SETTING LIMITS

1/3/07

   I spent a significant portion of my teaching career working with what today are referred to as troubled youth or children at risk.  Reflecting on that experience, I now understand that these often lonely, angry and empty, sometimes violent children were but the extreme manifestation of a culture that in its homes and schools does not set appropriate boundaries for kids – a culture that has lost confidence that it knows how to raise and educate children, thereby leaving them to bear the completely unreasonable responsibility of setting their own limits or raising themselves.   It’s this insight in part that motivates much of my criticism of the public schools which too often accentuate the effects of too many homes where the children are in charge.  

   One doesn’t have to look far to see what I mean.  The other day, I’m having dinner in a local restaurant with my ninety-five year old aunt who had a yen for a good pastrami sandwich.  There we are having a nice chat, munching on our half-sour pickles when we both become aware of the booth adjacent to us where a little boy, perhaps six years old, is jumping up and down on the upholstered seat.  His mother, although on the other side of the table from him, is reading a book, seemingly oblivious to his inappropriate behavior.  “Why doesn’t his mother stop him,” Aunt Doris says, obviously perplexed at the mother’s seeming indifference.  

   A waitress comes by and pleasantly asks the little boy to stop jumping and sit down.  This rouses his mother into action and she puts forth, “Jason, please stop and sit down.”  

   Jason doesn’t even make eye contact with his now embarrassed mother.  He looks everywhere but at her.  She again tries to reason with him, not allowing herself to realize that at this moment she is invisible to him.  When his eyes alight on mine, I reflexively give him one of my teacher looks, the kind that quiets an auditorium of kids without so much as a sound, the kind that through some mysterious process makes a kid feel himself to be in imminent peril, albeit he isn’t quite sure of exactly what it is he fears.  He stops jumping and stares back.  I know I have him.  More importantly, he knows it too.  He quickly decides to sit down.  Suddenly, he can see no one but his mother.  I have let him know his place in the world of the restaurant.  His mother’s eyes meet mine.  She blushes and averts her gaze.  My stare has reminded her of her place too.  If it didn’t, Aunt Doris surely did with her just audible, “Imagine!  Why did you have to make her child behave?”  

   I found myself thinking about this experience some days after while attending a boxing match with Tom Syrett, a former partner of mine in our school district’s Alternative Education program.  A former student of our school was fighting on the under-card, and we were going to cheer him on.  What we didn’t expect when we decided to go was that many former Alternate Ed students would be there too.  All of these young people were once out of control, truant from school, playing around with drugs, brushing up against the law, angry, depressed, totally unsure of their place in the world  and put into the Alternate Ed program as a final step before expulsion.   

   It was great to see these young men and women and to hear how each had found a way to become a responsible adult.  Greater still was to listen to them talk about how the program with its structure and discipline had forced them to get control of themselves and begin to learn again, many for the first time in years, some learning for the first time that they had the capacity to learn.  Listening to two of Tom’s former students, I was struck by the poised and eloquent way in which they thanked him for not giving up on them when their own families had and for teaching them to be productive, responsible adults in addition to social studies.  Later in the evening, the father of one of these young men came over and found ten different ways to thank Tom for saving his son’s life.  He didn’t  directly say,“Thanks Mr. Syrett for being a father to my son,” but we all knew that’s what his words meant.  

   I can’t know for sure the destiny of the little boy at the deli, but I fear for his future.  At the age of six he has been led to believe that he is an autonomous actor in a world that exists to please him.  He need not be concerned with others.  Even his mother exists only to please him.  My colleagues are meeting more and more like him in our schools.  This morning’s New York Times has an article on its front page by Elissa Gootman about middle schools in New York City .  The story opens in a classroom in one of these benighted schools where a science teacher is trying to teach a lesson about machines to young adolescents, trying but not succeeding because some children are throwing things, some are talking, all controlling the adult who is theoretically in charge of them. The only ones who appear to be listening respond with derisive laughter.  Rather than address the apparent complete lack of discipline and fact that with out it no learning can take place, the poor soul “teaching” this class finds herself thinking, “I’ll go home and feel disappointed with what’s going on and I’ll try a different tactic the next day.”  If she could just come up with some magical lesson, all would be well.  

   New York , of course, is not alone in having a middle school problem.  Ms. Gootman informs us that the City and other districts are experimenting with different school configurations, many moving to a kindergarten to eighth grade in an attempt to address the almost universal fall off in achievement in middle school.   If we just shuffle the kids the right way, they will learn.  The little boy from the deli will be out of control regardless of the design of the lessons taught to him and regardless of whether he attends a conventional middle school or some differently configured school building.   The adults in his life have failed him.  They have not set appropriate limits for him, have been more interested in his self-esteem than what he learns and have ensured that he will be ill equipped to deal with the normal frustrations of adult life.   

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