Mob Mentality

Last weekend’s local teenage mob and police action was the subject of some discussion at my school.  A few of the kids were there, and everybody wanted to know what went down.  So we had this awkward conversation before we could return to the glorious banality of Week 20 vocabulary….

Them:  There was just a big crowd of us, and there wasn’t anyone fighting, we were just hanging out, so why did they have to use pepper spray?

Me:  What were all those people doing down there?  Were people about to fight?  Did it look like they might?

Them: Well, yeah.

Me: And didn’t some people fight later, in the parking lot?

Them: Well, yeah.

They need to know to pay attention to situations that become dangerous and get the hell away.  A lot of them already know this, which is why they’re sitting in a college prep school, rather than locked up.

But my first thought when I saw the story was, where on earth do you want them to go?  Basic discipline mistake: tell a kid not to do something, but don’t give any suggestion for what the kid should do instead.  That is not discipline.  Discipline includes teaching.  There is no suggestion for these kids.  We will handle them with curfews and banishments.  What they are learning is that they are not worth teaching.  We grown-ups already know how to act right, and we don’t care if you kids ever learn.

Well, everyone complains, their parents should know where they are and set curfews.  What parent would forbid a teenager to go to the Plaza?  My parents didn’t.  And I had a curfew, but it wasn’t nine o’clock.  Then people complain, parents should be with them and teach them to act right.  Ah, of course.  No teenager would ever do anything to displease or embarass a parent!

We keep limiting the geography and activities for teenagers, and then wondering why they’re all wandering, congregating, bored, and unruly in the few places left open to them.  Banning them from entertainment districts.  From movies.  The trouble is, if you keep them away until they turn 18 or 21,  they will have no idea how to eat in a restaurant or have a drink in a bar or see a movie.  They’re probably going to act like rabid squirrels whatever age we choose to integrate them into adult nightttime activities.  We’ll just have to work with them and sometimes we’ll have to put up with a little noise and obnoxiousness.

They have to be able to move around the city and explore. They have to get away from their parents and try some things out.  They have to learn to spend time in pubic being social.  They have to find and experiment with romantic relationships.  They need the whole city working with them to help them grow up.

They need smiles and politeness to show appreciation for good civic behavior.  And, as necessary: dirty looks, shushing in movies, demanding a tip, kicking them out, calling the cops.  Absolutely you will be confronted by the cops if you’re acting crazy, or looking like you might get crazy.  You probably won’t like what happens.  Lesson learned: don’t mess with cops.  Carrot and stick are teaching tools.  But not banishment.

I also wanted to tell my students, the strangling force of urban crime doesn’t disappear when you turn 21.  I often avoid going out Friday and Saturday in good weather.  There are too many people out drinking who lack basic drinking skills and etiquette.  Sometimes people get shot.  Even adult freedom is limited– by balancing benefits and risks.  They need to practice finding that balance before they are handed full adult freedoms.  The truth is, we will pay for their education into adulthood, one way or another.

Link to news story:

Scenes from the Chemistry Lab

D and I often experiment in the chemistry lab together.  I have a student teacher right now, so I have the luxury of pulling out my most egregious troublemakers (like D) to give them my full attention.  The chemistry lab is usually unoccupied, and right across the hall from my classroom, so that’s where exiles retreat to.

Our school was built almost 70 years ago.  The cabinets in the science rooms are formerly gorgeous, glass and blonde wood built-ins.  Quite a few of the floor tiles are missing.  It smells mysterious and dangerous.  The windows are huge: maybe eight feet tall.  They present a panoramic view of fast food places, shops, and trees.  None of the windows have screens.  One of the windows has a neatly lettered sign that says, “Do not open this window.”  I think that’s because it would fall out three stories and break.  Half of the stool seats are chewed up, so the wood snags your clothes. 

In spite of all that, I find the lab generally pleasant.  There is one comfy orphaned office chair.  I sit in that, in front of the wrong side of a desk that has a splintered seat attached.  It’s a great place to look at the sky.  The lab is where the chemistry teacher maintains our the third-floor coffeemaker.  My coworkers drift in and out, and we joke and gossip about the kids and sometimes I pantomime wringing their necks. 

When the class is reading “The Crucible” and D gets kicked out, we sit on stools next to each other.  I read half the parts, and he reads the other half.  I hope that he will read John Proctor’s part, although I would prefer to.  I add some explanatory asides.  D tells me he doesn’t know anything about the play, but then I ask him questions and he generally answers them correctly.

For a while, D worked at the Jiffy Lube around the corner from my house.  I saw him one Sunday afternoon, holding up a sign advertising $19.99 oil changes.  He looked sheepish when I stopped to say hello.  Apparently he works at least two jobs.

D has drifted between homes.  We always have some kids like that, who are not always sure where they are going to sleep that night.  Whose parents and grandparents get frustrated and kick them out of the house.  I understand why you would want to kick D out of the house, though.  He’s smart, snarky, and stubborn.  He can really drive you nuts. 

The reason he’s still in school and not expelled is that in between driving you nuts, he is smart and good-natured.  He still has baby fat in his face.  When the teachers complain about him, they do it with an affectionate hint in their voices. 

Today D got yanked from class for yelling across the room while he was supposed to be listening to the instructions about outlining.  When I went over to give him a warning, he waved his hand around theatrically to show everyone how bad my breath was. 

Although he walked across the hall with all deliberate slowness, once he was actually installed in the chemistry lab, he asked some good questions and started his outline.  He will again say, “I don’t know anything about this,” and then I have to cajole him into admitting what he does know.  That’s what we do in the chemistry lab.  Put things together carefully, so they don’t explode.