I have a 1956 Norman Rockwell print of a frumpy, sweet-faced teacher standing in front of a class of clean-scrubbed, straight-backed children. They had just written “Happy Birthday, Miss Jones! ” on the blackboard for her. It’s a scene light years away from a 21st century school massacre, and it may take some time for the more Pollyanna amongst us to readjust to what the 21st century school really is. This may explain the freak-out over the idea of arming teachers: Miss Jones with a Ruger tucked into her belt is just too hard to swallow.
This worries me because we can’t fix a problem that we don’t have the courage to really acknowledge. Our schoolrooms are still full of great kids -- sweet-natured and teacher-loving, but these days every class has an ever-increasing number of students carrying major psychological damage. I’ll never forget a class of freshman I had one year – of the 27 students in that section, 9 were seriously mentally disturbed. I know a teacher who’s trying to deal with a student who has already thrown rocks through the principal’s office windows and is currently threatening to burn down the school with a flame-thrower. He’s 6 years old.
It’s been 10 years since I’ve been in a public school classroom, but even back then the horrible parenting I was seeing had me worried. I’ll never forget the young man who chose to write his narrative essay about the night his father tried to strangle him. He was nervous about testifying at his dad’s trial. Or the young woman whose father was willing to pay for the braces she needed as long as she would bring home friends for him to have sex with. And the young man, fatherless and very troubled, who brought a hatchet to school to use on me if I made him give a speech. His terrified mother’s warning saved both my life and his.
Or the kid who stole my credit card and was going to hold it hostage until I changed his failing grade. Or the young lady I found sobbing her heart out in the hallway one morning. I hesitated to stop and talk to her – she was prone to frequent tearful meltdowns – but I did stop and I was glad I had. That morning her father had walked into a local park, doused himself with gasoline and lit a match. He was, of course, dead – and no one in that household thought to keep this poor girl at home that day.
I’m sure most teachers have those stories, but such stories are anecdotal -- there have always been bad parents and damaged kids, but we’ve never had so many. We can trace some of this breakdown through stats – the counselors at my last high school estimated that at least 60% of our clientele came from highly dysfunctional homes. Look at the stats on drug overdoses – our kids, by the tens of thousands, are willing to risk their lives for the momentary faux-euphoria they can get from opioids. They are lonely enough and unsure enough to spend hours on social media, trying, I suppose, to build a facsimile family, a façade of a life.
According to research done by the Barna Group, Generation Z finds professional achievement, hobbies, and sexual orientation more important in their lives than either family or religion. (Remember that Gen Z includes not only our high school students, but a great many of their teachers.) Their grandparents’ values are just the opposite. In fact, the same study shows that only 9% of these young people are committed, active Christians. That’s what happens when we send our kids into a system where God is either ignored or mocked. We leave those kids there for 12 years and then they go to college where they are ridiculed and excluded because of their faith. We bought the lie that schools can be neutral and now we’re having to cope with the results. And what happens when the post-modern moral compass of students fails? Some stats can give some insight. In the 1910’s there were only 2 reported incidences of violent attacks in U.S. schools, and one was actually an accident. In the 2010’s there were 126 such attacks. Students all over the country are attacking (with both knives and guns) each other and their teachers at an ever-increasing rate. The correlation is unsettling; something has gone wrong.
Let’s look at this from a teacher’s perspective. A study published in 2011 by CNS News concluded that 145,100 public school teachers had been physically attacked by their students and that 276,700 reported being threatened by students. And that was almost 10 years ago. Just recently (2017) a Huffington Post article mentions that 11% of the teachers in Wisconsin had been attacked by students. The article also discusses a union study that showed that 27% of the instructors interviewed had experienced threats, bullying, and harassment, and half of those incidents had been perpetrated by their students. This is a long, long way from happy-birthday-Miss-Jones.
We have developed an undercurrent of thought in this country that has created a mirage, a distant vision of a utopian society in which everyone will live effortlessly and harmoniously, placing no strain on dear Mother Earth, offending no one, and rarely taking responsibility for much of anything. We will puff our egos and pat ourselves on our collective, non-working backs about the Shangri-La we created without any help from that nasty, demanding God. After all, we are evolutionarily sure that people are basically good, so all we have to do is to sing Kumbaya and smoke a joint or two.
It’s quite a shock therefore when things like the Parkland shooting happen. If people are basically good, then how do we account for the Wicked Witches flying around our cities? How do we explain the massive amount of irresponsibility that led up to the Parkland massacre? We can feel the philosophical panic building. To unravel the twisted, inconsistent, evil worldview that got us to the Austin bombings, the Los Vegas and Parkland shootings, to the shooting in Maryland will take some excruciating soul searching and human beings are not usually willing to go there.
We want to imagine that our schools still look like Miss Jones’ classroom, but that’s not what’s out there. We want to picture Dorothy skipping merrily down the yellow brick road and we don’t want to think about the hordes of flying monkeys following her. We don’t want to be told about the sex, drugs, cheating, harassing, ugliness of a great many of our public schools – and not just the high schools. As we send our daughters off to the school dance, we don’t want to be told that kids on a dance floor don’t dance; they have sex, clustering around the engaged couples so tightly that the chaperones can’t get to them. I’ve seen that happen myself. We may be able to adjust to the teenage society pictured in Grease or American Graffiti, but not the actuality of today. There is no longer romance because they go directly to sex. There is no more thrill of pushing the speed limit or sneaking a cigarette out behind the barn. That’s no big deal anymore.
I graduated from high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1963. The big, super-cool thing a kid could do then was to drive 75 miles south to Marysville, Kansas where you could buy 3.2% beer at the age of 18. Luckily that road was mostly straight and flat and few of the wild boys in my class got hurt driving it. That was about it. I had parties at my house once a month – dozens and dozens of kids – and we drank Pepsi and ate popcorn and danced – just danced – to my brother’s band.
But we’re not in Kansas anymore.
I pray that we snap out of the Emerald City fantasy we’ve been lounging in and face the fact that Miss Jones is going to have to strap on that Ruger at least until we’ve rescued the next generation and raised those kids in a Norman Rockwell way.