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They Call It A Recession… I Say Regression

September 9, 2012

Just earlier today, I was reading an article about children apparently being locked away in closets by their… schools.

The article didn’t make much sense to me. As I read it, I was sort of left in this haze of confusion because it was essentially talking about state-sanctioned child abuse. Not the straight forward physical abuse that’s very traumatizing and disconcerting. We’re talking about schools that are no longer able to deal with “problem,” students, like six year old’s that are acting out in Kindergarten or First Grade, and so they lock them away in mop closets with no windows and a single light bulb. No one responds to these children, even when they scream about going to the bathroom, and end up peeing in said mop closet.

What truly made this all the more appalling to me, was that the article kept making reference to how this has been an increasingly common practice within the United States since the early 1970s. It is, in fact, a practice that was carried over from schools for the mentally challenged when special education was mainstreamed with standard public education.

This to me was some what alarming.

Education is one of those fields that is difficult. People that deride educators have clearly not spoken to a fifteen year old recently, or ever tried to impart a lesson (of any sort) to a group of seven year old’s. It is not easy.

It is especially not easy because in a random collection of students you will have a variety of; emotional temperaments, family backgrounds, levels of intelligence, attention deficits, and of course the general nonsense that arises when human beings are forced to interact with each other. You don’t know when a younger student, or even older teenaged students, might just not be able to take things anymore. It’s exceedingly hard when you’re faced with a problem student to actually deal with their problem because you have anywhere between 24 or 34 other students who are at least pretending to try and learn.

This is why countless attempts at isolation and punishment have been created over the past few decades. The most common in my own high school was In School Suspension. Whether or not ISS works, is something highly debated. We weren’t allowed to talk, but there wasn’t necessarily any enforcement that we had to do work. The one time I actually was placed in ISS, I spent some time attempting to do school work, but the majority I spent reading, napping, or just day dreaming. My fellow ‘inmate,’ spent the time reading a series of novels. The majority of other people that were tossed into the room with us over the course of a few days spent their time playing on phones, doodling on paper, or zoning out. A few spent the time seething, and frustrated, constantly trying to plead their case to a bored, and uninterested gaoler (a teacher or substitute who drew ISS watchdog from the duty roster).

Some of those students needed some form of tangible punishment, a rigorous structure that would get them to shape up and fly right. Most of those students might have just benefited from someone listening to their problems. At the end of the day though, no one would have ever considered locking them away in a dank closet because we all agreed that wasn’t really going to solve a problem.

I don’t know what the high school I attended now does with its students.

Long before the recession hit, the school was facing budgetary and overcrowding issues. The average class size even at an AP level was 25 to 30 students with several classes and teachers dedicated to those subjects. Larger class sizes, averaging over 30 students were normal in the average track. Only the classes for those with learning issues or who had been labeled ‘problem students,’ fell below twenty, and even then it was rarely. So, the students that needed the most help were still only one voice out of sixteen or seventeen and saw a teacher for forty-three minutes a day.

To me these drastic cases of insane student punishments, from this girl that was being locked in a closet to the six year old that was handcuffed for acting out in class, speak of a troubling trend being brought on by external pressures.

When the economy isn’t good, family life is more stressful. Children might not be able to grasp the nuances of why Mommy and Daddy, or whoever their guardians are, are fighting but they know it’s going on. Kids knows tension, because they are human beings and human beings can judge social situations pretty damn well. Let’s also not sit here and pretend that families aren’t fighting over finances.

Even in the best of times, people are going to argue about frivolous spending or why an electricity bill is so damned high. Now though, it’s about being able to pay the rent or mortgage, or the electric bill, or why someone would be indulgent and buy name brand name toilet paper. Kids are going to have more problems, more stress factors in their lives that they wouldn’t have if they had been born a few years earlier (or hopefully a few years later). Those stress factors will probably affect their ability to perform and act appropriately within a school setting.

Furthermore, education gets cut faster than Medicare or Defense spending. It’s more important to keep roads in good shape, than it is to ensure that every student is getting a new textbook or the attention they receive. Teachers have to make due with what resources they have, and they have to put in the time to get the most out of their lesson plans. It’s a lot of work in general, but then you layer the actual teaching on top of it, and the kids’ problems, and it can spiral out of control very fast. Plus, there are tons of competing theories on how kids should be treated by a school. Then there’s the ability to implement those theories based on resources, which are going to be tighter when the economy is bad.

So, I’m sure, many principals, and teachers, are taking an expedient path. The best way to punish and remove a problem student is to isolate them. The school doesn’t have the resources to hire wardens for these little isolation rooms, so the children are just in there for predetermined amounts of time. Or, in the 19 states that allow corporal punishment in schools, why not just a good ol’ humiliatin’ paddlin’.

These are the sorts of trends that accompany tough economic times. Trends of social regression.

When times are tough, people become upset. When people are upset they lash out and blame all sorts of people for things that make no sense. We shut down and can’t deal with non-essential parts of life because everything starts to seem overwhelming.

It’s hard to worry about Billy’s self-esteem when putting food in front of the table for Billy has gotten harder. Maybe Billy wouldn’t be so sad if he could just apply himself for one God damned minute, or actually talked to one of the other kids in his class or in the neighborhood! Maybe there would be more opportunities if Mexicans weren’t taking all the jobs! Or maybe unemployment would last longer if all these lazy blacks and single white hillbilly mothers weren’t driving around in Cadillacs! Whatever Billy, just eat the damn chicken nuggets and fries, and whatever you do don’t end up queer because then you’ll care more about marrying some guy than the fact that the economy is in the shitter…

Billy by the way, is seven years old.

 

It’s an extreme case but the potential is there.

Hard to believe that four years ago, a President ran on the platform of fixing the health care system. People believed that when he was elected we had made a great stride toward some sense of better racial equity in our nation. We believed that there would be hope and change.

Just six years ago, there was a show on a major television network about an openly gay man being normal. In fact, at the turn of the century there were plenty of openly gay characters on television, in books, and in film. It was starting to sound crazy that two gay people couldn’t get married, or that gays couldn’t serve in the military. Sure, there were people who thought that homosexuality was icky or sinful, but they were always going to feel that way.

Eleven years ago, when our nation was attacked by Muslim terrorists, it was disgusting to realize there were people out there who distrusted all Muslims. There were people who beat up Sikhs because they wore turbans. There were tons of incidents involving nonsensical racial profiling that were just appalling. They made me ashamed to be an American.

Now, five years or so into a recession…

I’ve heard people I’ve known for years spew all sorts of racially charged nonsense. I’ve seen a major political party demonize a minority of our population who really just wants to be afforded the same rights as everybody else, and the other major political party just sort of awkwardly throw up their hands not wanting to throw that minority under the bus but not be necessarily willing to save them either. I’ve seen our Christian President get called a “Muslim,” as if Muslim were a dirty word. I’ve seen the concept of universal health care become a political boogeyman.

I’ve now had to listen to female judges tell a woman that she had to take responsibility for the fact that a police officer ran his hand up her skirt and forcibly ran his fingers across and into her vagina in a bar. Now, people tell me that it’s becoming common practice for children to be locked up and isolated from any human contact because they got a little too rowdy.

 

I…

 

I don’t even know anymore.

 

I want to be angry, I want to take to the streets and scream for blood. I want to be something other than tired and apathetic. I want all the shootings and mistreatment and the ignorance to just stop feeling so fucking banal. I need to stop hearing this constant stream of meaningless news and commentary that renders it all fucking moot.

 

Yet, I’m left feeling only impotent…

 

What can one man do?

One man can’t really stand alone and solve problems.

Yet, through all of this, I’m reminded of a very light hearted but wonderful song. As we started this discussion by looking at education, and how we treat children, it seems fitting that I turn to look at someone who has probably done more to educate children in the latter half of the twentieth century than many others.

Jim Henson, creator the Muppets, and of course the countless children and adult programs starring the Muppets (Seasame Street being the most prominent), was also very fond of inspiring people to do their best. To, in a sense, reach their full potential. There was a song written long before he died but it served as part of the theme for his memorial services, and that song was “Just One Person.”

It encapsulates the idea that if one person can get behind you, other people will get behind you.

I cite this as a way to encourage us to grassroots action. Clearly the connections of communities and people talking, have been politically successful over the past four years. President Obama’s first campaign, and the Tea Party Movement show us the benefits of such small scale collective action. The Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement also showcase the ability to use the internet to make visible these invisible communities that really do exist, and really do have a voice.

I’m not the person that wants to leap forward and enter the fray of politics or start a non-profit or a political action committee. I’m not that person but I think it’s time we start talking about this more. Such horrible things can only be perpetrated because we refuse to bring them to light, because we accept them as part of our daily lives.

I’m tired of bigotry, lies, and just plain mistreatment of other human beings.

I believe that the world can become a better place, but I’m just one person…

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