As one who loved poetry
—Masaoki Shiki (1867-1902)
In 1972, when the public schools of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, closed for summer vacation, the students marched through the streets with their teachers; the whole town, including us, applauded and threw confetti as each class paraded by, students waving at their parents and friends.
In 1985, our son Tim went to Takamatsu, our “sister city” in Japan, to teach English in its high school for a year. Tim, a graduate of Lakewood High School, recalls one of his first surprises: When he entered the classroom, the students stood up and bowed.
Our other son, Pete, married a young doctor, Wei Chu, who had moved to New York from Taiwan when she was a teen-ager, and somehow managed to learn English, graduate from high school on time, and go straight through for her medical degree at Johns Hopkins University. “How did you do that?” we asked. “We were taught,” she said, “the main thing in life was to get a good education — that’s what we heard, so that’s what we did.”
St. Petersburg, one of America’s “arts destination” cities, has been getting unwanted national attention because of the fight between two girls that broke out recently at Gibbs High School. This isn’t typical behavior at Gibbs, which is also home to the much-admired magnet school, the Pinellas County Center for the Arts. Still, Gibbs had 76 student suspensions for fighting last yearb—that’s more than one skirmish a week (just imagine how many fights were uncaught or unpunished).
But it’s not the fight itself that’s the most disturbing element: it’s the children standing around watching it unfold, laughing, egging the battle on, taking photos, shouting obscenities, and ignoring the struggling teacher. This indicates a pattern so deep one’s heart sinks in contemplating it, because it’s not a classroom problem, it’s a societal problem.
We don’t have to romanticize nations — all are capable of evil behavior. In a single lifetime we’ve witnessed the German holocaust, the Japanese rape of Nanking, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, China’s bloody “Cultural Revolution,” mass killings in communist Russia, French torture in Algiers, slaughters all over Africa, our own behavior at My Lai and Abu Ghraib, and more. In stressful times, we’re pushed to define the “others” as less than human. We have to recognize when this tendency tries to get a foothold, and right now, our democracy needs to be very alert.
A week after the incident at Gibbs, 200 teens rampaged through the Florida State Fair in Tampa. Both incidents are connected by attitude: These young people not only don’t respect their teachers, they don’t respect the police. They disobey their parents and trash their neighborhoods and schools. Psychologists tell us that we’re “set” at very early ages, so it’s possible that this whole generation is lost (as a group; some strong individuals always break away). I think even the well-behaved young men in our neighborhood are in trouble, walking around with their underwear prominently displayed. I’m not sure what wearing your pants below your heinie declares, but it doesn’t say Education First!
In this melting pot of a world, other countries are working hard to build national feelings of respect for others, and are investing huge resources in their schools. In the U.S., we have to start early and start small. Government programs to help young parents, especially single mothers. Higher pay and better training for teachers. Black and white leaders working together.
And maybe sometimes in the classroom, try a little poetry. Begin with reading and writing a simple haiku. It might help them to calm down, to look around at the seasons, the skies, the flowers. All you need to start is to be able to count to seventeen: 5+7+5 syllables. You don’t have to write about persimmons (that’s just a favorite of mine), and anybody can write one:
Gibbs High School students
bloom like orchids in a storm
bruised and beautiful
—Haiku by Peter Meinke