Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Fear of Our Children

One of the stories I missed while skiing last week and am just now catching up with is this one, from Kentucky, about a high school student who was arrested for a story found in his journal that he was preparing for a school assignment. His grandparents found the story and turned it over to police.

"My story is based on fiction," said the student, William Poole. "It's a fake story. I made it up. I've been working on one of my short stories, (and) the short story they found was about zombies. Yes, it did say a high school. It was about a high school over ran by zombies."

Nonetheless, local investigators claim the story outlines possible acts of violence aimed at students, teachers, and police. According to Winchester Police detective Steven Caudill, "anytime you make any threat or possess matter involving a school or function it's a felony in the state of Kentucky."

(Update 3/13/05 - For more information, including suggestions that the writings in the notebook were not for a school assignment and that Poole had solicited others to join him in some kind of army (this part of the story is pretty sketchy), look here. It's not clear to me from this story if his writings constitute a threat, as the authorities still claim, or if they are his imaginings put on paper).

If high school teachers continue in giving their students assignments that require them to use their imaginations, to write fiction (presumably and hopefully they will), some students are going to come up with stories that involve high school and mayhem. High school is the world they know. Mayhem and violence are prevalent in our society and in the entertainment students are exposed to. We may sometimes wish it were otherwise, but wishing won’t make it so. I think the students recognize the distinction between entertainment and reality, between what you can fantasize about and what you can actually do. The problem here is that adults seem to have a hard time with that distinction.

We’ve seen the same problem arising when students are given assignments in which they are asked to describe how they feel. Too often when students honestly describe their feelings they find themselves in a situation similar to that of Mr. Poole. To be fair, if there are areas students can get in trouble for writing about, teachers should steer clear of assignments that will lead students into those areas. If the answers frighten the teachers, the teachers should stop asking scary questions.

As a high school student, I could easily have been caught up in a situation like this. No, I’m sorry. That’s not true. Although I might have written something similar to what Poole wrote and got in trouble for, I was a high school student in California in a paradoxically more enlightened time (the seventies) than the present. My daughter is now in high school and I can envision her writing a story or an essay that might cross the lines that Poole’s did. Would she get in the same kind of trouble?

Memory’s a tricky thing, but I don’t recall hearing or reading about these things happening before Columbine. One of the initial responses to Columbine was to try to raise awareness of bullying in schools and make it less socially acceptable. I think that emphasis, coupled with the attempt to understand and integrate the misfits into high school society by accepting them as they are has fallen by the wayside, largely replaced by cracking down on teenage essays, short stories, and weblog entries that describe the misfits’ sense of alienation and fantasies of how they would deal with it, by trying to force the misfits to blend in by becoming more of the mainstream. Adolescence is a time for discovering who you are. You try on different personae, explore different philosophies, in an attempt to find out what works for you, what’s important to you. Some things you reject altogether, others you take parts of or adopt in whole. Who and what you think you are today could be radically different from who and what you will be next week, next month, or next year. In the end, whether after a period of months, years, or a lifetime, you are left with the personality and ideas that fit you. These essays and short stories getting kids in trouble are often reflections of this exploration. They might describe who a student is or what a student will do, but more likely they describe who a student thinks he or she might be or what they might do. It’s an important distinction.

I suspect that authorities, school and civil, have become even testier since 9/11 and the whole “Americans…need to watch what they say, watch what they do” response to that. To be alienated or to hold minority opinions is now viewed as suspect in and of itself. If you don’t think or act as the majority does, the majority feels threatened by you. This has been expressed quite loudly and often by the Republicans since the election, with their claims that the Democrats are out of touch with the mainstream and need to change. Some can not accept that people can disagree with them and still be sane, patriotic, and moral. Though our political institutions are based on the concept of pluralism, on an open exchange of and respect for differing opinions, this is too often now viewed as a dangerous state of affairs. If that’s true on the national political landscape, I suppose it’s naïve to believe the situation would be different on high school campuses. It’s a situation that all of us need to confront, that we all need to push back against. We cannot afford to live in a world dominated by those who lack the courage or the imagination to explore foreign ideas.
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