November 12th, 2010

Four Cents: A Corporal Conundrum

I graduated from high school with 120 kids, and no, I did not forget a zero. Although I grew up in a small community, the inherent challenges of youth were as real and unique as in any other place. Fifteen girls dropped from the graduating ranks after “coming down” with pregnancy. Meth would have ripped the families of some of our young men to shreds- if their parents had even been in the picture. College was a pipedream, more or less, and many of those intelligent enough to pursue such ends quickly dropped out with crippling financial debt that would set them back for years.

But before I get carried away in an Edward James Olmos tirade, I think it’s important to note that at no time did I ever fear for my life at school. Sure, we had bullies. In general, kids can be real assholes to one another. I am thankful, however, that my small town handled its differences in a relatively good old fashioned way. Someone pissed you off or you just pain didn’t like someone, you sent the flag up between periods and after school everyone ran to their trucks and Firebirds and “took it to the tracks”. At that point, you’d throw down, kicking, punching and rolling around in the gravel until someone got the tar whooped out of them or the authorities/teachers showed up. Dominance was asserted. Scars were received. Ten years later you buy the guy a beer at the reunion. Life goes on.

Unfortunately, the concept of a fair fight has eroded, as Michelle Duvall found out first hand.

I don’t think it’s a city mouse-country mouse or generational thing. Nor do I believe that “gang mentality”, an oft used buzzword by the media, is any more ingrained in the minds of children born after ‘90. The Sharks and Soshes were battling the Greasers and the Jets long before skinny jeans were even cool and the Dead Rabbits were retaliating against the Natives long before that. I don’t draw upon cartoonish and cinematic depictions of gang violence in America to make light of any situation, but to shed light on the fact that mob mentality has been present since the first caveman asked for help taking down a mammoth with sticks and stones. But if we operate under the assumption that a greater social conscience draws lines in the proverbial sand, separating wrong from right, we beg the question of how exactly things have evolved in such a manner to allow for situations like the one that occurred at Lamar High School.

Reverting to another example from my upbringing, when I was a kid, if I misbehaved, I got swats. Yes, at school. Skipped class? Swats. Didn’t complete homework assignments after being told numerous times to do so? Swats. Put a dead bird in the bowl of Sweet-n-Low in the lunchline? You guessed it. That’s not to say that my formative years were spent in a Gestapo-run, Pink Floyd nightmare of an institution, but there was an understanding (backed by a parent-signed piece of paper), that when I crossed certain lines, corporal punishment would be doled out. I’ve swapped high school war stories with my peers and on many occasions have seen jaws drop and eyes widen at the mention of the fact that our principal took wood to butt if he had to. To me though, looking back, I realize that this is what it took to set behavioral standards and guidelines in a societal sub-group that, quite frankly, had nothing to lose.

Seeing that Norman Rockwell is dead, whether it’s Houston proper or a tiny, west Texas burgh, the parameters previously set by matriarchs and patriarchs have to come from somewhere else. As evidenced by the lack of fear for my life growing up, when there’s nothing a teacher can take from a student that they will miss enough to alter their behavior, physical comfort may very well be the only thing effectible. However, as long as there is fear of litigation, school teachers and administrators will rightfully refuse to instill social guidelines and parameters in this way. On the other side of that coin, students will continue to be pushed to the edge by those without fear of repercussion. Regardless of who received the more appropriate “punishment”, if this issue isn’t addressed, eventually pepper spray will become the least of a bystander’s worries.

Michelle Duvall and her mother aren’t heroes by any stretch of the imagination, but they remain the glaring punctuation on a question everyone seems afraid to answer.

— Tea Jones

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