Friday, January 04, 2008

Schools and Difference

(News-Herald, January 3) We’re at the beginning of that winter school stretch, the long grey road that runs from New Years to Easter, where the natives become restless and start to get on each others’ nerves. In the ed biz we’re expected to be sensitive to that mutual irritation in the school setting, given the tendency of many irritated students to grab either a gun or a lawyer to better express their irritation.

The cluster of issues most often turns up under the heading of “tolerance” or “bullying.” It would be a mistake to ignore them, but it’s not always easy to address them.

I believe teen bullying really is different from adult oppression. The beginning of an adult assault, whether by an individual or a nation, is to prove that you’re under attack. Virtually every charge in history begins with some version of, “The Mugwumps are a threat to us. Therefore, we must fight them.” Sometimes the threat is real, sometimes imaginary, but before we are okay attacking someone else, we need to know we are Just Defending Ourselves.

Teens do use that rationalization. But teens can also be completely comfortable deciding that someone Just Deserves to have something bad happen to him. “I can’t believe that kid wears fuzzy pink slippers! Who does that? It’s just wrong! Someone should punch him!”

Teenagers can be absolutely vicious, in ways and for reasons that are invisible to the adults around them. And the cycle of bullying can be even more complicated, because some students do, in fact, get an enormous payoff from being Victims. If I’m the butt of Mean Treatment, then my lot in life is everyone else’s fault and not my failure. And there can be an enormous rush of righteousness that comes from being Picked On Unfairly. Some people would much rather Be Right than solve a problem, and nobody is more Right than someone who is victimized by the mainstream. The fact that you’re picking on me proves I’m a better person than you—why would I want to give that up.

After Columbine it was fashionable to suggest that if other students had just been nicer to the shooters, they wouldn’t have picked up those guns. I don’t believe it; they got enormous emotional payoffs from seeing themselves as Outsiders, and I don’t think they were about to give that up just for the chance to eat lunch with the homecoming court. And, despite adult romantic imaginings to the contrary, Outsider kids can be just as judgmental, prejudiced and mean towards others as those others are towards them.

Bullying and the sheer meanness of the school years can be a complicated and ugly dance.

Some schools have had some success dealing with some of these issues. Some have not, and their failures are a fine example of the law of unintended consequences.

Starting with the Columbine aftermath, the nation wrung its hands and tried to figure out what the problem was. What they finally came up with was, “Some kids were picked on way too much because they were different. Fix that.”

The assumption was that schools would fix the picking-on part. Instead, many schools looked at the problem, analyzed it and concluded, “If people weren’t different, nobody would pick on them.” All we had to do next was just stop students from being different. Hundreds of schools outlawed long black trenchcoats on the assumption, I guess, that if the Columbine killers had been stripped of their trenchcoats they would suddenly have joined a 4-H club and run for Prom court.

There is some small justification for stamping out differences among students. Students who seek out the victim role need a way to draw targets on themselves and pull someone into singling them out. Outlawing self-inflicted targets could be a way to break the cycle.

Beyond that, though, it’s an approach doomed to failure. It assumes that all Different behavior is some pig-headed struggle against the natural order of things. You wouldn’t be different if you weren’t trying to be difficult. So stop it. And not doesn’t it stop bullies—it takes their side. “If you’re going to insist on being different, you’re just asking for it.”

People are different (and lets just not get into “different from what, exactly?”) because they are. Teenagers even more so, because they’re still trying to figure themselves out. For the sincerely different, “Just stop it” isn’t much help. For those after the rush of righteousness, being pursued by both their peers and school officials is just further glorious proof they’re In The Right.

Bullying is always wrong. I’d rather get through the rest of the year by assuming everyone deserves to be treated decently, different or not.

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

Hi -

This is an interesting blog. Although I am a Marylander, I have deep family history on my father's side ( Brady is the name) in Franklin, PA. I visited there as a 4- 5 year old.


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