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Students Got the Jailhouse Blues

April 01, 2001|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father."

SAN FRANCISCO — Ten years ago, we had all grown accustomed to reading about surveillance cameras and metal detectors in dingy inner-city high schools. Now, we read about surveillance cameras and metal detectors at high schools in the suburbs, where kids drive their own cars and wear labeled clothing they see on TV. And we read about armed cops on staff.

No one would confuse the little red schoolhouse of legend with modern U.S. high schools like Columbine or Santana--high schools that resemble concrete warehouses along the Interstate. But who would have guessed that so many school districts would find it necessary to employ armed police? Who would have guessed that the little red schoolhouse would grow to resemble a big red jailhouse?

At Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, it's not the quarterback who is this month's campus hero, it's the school cop. Officer Rich Agundez Jr. is celebrated by one and all for shooting the teenager who allegedly wounded several teachers and students.

Indeed, one should be grateful to Agundez for his quick response and his bravery. But shouldn't we wonder why a school like Granite Hills needs to have an armed officer, patrolling the cafeteria and the library, standing guard outside the chemistry lab?

Ideally, schools should have nothing to do with surveillance cameras and armed guards. Ideally, schools should be places where the young are free--free to grow, to learn new ideas, free to acquire new friends, to experiment with new voices, new selves. School should be the institution that takes a child beyond the known, safe boundaries of home, to the public realm of adulthood. Ideally.

But: "You wouldn't believe how these kids segregate themselves," a suburban high school teacher recently told me. Inside the cafeteria, she says, there are borders within borders. Jocks at one table. Nerds at another. Skinheads with their own kind. Mexicans. Surfers. Asians. Blacks. And God help you if you make the mistake of sitting at the wrong table.

Most adults shudder at the memory of adolescence, the routine cruelties of high school cafeterias and "nobody asked me to the junior prom." There is not a more conforming time, a crueler time, a time more preoccupied by who's "in" and who's "out" than adolescence.

But most adults in America also sense that something is different now. Teasing can lead to mayhem. That timid outcast, his face ravaged by acne, may come back tomorrow as a monster.

An Italian educator recently preached to me: "You Americans talk about 'individuality,' but in order for a child to become an individual, the child has to have a strong sense of family. You need a 'we' to become an 'I.' "

Patriotically, I protested. But my Italian friend would not be put off. "Without a strong sense of family," he said, "American children end up looking for family at precisely that time in their lives when you might expect them to be looking beyond family. They end up joining gangs or chat rooms."

Actually, the Italian educator and I had not been talking about inner-city America. We had been talking about Columbine High in Littleton, Colo. And we had been driving through suburban streets in Contra Costa County that had uniformly cheerful-sounding names but no sign of life in mid-afternoon.

You can believe my Italian friend or not. But surveys of young people--inner city and suburb--indicate that what young people want most in America (they say) is "more contact with parents." Which raises the obvious question: Where are the parents?

Without parents in America, the entire education process collapses. For the child who enters a classroom without a sense of surname or the memory of a parent's embrace is in no mood to seek the freedom of school. That student is inclined in an opposite direction.

A generation ago, American parents blushed. Even while the divorce rate climbed, the job of explaining sex to children was passed on to the school. Now, the curriculum is expanding even more extravagantly, away from the family circle. Politicians and teachers are proposing what they call "character education" in our schools.

Character education is a euphemism for the sort of upbringing that most people used to consider essential to child-rearing within the home. Character education, before any such term was dreamed up, was merely what happened when a parent scolded or molded a child and said "no" to a child and "that's better" and "I'm proud of you."

In the absence of parenting, there is now character education. In place of Shakespeare and physics, we shall teach teenagers not to tease one another. To be nice.

But adolescence, when it is not an experience of freedom, is not nice. It turns into petty conformities. It can also breed terrible conformities. Who, after all, should be surprised by copy-cat shootings?

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