Saturday, June 28, 2008

Some More Thoughts On High School

I've had a couple things brewing in my mind for a while, and with an actual day off and time on my hands, you'll have to put up with them or ignore them as you see fit.

I have been enjoying getting to know the television series CSI over the past month or so. Not having cable or satellite does have its disadvantages; I was not aware that a show as intelligent and well-written (for a network TV series) existed. An update of Perry Mason, using forensics rather than courtroom confrontation, I have really enjoyed both the technical aspects of the show as well as the narrative flow. I was watching Season 2 on DVD last night (working 3rd shift has the disadvantage of keeping me up late, or waking far too early), and there is an episode where a school counselor murders a student who bullies younger kids. William Petersen, who plays Gil Grissom, manages one of the best lines I have ever heard uttered in a television series. In response to the counselor's confession that she has, indeed, committed the crime in question due to a certain moral logic that it is better to have killed one bully than to have that bully's victim's pull a Columbine and murder many other students, Grissom says, "As bad as high school is, eventually, it comes to an end."

With my previous post noting the 25th anniversary of my own exit from high school, I have to confess a certain amount of reminiscing and thinking back on my days as a student. I also have to confess that something author Stephen King wrote once (I wish I knew where) is far more true than I understood the first time I read it. He said that we adults have no understanding of the lives of children, or even the memories of our own childhood because, while we remember events, we have no emotional memory of them. We do not grasp the conflicting, sometimes contradictory, and certainly complicated, emotional context in which certain events occurred. I think that is true, with the rare exception (the first kiss, fist crush, some other significant life event).

I also think it is the reason so many adults are alarmed by the goings-on in high schools today. We hear tell of bullies, of cliques, of conflicts between and among groups and we wonder what the world is coming to. Yet, this is one of those instances where "'twas ever thus" actually applies. Back a few years ago, around the time of the Columbine shooting, I was talking with my parents about bullying, violence in school, etc., and my Dad told me of a classmate of his (or perhaps it was someone in another class, I don't really remember the details) who punched the school gym teacher, knocking him unconscious. As my father graduated from the same school system I did in 1939 gives you an idea of the time frame. People who say that school violence is something new are just wrong. Of course, the events at Columbine HS were on a different order of magnitude, and conducted with a certain sociopathic efficiency and level of violence, but that does not mean they are qualitatively distinct. It is a question of degree rather than kind.

I look back on my own years of primary and secondary education with mixed emotions. Like most kids, I was teased (I was both small and slight; I was different because I had bright, flaming red hair and very fair skin). But, I was hardly a potential perpetrator of horrid violence. I had friends, and a group of other students with whom I could associate because we had interests in common, whether that was music, or swimming, or trying to do well academically. I am not so lost in sentimentality that I look back with fondness of that time, because I am honest enough to admit that, for the most part, I have little in common with those people I spent twelve very important years of my life with. In the quarter-century since I left school, I have traveled a winding path, and am far enough removed that I can honestly say I have no idea what some of those others and I would talk about. At the same time, I have enjoyed getting to know some folks I used to know through email. We have managed to catch up, to talk about college/careers/marriage/parenthood and find common ground in our contemporary lives.

With our older daughter entering middle school years, a particularly difficult time in anyone's life, I have a very different point of view on how we should handle the rough emotional waters ahead for her than my wife does. While I have sympathy for the pains and tribulations I am quite sure Moriah will face, and with which she will have to deal (the poor dear is far too much like her father in this regard; she has always worn her heart on her sleeve, and is unselfconscious of how vulnerable she is because of it), I do not wish to protect her from them. One of the things I think the social climate of the average HS does is prepare students for dealing with life. Of course, events in HS are magnified due to the immaturity of those involved, their lack of perspective, and the concentration both physical and in terms of context, in which these events occur. As adults, we have a distinct advantage because we can put the same things our children experience in the larger context both of the world in which we live and the passing of our own lives. We can see how small and inconsequential were most of the things we once thought were of such grave importance. We wish to impart to our children the same sense of proportion and context. We want them to ignore cliques, to dismiss bullies, to focus on the academic aspect at the expense of the social.

How many of us live our lives this way? How many of us focus our energies solely on professional achievement to the detriment of our social lives? How many of us give no thought to the groups to which we form attachments, attachments that we make partly out of self-preservation, or perhaps the selfish idea that such attachments might benefit us in the future? How many of us are able to dismiss the occasional ridiculous comments of the most ridiculous among us?

For the most part, adults are able to do these things to a certain extent. Children, however, cannot for one simple reason - they have no experience to guide them. The emotional turmoil of adolescence adds a certain amount of frisson to the entire context. The fact that the classroom is also the primary locus of our social lives creates a certain amount of confusion as well; at what point do we interact only as fellow students pursuing some academic goal, rather than friends/rivals/acquaintances?

As parents, we have the task of helping guide our children through these very rough waters, with the added element that we did so ourselves. Neither my wife nor myself came away without our own bruises and even scars. No one did, at least no one who is honest enough about the time. Yet, Lisa is far more inclined to want to shield Moriah from the coming maelstrom. I, on the other hand, believe the only way for Moriah to learn to cope is . . . to cope. We have spoken of the fact that, some day in the not too distant future, we will have to console her first broken heart, or deal with her rejection by this or that popular group. For me, I would much rather she go through these than that we act as a buffer between her and these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Perhaps I am a harsh, unfeeling father for thinking so, but I also believe that, as Grissom said, high school ends one day. Sure it's hard, but the social turmoil is a good proving ground for what's coming.

If you walk across the stage and get your diploma from your local HS, you now only have shown you have brains enough to make it that far. You have also shown you have the guts and emotional and mental fortitude to keep going.

Virtual Tin Cup

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