Late yesterday morning, a grade six boy in a Toronto elementary school karate-kicked the door of one of the girls’ washrooms. My six-year-old daughter, in her first months of grade one, was standing behind it, and the door handle hit her in the mouth, loosening several of her baby teeth.
I react in very primitive ways when my children are harmed, so it’s a good thing the school phoned my wife about this. I’d have stormed over to the school and done something I’d have regretted. Instead, I got the job of taking my daughter to the dentist an hour or two later to determine if the dental damage was serious. It probably isn’t, and she’s otherwise untraumatized, so no harm done, right? Life can be nasty, and accidents happen.
Wrong. This is bigger than an accident. It’s endemic throughout the school system. That’s why, this morning, I took the $122 dentist’s bill to the school and talked to the vice principal about what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again. I suggested, reasonably enough, that I’d like to see the offender educated, since that’s presumably why he’s in the school. The school’s mission, likewise, is not to indulge this boy’s preadolescent male aggression, or to injure small girls and drive their fathers into homicidal rages.
Now that I’ve cooled down, I’m willing to be civilized about this boy’s education. But he needs to have it delivered to him, in unequivocal terms, that his behavior wasn’t acceptable, and I guess the delivery method needn’t involve me squeezing his neck until either his lips turn blue or he gets the message. How about enough hours at minimum wage picking up garbage around the school yard to pay his parents back for the $122 dental bill? Or, if the boy’s parents don’t have the money, I’ll cheerfully swallow the dental costs myself if he does the work around the school. Other alternatives, as I warned the vice principal, are criminal assault charges, or a charge of sexual harassment–my daughter wasn’t the only female in that washroom, and none of them need to experience that sort of male hostility, even if it’s from an 11 year old.
I’m dreaming, of course. None of these punishments are going to be exacted, even if they’re deserved. Child labour laws (and the school’s labour contract) prevent restitution of the sort I’m suggesting. We can’t make children work, and we can’t step on the janitorial engineers’ turf. Supervening civil and criminal statutes now prevent even nominal corporal punishment, even the kind parents used to administer. Lawyers are expensive, and the legal system is overburdened, so the legal route is only an option if I’m willing to be a righteous lunatic, which I’m not. But I’m not very happy that the worst the little bugger is likely to get is a talking-to from the vice principal, after which he’s free to wander back down the hall and kick another door.
Nothing can be done to the parents, either, who appear to have allowed the boy to get his notions of socialization from the World Wrestling Federation. Since we all have the democratic right–which is forced on us by a thousand enticements as a duty or a compulsion–to watch television, and most parents are too exhausted (or morally bewildered) to control what their kids watch, we’re screwed on that count, too. It’s a little like what my demoralized colleagues used to say while I was teaching in maximum security prisons: we try to teach them Plato and Aristotle one hour a day, but the prison has them in school the other 23 hours. Elementary school lasts six hours a day, and who’s minding the kids the other 18? We know the answer to that, even if we don’t want to admit it: television, mostly. And no matter that Bart Simpson says that television loves us. It’s a lousy parenting device.
Before I took the dentist’s bill to the school office, I had an illuminating conversation with another parent in the schoolyard. She was aware of the incident, knew that the grade-six boy was a problem, and opined that a number of "special" students in the school were wreaking havoc on the rest.
I responded predictably under the circumstance. "If the school has students who pose a threat to others," I said, "those students should be removed from the school."
She looked a little shocked. "Well," she answered. "It’s a community school, and the community has a duty to take care of its problems."
"But the school is so under-funded it can’t do the job," I countered. "If taking care of community problems injures my daughter, I’ve got a problem with it. It’s beginning to feel like the only people the community protects now are the ones who attack it."
And of course, this is the crux of where the schools are today, right? About 25 years ago, our public school system began to integrate a wide variety of special needs children with the rest of the kids–and the community. At the time, I was very much in agreement. The disabled kids of the previous generation had simply been warehoused, and had little chance of living even relatively normal lives. Even kids with marginal dysfunctions like dyslexia got short-changed, and the children of immigrants had to sink or swim with the rest. A lot of them simply drowned, or were shunted into "industrial education" and the 7F, 9E, 10D classes, leaving the middle class Anglo kids at the top of the alphabetized hierarchy. Even at the time, I thought that was unfair, and felt bad about the advantages I had.
Democratizing and integrating the education system made sense back then because governments had money, and there was some justification for believing that we could create a society in which all abilities were wanted. Where the schools weren’t working, it was a reasonable expectation that it was just a matter of time before governments came around to what every progressive person accepted as an evolutionary fact: that young people are society’s primary resource, that every child had a right to a normal life, and that a strong, inclusive education system would ensure everyone’s future well-being.
But the corporations and the governments that now trail in their moral slipstream like obedient dogs have been practicing all out economic and social Darwinism for 15 years now. No one bothered to tell our educators that the redistribution of wealth and resources downward is no longer a government priority, or for that matter, even a desirable social outcome. Meanwhile, pretty well everyone but the parents of normal, middle class children have figured out how to work the dysfunctional system that has stumbled onward into an inverted model of the democracy of resources that was intended. The rich pull their kids out and send them to private school, thus seriously impoverishing the public school system. The disabled and a few aggressive cultural and ethnic minorities have exacted a set of special privileges and dispensations that terrorize everyone else, and the well-intentioned anti-violence and child welfare lobbies have created a toxic set of operating rules that leave teachers unable to do much other than wish their students a nice day and try to crawl under their desks when the gunfire starts.
It’s a mess. The right wingers love it, because it declares the general failure of liberal values, while the left is too trapped by its own conflicted principles to do much more than mouth worn out slogans. That’s why my lovely little daughter got whacked in the face. I don’t know what to do about it except glower at my wife when she says she wants to yank our daughter out of there and send her to a private school. A couple more incidents like this one, and I’ll have to capitulate.
Because I’m blue-eyed, fairly well-educated, and not poor, the Darwinian/capitalist solutions, which boil down to "every man for himself," still serve my class, gender and political interests better than most, provided that I’m willing to pursue them. But I’ve spent most of my adult life refusing to accept the advantages I’m offered because I don’t think they’re fair, and because I believe that democracy has to include everyone, and that it has to break down unearned privileges. I don’t want life to revert to the Darwinian dogfight we spent most of the 20th century trying to dig our way out of. History demonstrates that breaking down privileges is the only way to avoid the social violence that comes from systematic inequities. But the kind of democracy we’ve evolved recently is invoking new kinds of social violence and a whole set of new, nasty inequities. And if it slams my daughter in the face too many more times, well…
1431 w. November 28th, 2003