When You Realize You Are Completely Out Of It

One of my mentees and his wife have welcomed a new addition to their growing family.  The baby’s name will be Maxwell.

I wanted to make a mild joke about the newborn with my other mentees, so I asked them whether they thought it would be appropriate to get little Maxwell a silver hammer.  In response, I was greeted with absolutely blank stares.  “I don’t think a hammer would be an appropriate gift for an infant,” one of my mentees politely responded.  “Is there some kind of tradition involved in giving a hammer to a child?” another asked.

“You know, the Beatles song,” I prompted.  Additional baffled looks.  “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer?”  I added.  More uncomfortable silence.

Occasionally, an incident occurs that crystallizes the fact that you are getting incredibly old, and the common cultural touchstones that used to be assumed in every conversation are common touchstones no more.  My references to Beatles song have no more resonance with my 20- and 30-something mentees than the latest Jay-Z song (assuming Jay-Z is still a popular artist — which I of course am blissfully unaware of) would have with me.

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A Little Judgment, Please

The tale of Hunter Yelton is a small story about a small boy in a small town, but it may just teach us a large and important lesson about modern America.

Hunter is the six-year-old boy in a Colorado school district who had a crush on a girl and kissed her on the hand during class.  Their classmates reported it, and the school district determined that Hunter’s action constituted sexual harassment under the school district’s policy, which defines sexual harassment as any form of unwanted touching.  Hunter was suspended and the charge of sexual harassment went on his school record.

The word got out, and the reaction was swift and overwhelming.  People were outraged that a six-year-old boy could be accused of sexual harassment for a peck on the hand, and Hunter’s story became news throughout the country.  Now the school district has dropped the sexual harassment charge and has classified his behavior as “misconduct,” and Hunter is back in school.  He says he’ll try to be good.

The large lesson to be learned from this small incident is that judgment is needed — by the school district, by parents, and by the media.  The school district has a policy that defines sexual harassment so broadly that a six-year-old’s kiss on the hand apparently falls into the same category as a high school senior’s pawing of a freshman classmate.  Obviously, they aren’t the same thing, and school districts shouldn’t treat them as the same thing.  “Zero tolerance” policies can be a problem when they don’t permit teachers and principals to exercise judgment and distinguish between Hunter’s kiss of the hand and conduct that is much more serious and needs to be dealt with much more severely.

At the same time, a knee-jerk depiction of this incident as another ridiculous example of Big Brother run amok isn’t quite right, either.  The mother of the girl whose hand Hunter kissed has now been heard from, and she says that Hunter has tried to kiss the girl repeatedly without permission, and she has tried to teach her daughter how to respond when that happens.  She appreciates the school district acting to protect her daughter — and wouldn’t you feel the same way if it was your little girl?

The upshot of this story is that school districts should have rational policies that recognize distinctions in behavior, but also that discipline and order in the classroom is important.  When I was in grade school, pestering behavior would be treated by the wrongdoer standing in the corner and, if the misconduct didn’t stop, a trip to the principal’s office, a call to the parents of the misbehaving child, and a stern talk about proper conduct.  It seemed to work just fine back then.  Why shouldn’t it work now?