons provided in this case - the acts the man took made everything worse.

Writer William Gaddis once wrote that it was one of the "blessings of childhood that when they are being warped the most they are aware of it the least." I used to think that line had some truth, but not so anymore. With friends who work with abused children, with an awareness of how brutal and sadly how often adults can warp a child, I tend to marvel instead that any of us make the passage from infant to adult with few warps and twists.

The school years seemed to take an eternity to pass for me, as slow as the endless seconds which might occur on the event horizon of a black hole. I have some fine memories of those days, but mostly I never liked being there. And there violent events in my own school, back when nearly every boy carried a pocketknife. I remember one girl in 5th grade who gained infamy when she boasted about the straight razor she carried in her purse. But no teacher or administrator ever confronted her or took the weapon away.

The items teachers confiscated in those days were comic books, yo-yos, or stuff ordered from the ads in comics like joy buzzers and whoopee cushions and "x-ray specs" and vampire teeth, or maybe the toys one could fit into our pre-techno pockets like Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars, green toy soldiers, and other tiny distractions we used to enliven the dull droning days.

By fifth or sixth grade, educators were experimenting with the effects of circular chair placements, "learning pods" instead of classrooms, and other oddities that seemed to emphasize the geometries of space rather than the efficacy of lesson plans.

By the last few years of high school, you would sometimes see a student hustled into "the office" with a small bag of marijuana or some pills they snagged from the home medicine cabinet or maybe bought from a fellow student.

And also in those last days of my time in high school, I could sense this real and growing deep despair among students and faculty alike - some prompted by the multitudes of "broken homes", by the depths of poverty and the increasing pressures and menace of social status. That social ordering was becoming vicious - who you were or were not friends with started being an intensely cruel situation. And I was in a very small school, which I typically think of as so small we hardly had enough people to form more than one clique -- but they were formed and the rules of association and disassociation were very harsh.

When I graduated, I felt as if I had been released from prison, though I'm sure that sounds like a very lame comparison.

I admit there were a few teachers in high school which I actively punished with psychological attacks, pushing at boundaries and behaviors if only to define those boundaries. One dull afternoon in my senior year, I was standing in the hallways prior to a class with a few of my friends and one of them whipped out a deck of playing cards and we started flipping them at each other - well, trying to flip them. We were hardly ninja assassins with throwing acumen. Still, a vice-principal saw us, took us into "the office" and lectured us for half an hour on the Evils of our card throwing. He actually said "someone could have lost an eye" and I nearly hemorrhaged suppressing a laugh.

If that event were to occur in a school setting today, myself and my companions would likely be treated to the absurdity of "Zero Tolerance", be forever expelled and possibly have to appear in court.

Statistics currently indicate episodes of school violence are declining, but obviously the intensity and media feeding frenzy that follows create the impression of schools as dangerous, dark places with metal detectors, windowless rooms, constant camera surveillance, lockdowns, constantly roving police officers.

Current policies labels like No Child Left Behind or Zero Tolerance, along with constant testing pressures in which scores must reach certain levels and continue to roll upwards or loss of federal funding is threatened, all that policy-making and pressure, along with events like those in recent weeks and the Columbine Fear that seem to envelope all education make me even happier that I left school long ago and that I don't have children who would be immersed in such bizarre cultures.

Instead, as I did yesterday, I drove past the school zones feeling some sympathies for all those kids and adults left in these buildings to make their way in an ever more convoluted maze. It appears to me the process has become more confusing, the goals and methods obscured by federal or local regulations with mystifying meanings.

I consider myself fortunate that while I have the maddening adult world to contend with, I don't have the added confusions and fears of what my children may or may not experience in public education. Too often I hear the emphasis being placed on students that they must learn well in order to obtain a good job, and seldom do I hear emphasis placed on the real value of education for it's own sake - to develop critical thinking skills and comprehension, to realize that we must constantly process information and determine whether it is factual or theoretical, that learning to express yourself can be the most important of lessons.


  1. This is an excellent post. Imagine, however, the trepidation one feels as the parent of a toddler who has years yet to go before entering - statistics be damned - a potentially violent place every day.

  2. I have two in mind - one child recently arrived and the other wee one is on the way. What cheers me about their futures are that their parents are truly unique and fine folk - I would imagine they are already searching for the best sources of education and the safest.
    Parental fears though are most daunting - and call me chicken i guess for not wanting to experience both the happy and the fearful sides of that.

  3. carpenterjd8:23 AM

    Excellent post! No one could have said it better.

    Education is not about learning anymore, it is about numbers; which can be manipulated by those that need the funding. I often ruminate about the possibility of becoming a teacher but I always accept the fact that I don't want to get caught up in the faulty education system that is failing so many of our kids. There are great teachers but they have their hands, and minds, tied.

  4. Carl Crashcob10:39 AM

    Actually, teachers are turned out of degree mills and to often the lazy coach is sleepwalking the class through algebra becuase he is certified to teach algebra but has less knowledge than the students. Then to many single mothers are raising kids on their own without any input from the fathers.