And yet there was almost no violence on campus–and no counselors, psychologists, or teacher aides. Students from dire poverty arrived clean, polite, and ready to study. Parents came to school night classes to learn English and meet with teachers. Back to school night was packed. I can remember one Mexican-American mother carrying her daughter on drizzling days on her shoulders to ensure her white leather shoes were not soiled in the mud. Another student, a child of the Oklahoma diaspora, had a privy in his yard, a shower on the porch, and yet addressed our teacher in 19th-century style as “ma’am.” Yet another (her name was Yolanda, I’ll skip the last name since she probably still lives in the area) wore beautiful starched hand-made print dresses, a different one each day, all made by her mother, with matching-color hair ribbons. Her mother was there at one minute before school ended and would not allow her to loiter a nanosecond. These were representative, not atypical cases. The metal detector or attacks on faculty or f-wording staff were unheard of. A student’s detention was considered a family catastrophe.
Sure, the principals had autographed paddles and public spankings, but the students came to school largely well-behaved and enthused. By junior high there was often brutal fist fighting in Blackboard-Jungle- or Up the Down Staircase-style, but no knives, much less guns. Mr. Tow, our sixth grade science teacher (there were giants in those days), was our hero—we wanted to dress as neatly as he did, to walk as uprightly as he did, to speak as well as he did. And most over the years did.
What am I getting at? This is not just reactionary “those were the good ‘ole days” mythologizing. Students really were better behaved and more ready to learn when they arrived at school—and that did more than anything to make public education work in a way it often does not now. It was as if, in Hesiodic style, with material progress came moral regress.
In contrast, today’s families, parents—whatever we call them—are sending large number of dysfunctional students to schools (and colleges). Perhaps they are raised by single- or foster- or no- moms; perhaps they are the targets of abuse; perhaps drugs have taken their toll; perhaps they are wards of the entitlement industry; perhaps they are outsourced at home to television and video games; perhaps their sneakers are now more costly than their predecessors’ entire clothing; perhaps they have never had to work and are spoiled by leisure hours consumed with cheap electronic gadgets. All these tragedies perhaps create predator-like students in our schools.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. But the bottom line is that—aside from all the therapeutic, politically-correct, sociological mishmash in our schools—a large percentage of students comes into the system at an early age, and continues through out it, as anti-social, prone to rude behavior and language, disruptive,and from environments where illiteracy, criminality, and furor are not uncommon. This is by no means the majority of students, but there are still enough who fit that profile to consume the resources and attention of the bullied staff and faculty to such an extent that our schools simply become dysfunctional.
Answers? I have none, given that postmodern society itself is the culprit—other than one: Please, no more “No Child Left Behind” sort of Manhattan-Project-like initiatives. We do not really need more per capita spending, new rules, new theories, new paradigms. Charter schools and vouchers might help, but are not the solutions (we had neither when I was a tyke). Instead, just a word to families and parents: do not send a child to school who is anti-social, disruptive, or criminally minded. We need to create a shame culture in which the worst sort of social transgression (far worse than smoking) is to burden the public schools with children that were neither raised nor tamed.
As a small start, might we end anonymity and return to the old shame culture of identifying youths by name, at any age, once they come into contact with the criminal justice system? As in: “David Smith, age 15, of 302 Broad Street, Selma, was arraigned today on charges of aggravated assault.”