Pavlov’s Children

Fall comes. Across the country leaves turn, the morning air grows crisp, and nuts ripen, chiefly in the schools. In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I see that a school kid of 11, Paul Volz, got suspended for three days, because he drew a picture of the World Trade Center on fire.


It was your basic 20-second kid drawing on lined paper. Versions differ as to whether he stuck a paper airplane on it. He then put the picture on the wall of his study cubicle. Bingo. Outta there.

Have we lost our tiny little minds?

It gets better. From Jeff Boyer, the principal: “When I asked him why he did this, he just looked at me and smiled. This is totally inappropriate and Paul’s behavior has to change.”

“Inappropriate” is the word used by schoolmeisters when a kid hasn’t done anything. If Paul had attacked a schoolmate with a machete, he could have been called “dangerous.” If he had stood on his head and screamed for three hours, “disruptive” would have fit. But he did nothing wrong at all, so it’s “inappropriate.” This conveys disapproval without specificity, leaving the child with no defense.

(“Inappropriate” actually means “I’m a hopeless priss, and you aren’t, so I’m going to get even.” Honest. It’s in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Things get better yet. Apparently there’s a whole hive of of gooberish control-freaks in St. Louis. Ben Helt, the district spokesman — whatever that means — said it wasn’t the picture that engendered distress. No. It was Paul’s grinning.

Yes. We now have grinning police.

There’s no end to this. Said Helt, “How a child handles that drawing could be just as important (as the drawing itself). Some drawings can be therapeutic and others can be offensive.”

I pondered this, crossing my legs. It’s not just the English. Therapeutic? Since when do pictures by children have to be therapeutic? Who asked the wee timorous beasties who run the schools to do therapy? Why the assumption that kids need psychological care because a couple of building blew up? Why is a picture of a news event offensive?

We have here one of those pair-of-diggem shifts I read about. We used to have sexual prudes. That doesn’t work any longer. It would be like being a water-prude in mid-Pacific. So we now have violence-prudes. All the prurience, but half the fun.

Now, why did Paul grin? I’m not sure what else a kid is supposed to do when asked a preternaturally stupid question. Kids draw pictures. They draw what interests them, what they see around them, what’s on television, what piques their imagination. Spacemen. Cowboys. The Trade Center. They don’t know why they draw things. I don’t know either. It’s what people do.

If this were an isolated case, we might figure that there was a really serious hole in the ozone layer over St. Louis. But it’s not isolated. It’s everywhere. A friend of mine has a (large) son of twelve, who couldn’t find his jacket one morning. Dad was at an early meeting on Cap Hill, so the kid borrowed his leather coat.

Bingo, suspended: It was a Columbine-style coat.

The same kid, after the recent adventure in New York, wrote a note to a classmate: “Westernport is next. Ask me how I know.” Westernport is a tiny place of no interest to anyone who doesn’t live there. The kid, being a kid, was kidding. Days later the note fell out of the recipient’s notebook, and a teacher found it. Bingo: Another suspension.

Before thinking about what all of this is, let’s think about what it isn’t.

It isn’t about safety. A kid who draws a burning building, or borrows his dad’s coat, is not a dangerous psychopath. If he were, would a three-day suspension cure him? Maybe the idea is that an angry killer, having been humiliated by being tossed out of school, will respond by becoming well-adjusted. I expect so. Any day now.

When a child writes that some crossroads is next on Bin Laden’s list, one of three things must be true: (a) the kid is perilously bonkers; (b) he is a member of an Islamic terrorist organization (common among Anglo pre-teens in remote Maryland); or (c) he’s a kid. Pick one.

If you really thought a kid was dangerous, you would try to get him out of school permanently, which would be entirely sensible. The parsnipocracy didn’t, which establishes that they know these kids aren’t terrorists.

What, then, is the point of this bullying? Which is what it is.

This is a judgment call, but . . . these people bring to mind the good-goody little girl in third grade, the pasty tattle-tale boy who would run up and say, “Teacher! Ricky made a spitball,” and then watch in triumphant disguised hostility as Ricky got chewed out. They were kids who really didn’t like others, but didn’t have the courage to assert themselves directly.

The teachers who throw kids out for pointing chicken fingers at lunch and saying “bang,” or for drawing GIs (both in fact happened), feel to me like the same kids gotten older. (Incidentally, I expect one day to see a book by a principal, “Fear of Chicken Fingers: A Survivor’s Guide.”)

These delicates are not conspicuously overburdened with courage or character. A man who gets his innards in an uproar because Johnny drew a soldier with a — squeeeeal! — gun isn’t up there with Churchill, Jim Bowie, and Gordon Liddy. Further, though with many exceptions, teachers are the dregs of the colleges, and they know it. They know that others know it. Throw in diversity hires and it’s worse.

The resentment borne by the consciously inadequate goes quickly to vengefulness.

And that, I think, is where we are. Today, the little rat-finks of third grade are Teacher, and in charge. They want to squash what they aren’t. I can’t find a better explanation. They have the totalitarian instincts of the empowered negligible, the desire for control, control, control that characterizes the vaguely frightened. Control is indeed what they want: To browbeat kids into conforming, into complying with their pallid sanctimony over imagined peril. The totalitarian outlook invariably leads to puritanical moralizing. One doesn’t easily imagine Joe Stalin getting a lap dance or Franco swinging from a chandelier. Thus dodgeball is violence, playing soldier is “unacceptable,” drawing a burning building is inappropriate.

We have consigned our offspring to anxious mental defectives.

I’ll say this to the Pauls of American: Don’t let the bastards grind you down. It isn’t you. It’s them.

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