Jailhouse Middle School

Posted: Feb 25, 2005 12:00 AM

It felt more like a juvenile detention center during lockdown than lunchtime in my neighborhood public middle school. Teachers were strategically stationed throughout the cafeteria about 20 feet apart. One of the vice principals had taken her customary place at the microphone. Every few seconds the noisy room was punctuated with her constant commands: ?You, in the green shirt, sit down.? ?Students standing at the back table, find a seat quickly.? ?Young man at the soda machine, move to a table.?
Parents who had attended this upper-class suburban institution 20 years ago touted it as ?a wonderful school.? Other parents had told me how terrible it was. At the time my son was nearing graduation from fifth grade, so I decided to find out for myself what our middle school was really like.
But I didn?t want to get the typical parental tour, given by smiling staff who would tell me just how progressive or fantastic everyone and everything is. I wanted the real deal. So, I signed up with the county to be a substitute teacher.
Within a couple of days of being finger-printed and filling out the paperwork, the electronic phone voice that beckons substitutes informed me of an opportunity at that school. I grabbed it.
The lunch experience was depressing, stifling and insulting to both teachers and students alike. How did things get so bad that what used to be a welcome break in the middle of the day for both faculty and kids is now a necessary evil?
I talked with other teachers when I got the chance. Stepping out into the hallway with one teacher to monitor the changing of classes (yes, Virginia, the police state is real -- it?s the easiest solution to disorder), the 20-year veteran of the school bemoaned the disrespect for authority, the lazy attitudes, the violent outbreaks, and the general unpleasantness. ?The kids used to be so good.? She once enjoyed teaching, but not any more.
On this particular day I subbed for English class, following the normal lesson plans for the day, which called for the students to take took turns reading aloud.  As kids droned on, stumbling over even the most basic words, I glanced around the room. There were kids sleeping in the back, and others just staring into space. Disinterest abounded. Taped to the walls were book reports, each with its own hand-made cover. As I leafed through the pages between classes it was obvious the students? time was spent more on their ?creative covers? than on the actual exercise of analyzing or writing about books. And this was 8th grade.
A couple of days later I was again beckoned to the school by the impersonal, electronic voice. This time the offer was for PE.
The depressing atmosphere I had experienced the first day resumed the minute I arrived in the locker room. The PE coach warned me, ?Make sure you keep an eye on the stalls while the girls are changing. We have to keep close watch. No one is to take a shower. There are two girls who need to take a make-up test. Be sure and seat them to the side while the other kids are playing volleyball -- keep an eye out because the girls will try to cheat.? She was right. Three times I had to move the girls away from each other and their friends.
The class was co-ed, as are most PE classes these days. While younger boys still waiting to develop failed miserably in their struggle to show their great athletic ability in front of the physically mature girls, it was obvious the girls knew how to use their well-developed female bodies to intimidate and belittle. I was shocked at how aggressive they were. Taller than most of the boys, several of them shoved their breasts into the necks of the boys as they teased and laughed at their mistakes. Many of the girls had their gym shorts rolled up so far, their buttocks showed. ?Unroll your waistband,? I said. A flat voice responded, ?But everyone wears them this way all the time.?
It seems my sad experience is pretty typical of most schools these days.
In a February 28, 2005 article entitled, ?LEFT BEHIND, Kids have too little to respect? for The American Conservative, substitute teacher Marian Kester Coombs shares her own observations and gives insightful reasons for the dismal scene in so many of our schools:

The balance of power and the dominant institutional culture within the public schools have changed profoundly. No more subordinated hierarchy of youths competing to be patted on the head by adult authority figures. Poweris now in the hands of the inmates, and their preoccupation is with RESPECT -- and of course its opposite, ?dissing.? An obsession imported from the mean streets, this demand, backed up by physical force and psychological intimidation, stands in stark contrast to the almost complete lack of deference shown to authorities.?
The inversion of respect -- its redefinition as idle malice and heartlessness instead of achievement and sublimation -- is not simply a matter of individual parents misbehaving. The entire society, now led by Baby Boomers, is viewed with derision. The young feel a sense not just of personal desertion but of general, universal desertion. Their elders have somehow lost them the whole world and what would have been their place in it.  That is why they are so angry. That is why they do not respect us -- not just because some of us lie, cheat, fornicate, and cannot be relied on. They are rebelling against having nothing to rebel against.

 Could it be that our kids are searching for meaning? Could it be that they are so numbed by the anything-goes society that they are pushing the envelope just to feel alive? Take cutting. It?s a phenomenon now prevalent in even the best schools, and it?s exactly what you?re hoping it isn?t: self-mutilation. Kids casually cut themselves with knives, safety pins and razor blades -- just because. In Michelle Malkin?s column of February 23, she refers to a school counselor telling the parent of a middle school student, ?70% of the kids here cut or know someone who does. It?s cool, a trend, and acceptable.?
Malkin goes on to say, ?While many public schools deny the problem exists, public health advocacy groups are warning medical professionals of the cutting craze -- and have even declared March 1st ?Self Injury Awareness Day.?
Coombs observes, ?Those who give speeches about higher standards and more teachers typically lunch in places like the Senate dining room. They would do well to spend a noon hour in the cafeteria of a public school. Kids in super-tight or droopy jeans and t-shirts reading ?Yes -- but not with you? or ?You forgot to ask if I care? shuffle through food lines that feature tater tots, fries, chips, pizza, Pepsi, and Little Debbie dessert squares. Ritalin offsets the sugar high.?

As Coombs says, ?But bad fashion and worse nutrition are not these children?s only common denominators. Their more defining trait is the forlorn look they share.?
Sounds like it?s time for more parents -- and even legislators -- to do a little substitute teaching.