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Perspective

High School Hasn't Changed--Except for the Gun

March 09, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The grown-ups among us watch the events unfold in Santee and we shake our heads, if not shocked, then baffled. We gasp at the level of hostility and acrimony on a student Web page and quickly shut it down. Even more upsetting is the relatively blase response of teens to these events. What has happened to schools? To kids? To the world?

Nothing. We've just forgotten what it's like. High school is not a safe place, because it has never been a safe place. The emotions are too extreme, the stakes are too high, the pressure too great for safety. As the media, the authorities, the nation struggle to make sense of the shooting in Santee, we cannot overlook high school.

In a tragic way, 15-year-old Andy Williams is an all-American boy. The one we all knew, the one many of us were. Most of us, of course, would be unable to do what authorities say Williams did--reason, decency, love of God or fear of reprisal stop most of us from carrying out vivid revenge fantasies. But still he is hauntingly familiar. Small and slight, Williams had just recently arrived from the other coast, the new kid who hadn't had time to rally real friends before he was thrust into the petri dish of high school. He was picked on, tormented, really, but he never fought back. Just as so many parents caution their kids. Don't let it get to you, adults tell their children. Don't let it get to you, Williams' friends in Maryland told him.

But of course it got to him. High school is all about things getting to you. High school is all about love and hate and fear and pride; it is society's boot camp, a Darwinian social order fueled by the mind-altering alchemy of expectation, possibility and hormones.

Who does not remember the crush who made your hands shake, your mouth go dry just by walking past your locker? The knot of whispering girls or mocking boys who reduced you to tears with just a few nasty words? The passionate friendships, the adored teacher who saved your life? That guy who once threw a dodge ball so hard it broke a girl's leg? Who does not remember feeling that endless howl of yearning, that breath-stopping joy, the giggling intoxication of belonging, the fiery wash of utter shame?

Emotionally, adolescence is the most difficult time of life, says Diane Di Barri, past president of the California Assn. of School Psychologists and a psychologist at Wilcox High School in Santa Clara. The brain and body are under siege by hormones, which, when coupled with the increased demands of scholarship and impending adulthood, can make the world seem impossible to bear. The first year, she says, is the hardest--kids feel incredibly disenfranchised when they enter high school. Many of them don't even know where to eat; they haven't found a support group. They are, she says, often completely overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed. By the changes that confront them, by their powerlessness over them. At no other time in our lives does so much change happen so radically, so irrevocably. These are the years during which we realize that adults, the guardians of our world, are often perilously flawed. In our early teens, we are stricken with the biggest revelation a human can have--that our family is not like other families, that there are other options. Yet we are still too young to leave, too young to create our own different lives.

Even our bodies seem out of our control; they shift and reshape themselves almost overnight, our moods fluctuating wildly. Why do we feel such rage, despair, exaltation, lust? How can we explain what we're feeling to anyone when we don't understand it ourselves?

As adults, such swings of emotions are rare, usually nudged by specific events--we fall in love, we have a baby, we lose a parent, discover a betrayal. When our moods threaten to undo us, many seek professional help or medication, prescribed or not. Imagine trying to hold a job, raise a family, while feeling the way you felt in high school.

But not all of the angst can be pinned on age or chemistry. If you took a group of adults and put them in crowded classrooms for six hours a day, says Reed Larson, a professor of human and community development at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne, if you forced them to sit in rows and only move when the bell rings, if they were required to ask for passes to use the bathroom, or notes to explain absences, then they would exhibit some pretty strange behavior as well.

In political conversations, it is assumed that overcrowding is bad because it slows learning. Larson believes it also exacerbates the problems of an institutional community.

"In overcrowded schools, kids aren't treated as individuals," he says. "They are forced into a social control system focused on the 10% of them who aren't able to provide self-control, which communicates mistrust."

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