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The Real Killer of Schoolkids: Schools

Schools teach everything – albeit not always well – but they don’t teach the most basic skill of all, a skill that has the capacity to save the world. Schools don’t teach kindness.

They’re making a dent by tagging bullies and troubled youngsters. It’s a start. But I know the way classrooms were run in the 1950s when I was a kid, and I imagine they’re not much better today, perhaps worse because class sizes are larger, and random acts of unkindness harder to detect and treat.

How to be kind is easily imparted, easily learned. For me it only required one lesson. It was delivered by a fellow fourth grader, Buddy Bridgers, red-headed, smart and aware.

It was recess, we were all hell-bent on four-square, that game with painted quadrants, a large ball, and a line of kids waiting to start in the first quad where you either washed out or worked your way up the chain. At #2, 3 and 4, you held on for dear life.

 A big kid – not yet fat but hefty, with a bristle of black hair – entered the start-up square, myself in #4 and holding pat. I was a good athlete. Also smart, like Buddy. But hardly aware. Buddy held #3 when I and #2 began to razz the big kid in a not-nice way. Who knows where viciousness comes from, but suddenly #2 and I blasted #1’s volleys back with cries of rage suggesting that, after we vanquished him, we’d tie him up and roast him on a spit.

When the bell rang to return to class, Buddy followed me to a water fountain. As I drank, he said quietly, “The way you treated [big guy] was very wrong. You really hurt his feelings. I didn’t know you could be so mean. I hope you’ll apologize to him.”

I was stricken with guilt. I sought out the kid whom I’d inexplicably turned into a scapegoat. I told him how sorry I was. (He brushed me off, by the way. People of all ages are awkward with apologies, which may explain why all of us are so reluctant to offer them, but that’s another story.)

When Buddy scolded me, I was not, in fact, a bad person. My fault was that I was nine years old, simply plainly clueless about the concept of kindness itself, about what it entailed, about how it must be cultivated as a deliberate act. It isn’t difficult to be kind once you recognize the need for it when it arises.

 A few years later, in the penitentiary of the psyche called junior high school, I myself was the victim of ignorant cruelty. My family touched down briefly in a downtrodden section of Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley. In science class, a gangster girl who sat behind me (think of an infinitely less adorable Stockard Channing in "Grease") patted a length of masking tape along the back of my sweater.

When I pulled it off, I read, “I need a bra.”

For the record, I needed a bra the way Gloria Steinem’s fish needed a bicycle. At that age my chest size measured 32 quadruple A. But in the insane CC&Rs for cool teen-dom at the time, a savvy chick sported a trainer bra so that something in the nature of a grownup brassiere showed through her clothes.

Embarrassed, indignant, foolish, I marched up to the teacher, and handed him the tape. He called greaser girl up to excoriate her (excoriation, by the way, does not teach kindness, quite the reverse; it teaches hostility, just what a bully requires no further need of).

Later, back in our seats, my new nemesis handed me a note: “After skool [sic], meet me behind the fiz [sic] ed bilding [sic]. Me and my frens [sic] are gonna beat you up till you die!”

For the rest of my thankfully brief time at Van Nuys Junior High School, when the bell rang at three o’clock, I fled home. I told no one. Some mornings I woke up  nauseous and my parents permitted me to skip school. My grades deteriorated, I was repeatedly grounded, I did drugs and, although I eventually went off to college, I spent four years engrossed in other activities – theater training, some acting work, marriage, divorce, a year in Europe – none of which I regret.

A close friend whom we’ll call Sheila had it worse. For three years in junior high, also in the Valley. For no fathomable reason other than that her father was a diplomat, they’d lived in Europe, so Sheila was quite simply different, she became the class pariah. Food and trash and names were hurled at her. At home she wept in her room, in the bathroom, over her homework. Her parents sent her to a psychiatrist. Looking back, who was in need of the shrink? How about the bullies, the rest of the student body enablers. the teachers, the principal?

Sheila’s parents, fortunately, had the money to send her to a good private school. Not “good” in the preppy sense, but good in that the classes were small, the teachers were both interesting and interested. For example, one day the kids read "Bartleby the Scrivener," by Herman Melville, about the clerk in a lawyer’s office who performs less and less of his tedious copying work, always declining with the words, “I would prefer not to.”

When the teacher asked the class to discuss the story, the kids replied in cheerful unison, “We would prefer not to!” whereupon everybody, teacher included, laughed long and hard.

Sheila has stayed friends with all her classmates from that private school. She attended college in Colorado, and earned a master’s degree in social work. She has never had difficulty landing well-paying jobs. She’s funny and smart and creative, and she makes friends easily.

A happy ending?

Not particularly. Sheila has never found contentment or any kind of sanctuary with any of these jobs. Her love life is a continuous mess, and she has no idea of how badly she chooses her partners, nor of how each period of post-fling mourning is always masochistic and prolonged.

We all have broken parts. Some of them come from genetics, some from faulty parenting, but perhaps for many of us, the unkindest cut of all stems from cruelties dealt at school.

These wounds make nut cases of us all. For the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, his broken parts kicked in at the worst and highest point on the spectrum; something in him held the germ of a criminally insane killer. He snapped and returned to the symbolic scene of his own abuse.

But what about the rest of us who are all nutcases, some larger, some smaller, all in different ways? How much of our nutcase-ness comes from schoolyard violence, verbal or physical, that no one corrected? And within the chain-linked perimeter of the schoolyard, we were obliged to return day after day for fresh doses of it

All that any single youngster requires to get straightened out is a Buddy Bridgers at the water fountain, speaking words of wisdom soft and low. But, allowing for the scarcity of Buddys in the world, what if all teachers were indoctrinated in kindness to the point that they teach it all the live-long day, in lectures, in judicious interventions between feuding kids, in gentle insights shared with one lone, frightened, hurt child?

By all means, let us take action, sign petitions, and bug our elected officials to reduce gun ownership. But the root problem is far deeper, and yet, once accepted, so much easier to cure.

Perhaps we should keep our children home from school until a plan is put into place to make kindness the top job of education, with instruction in reading, writing and ‘rithmetic a quaint after-thought?

Editor's note: Holly Nadler is a columnist for Martha's Vineyard Patch and for the Vineyard Gazette. Her writing credits include the hit TV shows "Laverne and Shirley," and "Barney Miller." She also has published four books including "Ghosts of Boston Town," "Vineyard Confidential," "Haunted Island" and "Vineyard Supernatural."

Brian Weiland December 24, 2012 at 02:12 AM
While we’re gleefully handing out F’s (and worse), can I offer a little more perspective, if I promise not to be so strident? The reason virtually every teacher who has responded to this article has had the same defensive reaction - sure, call it an over-reaction if you like - is that teachers feel personally responsible for the schools they work in, to the degree that teachers basically do not make a distinction between how their school is doing and how they are doing. If a student fails, the teacher immediately wonders what he or she did wrong to not give the child whatever he or she needed to succeed. Similarly, a condemnation of our school IS a condemnation of us, and not of the building, or the students, or the custodians, or the institution. Teachers are acutely aware that THEY are held accountable for the success or failure of their school at every level. Therefore, from a teacher’s perspective, the title is not just provocative, it is deeply insulting, personally hurtful, and given the recent tragedy, in incredibly poor taste. I am taking Holly’s word for it that this is not what she meant and have publicly apologized to her for my assumption and resultant over-reaction, but please understand that I (and, I’ll bet, every other teacher who read this) did not just read the title and angrily skim the article as we have been repeatedly accused, we very carefully read the article IN CONTEXT OF the title. It really does make all the difference.
Brian Weiland December 24, 2012 at 02:12 AM
Blessings to you and your family as well, Holly, and also to yours David. I think that if more parents were as wonderful as you are with your daughters, that would also go a long way toward solving the issues we are all so worried about.
David Whitmon December 24, 2012 at 04:17 AM
After I had pulled both of my children out of the Oak Bluffs school, my eldest started in the Charter School the following year. My youngest child I home schooled for three years afterwards. I really couldn't afford to home school my child but much more importantly, I could not afford to leave her in that school. The following Summer after I had removed my children from that place, we were riding home one evening from town on our bicycle built for three. We had taken a dirt path from South Circuit Ave that brought us out on to the back parking lot of the Oak Bluffs School. As we rode by that building my youngest child, who is significantly autistic, she yelled out at that building with perfect diction and clarity, "YOU WERE A LIVING HELL!"
Holly Nadler December 24, 2012 at 01:30 PM
Brian & Gail & other teachers who've weighed in above, believe it or not, I'm on your side. If I had it to do over again, I would have written this article to make this more clear. I know teachers' biggest complaint is having to teach to the tests rather than spend more creative and personal time with their students. This 100 year-old idea of public education for all our kids has had its trial run, its enormous government stamp, and now it's time to re-think it in every which way; a process teachers, I'm sure, would gladly get behind. You guys are heros the way fire fighters are heros. Let's see what new directions lie ahead of us. We're all in this together.
Cynthia Mascott June 02, 2013 at 06:24 PM
Actually I am Sheila, down to reading Bartelby in High School. I have had many successes. I had wonderful boyfriends when I was younger. I have received awards and bonuses at various jobs. I have encountered some burn out the older I get but I have helped hundred (thousands) of poor physically or mentally souls over the years.

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