Tangled Up in Blue
Last week, a Virginia school suspended a sixth grader because he was colored. Blue.
The student, Jesse Doyle, had earned straight As and Bs the previous semester, and so his mother fulfilled a promise to allow him to dye his hair electric blue. The school, on the pretext that blue hair was somehow “disruptive,” promptly showed him the door. That, of course, lasted all of a week. Doyle’s mother contacted the ACLU, which sent a fax to school administrators reminding them that another Virginia school had tried almost the exact same thing a few years earlier. That case found its way to the Virginia courts, where a judge ruled, on the basis of a decades-old precedent which made clear that suspending children for having funky hair violated due process rights, that the school was required to both readmit the student and pay $25,000 in legal fees. The administrators, as is their nature, wet themselves and hastily reversed course.
This is a trivial enough case of a school overreacting to an unusual student, probably one of hundreds which occur every year. But it is symptomatic of a deeply schizophrenic attitude we Americans take towards our children. We appear to have developed a new variation on the Madonna/Whore complex . . . call it the Lord Fauntleroy/Dylan Klebold complex. As I noted in a previous column, children are seen as fragile, skinless beings in need of constant protection from a dangerous world. But they’re also a source of fear to largely uncomprehending adults, little time-bombs who might at any moment unleash a torrent of rage . . . and maybe bullets. These two attitudes are not entirely disconnected. In fact, they are probably opposite sides of the same coin. The word “protect” comes from the Latin protegere, meaning “to place a cover or shield in front of.” Shields, however, work in two directions; when we seek to control children’s behavior, and the various forms of media which influence them, we are at least in part hoping to protect ourselves from whatever unorthodoxy might begin to grow in their little hearts should we let that shield drop.
It is, after all, no coincidence that there should have been a series of cases where children were sent home for the crime of having an unorthodox appearance in the wake of the shootings at Columbine and other public high schools. The same folks who blame every violent incident on easy access to firearms were, of course, eager to point the finger at America’s “gun culture,” but that explanation largely rang hollow. Even putting aside the fact that other such attacks have been stopped by teachers or principals with guns, it is clear enough that the “gun culture,” such as it is, has been around for a long time without giving rise to such atrocities. No, the real problem was that these kids were weird. They listened to Marilyn Manson, and wore lots of black. Kids like that, Columbine seemed to prove, were dangerous.
Clearly, educrats concluded, not enough had been done to stamp out strangeness. It hadn’t been for lack of trying, of course. Why, kids like these had been derided for years by teachers and peers alike, and yet, mysteriously, this had not succeeded in beating into them a desire to join the crowd. Nor had over a decade of immersion in a public school system designed to crush any spark of individuality in its wards. It was all too obvious that these weird kids had not been isolated or tormented nearly enough; they needed to be ousted from the school completely. Mushy pedagogues of the early 90s had believed that it “takes a village” to raise a child. The new theory is that it takes The Village.
I, of course, may be falling into the same trap as the obtuse bureaucrats I’ve just been mocking. It is comforting to think that we can discover the cause of every evil act, that we can tame the bad in people–in theory if not in practice–by reducing all the evil they do to a matter of clinical cause and effect, like the ricochet of billiard balls. Whenever I feel myself falling prey to that hubris, I recall the words of Alex, the ultra-violent narrator of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange:
“[B]rothers, this biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into what is the cause of goodness, so why of the other shop? If lewdies are good that’s because they like it, and I wouldn’t ever interfere with their pleasures, and so of the other shop. And I was patronizing the other shop.” And to think, Alex didn’t even have that scary blue hair.