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ROBIN ABCARIAN

A Lesson in Empathy, Taught by the Children

November 02, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Proposition 187 is a good reminder that, among other things, you can't fool kids.

One of the qualities possessed by children, which reaches its peak in adolescence and incipient adulthood, is the ability to detect hypocrisy and the willingness to call it like it is. Some people use a vulgarity with the word detector to describe this phenomenon. No surprise, in other words, that a child nailed the emperor and his so-called new clothes.

Children have a luxurious liberation that is wrung out of them as time goes by. It is not a matter of simple naivete, but social position: A child generally does not have to worry about what the boss thinks, or whether an action will affect property values or even what the neighbors will say. A child does not have to stand for reelection in a lousy economy.

And so the emotions of children--even ones on the cusp of adulthood--are often more pure, more raw and more heartfelt than those of adults. The opposite of an adolescent, in this sense, is a politician.

Which is why people such as Pete Wilson and Mike ("Everyone at some stage has broken the law") Huffington should pay attention to the kids who poured out of their middle schools and high schools by the thousands last week--and who have threatened to do so on an even grander scale today--to protest the most mean-spirited proposition to come down the pike in recent memory.

Proposition 187 may do in moments what years of well-intentioned lessons never could: Give this generation of schoolchildren a sense that they have a stake in this time and place after all.

Thanks to the narrow minds behind Proposition 187, we may be witnessing the politicization of a new generation of Californians. They are not likely to grow up and vote Republican.

*

Last Friday was not an especially pleasant day for some school administrators.

Birmingham High School Principal Jerry Kleinman followed the 800 to 1,000 of his students who left the Van Nuys school about 10:30 a.m. They marched from Birmingham to several other schools, before winding up at Van Nuys Civic Center, thousands strong. Kleinman did not return to campus until about 2:45 p.m., when students were returned aboard school buses ordered up by district officials.

On Monday morning, Kleinman received phone calls from angry parents demanding to know why he had been "marching with the students."

" I beg your pardon? " was his testy response.

"I feel responsible to the youngsters," he explained. "I needed to be there."

In one instance on Friday, he found himself defusing an angry motorist after students who were a little too stoked on adrenaline for their own good banged the man's bumper with their fists as they crossed in front of his car.

"I got between the adult and the youngsters so there would be no confrontation," Kleinman said. "I just tried to indicate to the man that we had a walkout . . . and you have some kids that are gonna act very immature and I hoped he would understand that."

Kleinman said he was planning an "open forum" today on Proposition 187. He hoped it would encourage students to stay on campus, but he wasn't making any predictions.

"I want them to have a positive civics lesson out of this. I don't approve of what they did, but if . . . they can grow from it, then I think there is something good."

Would that the adults could grow from it too.

*

I applaud the students who walked out for showing conviction, even as I acknowledge some of them surely looked upon the walkout as nothing more than a glorified ditch day. For the most part, the demonstrations, which took place from Oxnard to San Diego, were peaceful. And the point has been made.

I hope students stay in school today and use their energies constructively. Taking to the streets is an invitation for violence and Lord knows, the children of this city have seen enough of that.

But acts of conscience committed by schoolchildren can offer something valuable to adults, particularly those adults who support the child-punishing Proposition 187 out of the misguided sense they will be "sending a message" about illegal immigration.

I'm not beatifying these kids. Children are not saints. And they are quite capable of the baser human behaviors. Eventually, one hopes, self-centeredness makes room for generosity and empathy, and from such tender sprouts of conscience does a healthy, humane society grow.

These young protesters have taught us something about compassion and humanity and the kind of rage that flows from being treated like dirt.

As I look around and note which of our so-called leaders and would-be leaders are supporting Proposition 187, it occurs to me that not all our adult citizens have internalized those important values.

Maybe they should go back to school. There's a lot they could learn.

From the kids.

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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