Last month there was a giant protest by school kids for gun control. You probably heard about it. This put schools in the awkward position of having to figure out how to handle it from a disciplinary standpoint:
The ACLU-VA recently sent a letter to school superintendents in the commonwealth warning that they cannot punish students who walk out of school as a form of protest more harshly than if they were absent from class for any other reason.
“The bottom line, we’re saying to superintendents and principals work with your kids, work with their parents, work something out that allows the students to express their point of view and be safe,” Guthrie Gastanaga explained.
The ACLU has it right. If a kid walks off, you can’t punish him more because it’s a political protest. Likewise, however, you shouldn’t punish him less. The rules are the rules, and if we can skip them here then we need to re-evaluate the existence of these rules.
Now, logistically, a large-scale protest can’t (or shouldn’t) be handled the same way as a kid going across the street to sneak a cigarette or a kiss with his sweetheart. I do understand schools seeing a potential safety hazard and deciding to try to accommodate it. Depending on how they do it, I may have to let that pass. If they’re allowed to protest, they should be allowed to protest for or against any cause they want to, including something unrelated like anti-abortion or a counter-statement in favor of the right to bear arms. If it’s a moment of silence or whatever, then silence it is. For everybody.
Ultimately, though, the traditional rules need to apply. If it’s the case that the school can afford to let students do this thing on this day, then maybe we worry too much about keeping them in particular places at particular times. If we want to make sure they’re looked after and we want to arrange safety measures for them – a reasonable goal – then maybe we should start setting aside time more generally to register their protest, be heard, and so on. Either we want to encourage this or we don’t. It should not depend on the urgency of gun control at this moment in time.
The notion that this special event, or this special cause, warrant special measures should be resisted. Giving them too much leeway due to power in numbers should be especially resisted, as that sends the message that the leeway the system gives you is tied directly to the popularity of your cause. So if enough of your friends agree you get to protest, but if you’re the lone kid at your school, the hammer comes down. That’s not how this should work. I would rather see school closed for the day, and another school day added at the end of the year, than a specific accommodation here, given to protesters where their cause is most popular.
I will grant that this whole post, and my stance on this, is to some extent me being an asshole. Let me explain: I not only understand the desire to accommodate a protest, I almost like it. What I don’t like is that the rest of the time we come down on everybody like a ton of bricks. What I want more than anything is to reconsider the relationship between school and learning.
In some schools, the children of astronauts were not allowed to see their parents launch into space. Children of the Challenger explosion watched their parents die in a classroom. The rest of the time, they had a parent doing something extraordinary, and they were spending most of the day learning about Grover Cleveland’s administration in US History class. What the hell is wrong with us?
In one of the great family sitcoms of all time, Boy Meets World, Cory stayed up late with his dad watching a no-hitter and as a consequence missed (or flunked, I can’t remember) a test the next day. He wanted to retake the test but his teacher wouldn’t let him. Mr. Feeny told a story about how he wanted to stay up late and watch Harry Truman announce the end of World War II and his father wouldn’t let him because it was a school night. So the next day he went to school rested and ready and learned… well, he couldn’t remember what. But, in a defense of the penalization, he argued: “Education is not about obscure facts and little test scores. Education is about the overall effect of years of slow absorption of concepts and philosophies and approaches to problem solving. The whole process is so grand and all-encompassing that it really can’t be threatened by the occasional late night no-hitter.”
Bullpucky. He should have watched Harry Truman’s speech. A kid staying up late watching a presidential elections is going to get a far better lesson than what he loses by being tired the next day, and it’s not even close. And while I’m not going to say that the rules should have been bent for Cory, the periodic baseball game with his dad is more worthwhile than some overall effect of years of slow absorption. The kid who never stays up late to watch a baseball game ought to have a better grade, to be sure, but one’s overall academic livelihood should not be threatened here. We went to Disney World earlier this year because next year Lain won’t be able to because of attendance requirements. In some districts, one unexcused absence is enough to flunk you. She’s only young once, and sometimes it seems that’s despite our education system’s best efforts.
My point with all of this is that if we want to talk about lessons outside the classroom, then that doesn’t begin and end with a popular protest of gun control. If there are balancing priorities to consider, let’s consider them. To me, closing the conversation off by making an arbitrary exception for these kids isn’t actually doing that so much as it’s doing what feels right while ignoring all of the implications. And if we’re going to say that it is critically important that children be at the designated space at all times, and that order must be preserved at all cost, let’s live with the implications of that, too.