Home sweet home

Posted: Feb 21, 2001 12:00 AM
Glancing through the morning paper, I noticed the following item: "Bomb Charges Against Boys Disturb Town." It seems two 14-year-olds from a comfortable suburb in New Jersey were apprehended fleeing Mount Pleasant middle school last Saturday armed with pipe bombs and other weapons. So far, so unremarkable. Reading on, one finds more unsurprising news. The townspeople are shocked. "The two boys came from solid families and had no history of trouble," reported The New York Times. Susan Hollenberg, mother of a 10-year-old who attends the elementary school attached to the middle school, told the paper: "This is why you live out here, to get away from that sort of thing. Everyone here is shocked." If Americans imagine that they can move away from "that sort of thing," they'd better re-evaluate how far you've got to go. It may require getting to New Zealand before escaping "that sort of thing." The middle school in this story attracted my attention for a number of reasons. First, it is a sign of the times that this story, which would have been front-page news in 1975, was buried on the back pages. No deaths, no injuries, no blood-splattered lockers or libraries, so it scarcely ranks as news these days. The second reason is the "shocked" response of the locals. By what right can they be shocked to find that what is happening in the rest of the country should affect them? Denial, as they say, ain't just a river in Egypt. The third reason this story caught my eye is that I attended Mount Pleasant Junior High (and the elementary school). I know exactly what the door the boys fled from looks like. I know how many yards of open field they would have had to cover before reaching the safety of the woods and houses (and why the police had no trouble catching them). I think the souls of my feet bear the permanent stamp of that uneven soil, which only hundreds of hours of girls' field hockey can imprint. I spent grades seven through nine in Mount Pleasant Junior High. It is quite possible that the parents of the two 14-year-olds in custody were my classmates. And I am not, repeat not, shocked. Livingston, N.J., then as now, was considered to be a "nice" community with great public schools. By "nice," people usually mean affluent, and parts of Livingston were. As for the people, they were like people everywhere -- a mixed bag. But very little that we were taught in public school encouraged us to be better. We had lessons on drug abuse, the dangers of tobacco and the sanctity of the environment. We did not learn to respect one another. By grade five, the "bad" kids were smoking cigarettes on the playground and by grade seven a few had lost their virginity. Sex education was assiduously taught and eagerly absorbed. In those days, most of the misbehavior in Livingston amounted to mischief, not criminality. But thuggish behavior was not unknown at Mt. Pleasant even then. One student had been badly burned and disfigured in early childhood. His face was a mask of scars. I will never forget the day I witnessed the chief bully chasing the burn victim down the hall with a blazing cigarette lighter -- laughing all the way. It has been many years since I've been back. But if Livingston is like the rest of America -- and it is -- the children are getting even less supervision and attention than my peers and I received. Though there were plenty of bad kids in my time, their sense of what kind of violence children could commit was limited. They could be cruel, but phoning in a false fire alarm was about as far as they'd risk tangling with the police. The most violence they'd ever seen was James Bond, the most pornography they could get their hands on was Playboy. The inhibitions had not yet been completely unbuckled. But 30 years of weakened standards and glorification of violence have followed. The most revealing fact to emerge from the Columbine tragedy was that, on their final video, the two killers speculated excitedly about who would do their story for Hollywood. That's the world we've created. Don't be shocked when it shows up at your school.