Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Give 'Em The Ol' Razzle Dazzle - and don't talk about the elephant in the room

Via Joanne Jacobs: Student suspended for tearing up a Bible in a speech about Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Here’s a great way to snow people on an issue: just add Bible. I’ve got images of Richard Gere in a courtroom made to look like a 3-ring circus singing “Give ‘em the ol’ razzle dazzle.”

Couple of things are bound to happen when you include the destruction of a Bible in front of an audience. One group will talk about how the Christians over-reacted, and that if it had been X book instead nobody would have said anything. Well, no, and that’s why the student did not choose just any old book. He knew the importance and significance of the Bible, he chose it for its importance and significance, so to argue there should be little or less reaction to his choice is to completely trivialize the point the student himself was trying to make. He wanted people to take notice, which is why he didn’t choose, say, The Giving Tree. Give the kid some credit for a sense of the dramatic and being able to read his audience.

Then you’ll get a group claiming their Christianity, subtly but firmly condemning other Christians by saying THEY would never get upset about something like this, really, it’s those fanatics and they are NOT LIKE US. We’re more reasonable. We understand a symbolic act. Then there will be those who think the student got what he deserved, the little whippersnapper, these kids today, nothing like the kids we had back in my day, and get off my lawn! Then a group will decry the fascist hold of education on the minds and fates of the young, then a group will find the conspiracy in the principal’s reluctance to talk about the student’s other mishaps or the reason for the suspension, and another will point out the rich irony of the subject matter, the demonstration, and the result, and so on and so forth. But there hasn't been (yet) a lot of talk about another, more pressing issue, the one schools and society are both struggling with: what is a threat? What is a cry for help? When do we remove students? What happens when we do? How do schools deal with being damned if they do, and damned if they don’t?

I teach the essay every year, and I love it. I will say that when the students discuss it, they do inevitably begin examining religion. Personally, I don’t think the kid’s act was anywhere in keeping with Emerson’s ideas of non-conformity, who counted Pythagoras, Jesus, Socrates, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton among the greatest of non-conformists. I suspect he would have seen such a display as almost a sort of proselytization of non-conformity, which would have defeated the purpose. It doesn’t sound like the student so much made a speech about the issues the essay raises as used the essay as an excuse for his display, and not very well. But whatever my interpretation of his display, there’s once again been far too much attention paid to the shiny and eye-catching accoutrement of the act - the Bible, the suspension - and not enough attention paid to the words that accompanied the act, according to an eyewitness:

“He said he was going to do something that our little stupid minds wouldn't be able to comprehend.”

There’s your problem right there, sir. I don’t want anyone near me who uses a blanket characterization like this of an entire group of people arrayed before them. One, he’s not seeing individuals. Everyone there has a “little stupid mind” to him, AND saying that they won’t be able to comprehend his act, yet demonstrating the act anyway indicates to me he does have some issues - most apparently with the fact that he and he alone CAN comprehend the significance of such an act. So he has reduced a group of individuals down to non-persons, and is trying to teach them a lesson he is convinced they can’t learn. This is worrying to me.

So often schools are taken to task for not seeing the cries of help students raise in various ways, but when a school does act on something which has the hallmarks of a cry for help (or at least some negative attention) they’re taken to task for jumping the gun. Maybe I've just become a little gun shy of late as violence has escalated in my school and we went through what was later characterized as a Columbine-style threat last year, but in this case I’d rather they erred on the side of caution, for the sake of the kid (if there is an issue that needs to be explored there) and the others involved.


NYC Educator said...

Religion is a tough issue to deal with in the classroom. Sometimes, on opinion essays, kids write, "Well, God says..."

I tell them we're making arguments and while I'm willing to argue with them, I refuse to argue with God. That's too much to ask of an English teacher, I think.

Redkudu said...

I love that response!