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Jewish World Review April 10, 2001 / 17 Nissan, 5761

James Lileks

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Consumer Reports

Boys will be boys. And that's the problem -- IT'S difficult to underestimate the noxious effect popular culture has on our children, but sometimes it's easy to tell when something is horribly wrong.

In a Fargo, North Dakota elementary school, a fourth-grader was observed drawing a scene of unimaginable horrors: death by drowning, death by explosions, death by crushing, death by impalement, etc. He cheerfully admitted he got the idea from a movie --- a film shown in prime-time with no warnings. Here's the frightening part: no disciplinary action was taken. No counselors were called. The parents weren't even notified.

Why? Because it was the mid-sixties, that's why. The fourth-grader was your author, and he was drawing a picture of the Titanic sinking, complete with a sea of stick figures in peril, exploding boilers, etc. "A Night To Remember," which was the Titanic movie before "Titanic," had been on the previous weekend. No one thought the drawing was particularly horrible -- aside from its manifest aesthetic deficiencies -- because this was what little boys often did. Give them a stick, and they'll draw a line in the sand. Give them a carrot, and it's a pistol barrel. Give them paper and pencil, and vast armies perish, if only in pictoral fashion.

Boys will be boys. And that's the problem.

In West Monroe, LA, a boy has been disciplined for drawing a gun. Not "drawing" in the old High-Noon slap-leather sense, either; he put pencil to paper, probably stuck out his tongue to indicate concentration, and drew a soldier with a gun. Of course he was punished; why should we be surprised? In the recent stories of expulsions and suspensions, it's part of a natural sequence. In January a Jonesboro, Ark. child was suspended for pointing a chicken leg as a gun. (Fried chicken perhaps - cooked in Smith & Wesson oil!) In March two boys in Irvington, N.J. were charged with "terroristic threats" because they waved paper guns. Now a drawing lands you in the principal's office. It'll be okay to draw the Washington Monument - even though he was a slaveowner - but don't point it at anyonel lest you violate the zero tolerance policy on sharp obelisks.

The disciplined gun-drawer showed other worrisome symptoms: he drew a GI in full camo, a tribute to a relative in the service. And the kid had drawn a fort, stockpiled with weaponry - including typical little-boy flourishes like "5,000 knives." Said the school principal, Edward Davis: "It had hand grenades, knives and guns. We have zero tolerance for drawings with guns. We can't tolerate anything that has to do with guns or knives."

It would be interesting to eavesdrop on their history lesson. "And then came the Civil War. The class from the North met the class from the South and they were very mad at each other. And what do we do when we're mad at someone?"

"We turn a frown into a hug," the class responds like a chorale of bored robots.

"That's right!" says Teacher. "And the hug was called ŚReconstruction.'" So much for the 19th century. Let's move along to the 60s, the crucible of the Anti Bad-Thoughts Movement, and learn the best kind of flower to stick in the barrel of a National Guardsman's rifle. Except we don't call them rifles; they're owie-poles.

At some point, education requires facing unpleasant realities: there were, at several key junctures of human development, guns. And knives and bombers and gas ovens and gigantic mushroom clouds over dense population areas. This isn't to say that fourth graders need their faces ground in the misery of human perfidity; nor should schools turn a blind eye to young twitchy loners-in-training. But "zero-tolerance" rules demonize inert objects so school administrators can have an easy response, uniformly applied. Doesn't matter if it criminalizes gestures. Doesn't matter if it has the effect of stigmatizing the very nature of bumptuous boyhood - in the eyes of a increasingly feminized culture, that's something that needs stifling, anyway.

Cultures that teach their children soldiers are bad are eventually forced to confront cultures with bad soldiers. Oh, you naughty Red Chinese soldiers swarming into Taiwan - you've earned a time out! You didn't say please and you all have guns.

Hard for a modern educator to tell which is worse.

JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, James Lileks