By James Stephenson
I graduated from Virginia's public schooling system two years ago, but my memories of it are fresh. After all, my little sister is still there.
Being a kid today sucks. I couldn't tell you if it sucks more or less than other generations because I wasn't a part of them. But I can tell you that the reasons why it sucks are new -- and about some of the unfair acts perpetrated in the name of education.
Unlike the webcam snoopers of Lower Merion school disctict, ours doesn't have the money to buy every kid a laptop. That will probably change soon; the cost of laptops is plummeting. If our school district (and most school districts in the US) don't have a laptop for every child within the next five years, it'd be a surprise. And when my school district gives out hardware, I'm certain that the administrators would watch us with them if they could, just like the students at Harriton High School. The thing to remember about the public schools of today is that students are treated worse than criminals. Everyone is presumed guilty until proven innocent.
I remember the day they installed the cameras in my high school. Everyone was surprised when we walked and saw them hanging ominously from the ceiling.
Everyone except me: I moved to rural Virginia from the wealthier and more heavily populated region of northern Virginia. Cameras have watched me since middle school. So I wasn't surprised, just disappointed. "What have we done?" asked one of my friends. It felt like the faculty was punishing us for something. A common justification for cameras is that they make students safer, and make them feel more secure. I can tell you from first hand experience that that argument is bullshit. Columbine had cameras, but they didn't make the 15 people who died there any safer. Cameras don't make you feel more secure; they make you feel twitchy and paranoid. Some people say that the only people who don't like school cameras are the people that have something to hide. But having the cameras is a constant reminder that the school does not trust you and that the school is worried your fellow classmates might go on some sort of killing rampage.
Cameras aren't the worst of the privacy violations. Staff perform random searches of cars and lockers. Most of the kids know about locker searches because they see the administration going though their stuff in the hall. But not everyone knows about the car searches, all the way out in the parking lot where administrators aren't likely to be observed. (People don't often bother to lock their cars, either).
My best friend found out about the car searches the hard way during our senior year. They searched his car and found a stage sword in his trunk. It was a harmless fake, the kind of sword that is used as a prop on stage. My friend is a live-action role playing enthusiast, and he had planned on going to a friends house to fool around after school. But the school has a zero tolerence policy on "weapons." He was expelled. The school claimed that he had "recourse." He could have appealed his case--to the same administration that had kicked him out. But the injustice of it is is that he was kicked out first, and only then offered a hearing. Guilty until proven innocent.
This could have easily have happened to me. One time when I was still in middle school, I went on a camping trip with my scout troop. As usual I packed my camping equipment in the same backpack I used for school. Only when the weekend was over and I went back to school, I realized with horror that my pocket knife was still stuck in the bottom of my backpack. If administrators had searched my bag, not only would I have been expelled, I could have been arrested.
The sad thing is that the school district I've described is one of the better ones. In northern Virginia, the measures are even more Draconian. They have heavily-armed and -armored police officers roaming the halls. Students undergo a mandatory security orientation during their first week of middle school. In it, a police officer goes through the implements they carry at all times. The police women who performed the demo I attended showed us how she was always wore a bulletproof vest, and carried handcuffs, cable-tie style restraints, a large knife, a can of mace, and a retractable steel baton. "It's nonlethal, kids," she said. "But you don't want me to have to shatter your kneecaps with it."
She also wore a pistol with exactly thirteen rounds: one in the chamber, 12 in the clip. She could have taken out a terrorist or two; which I guess that is what they were expecting some of us to be. At the tender age of 12, this made quite an impression of me, and I still remember the event clearly. But these methods were useless in keeping me or any of my classmates safe. They didn't stop the kid who flashed a gun at me, or the bully who took a swipe at me with a switchblade.
Some people say youngsters are more disrespectful than ever before. But if you were in an environment where you were constantly being treated as a criminal, would you still be respectful? In high school, one of my favorite English teachers never had trouble with her students. The students in her class were the most well behaved in the school--even if they were horrible in other teachers' classes. We were well-mannered, addressed her as "Ma'am," and stood when she entered the room. Other teachers were astonished that she could manage her students so well, especially since many of them were troublemakers. She accomplished this not though harsh discipline, but by treating us with respect and being genuinely hurt if we did not return it.
Being a kid of my generation isn't all bad. Thanks to the Internet, if we want to study something it's a matter of seconds before the relevant encyclopedia article is before us. It makes doing research papers a heck of a lot easier, even if most teachers won't accept Wikipedia as a source (Pro tip: teachers rarely check sources, so in a pinch, read the sources that are linked Wikipedia article and cite them instead). And even if there are lots of bullying administrators, there are many good teachers, too. Heaven bless the long-suffering school librarians: the library was the one place I enjoyed in school. I could always find a good book to read there, and they even had manga. My librarians were interested and helpful, and always wanted to chat about what you were currently reading. The Library and a few good teachers are what kept me from dropping out.
It's a shame that the football team got a bigger budget than the Library.
Petty acts of rebellion--and innocent little covert activities--kept our spirits up. The school's computer network may have been censored, but the sneakernet is alive and well. Just like in times past, high school students don't have much money to buy music, movies or games, but all are avidly traded at every American high school. It used to be tapes; now it's thumbdrives and flash disks. My friends and I once started an underground leaflet campaign that was a lot of fun. I even read about a girl who ran a library of banned books out of her locker. These trivial things are more important than they seembecause they make students feel like they have some measure of control over their lives. Schools today are not training students to be good citizens: they are training students to be obedient.
James is starting a new blog about being a schoolkid: Double Negative
Photo: John Perivolaris AKA DrJohn2005. Design: Rob Beschizza.