Criminalizing Adolescence

Think back to your days in middle school (or, as it was known when I went through it, junior high).  I know you don’t want to think about it, because those days in seventh and eighth grade were painful exercises.  The haircuts, the clothing, the cliques, the acne, the bizarre hormone-deranged behavior of your classmates — virtually everything about that period was disturbing and embarrassing.

cafeteria-2It’s important that you fix that grim period of your life firmly in mind, however, to fully understand the story of F.M., a seventh-grader at the Cleveland Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  The story begins with F.M. in physical education class — the place where, with kids changing clothes and taking showers, adolescent chaos reigns.  F.M. thought it would be funny to disrupt class by fake burping.  No surprise there; adolescent boys have long believed that belches and farts are the height of sophisticated humor, and virtually every grade has a kid who has somehow become a maestro at voluntarily gathering stomach gas and burping it out at the moment of maximum hilarity.  In the adolescent boy pantheon of laugh-producing activity, fake-belching is right up there with being able to make funny noises with your armpit or having a stable of gross jokes to tell at lunch so one of the kids at the table would snort milk out his nose.

When F.M. wouldn’t stop fake-burping, the teacher sent him into the hall — but F.M. kept sticking his head back in and belching some more.  By then, I’m guessing, some of the other boys in class were helpless with laughter, but the teacher had had enough.  He called the “school resource officer,” an officer in the Albuquerque police department assigned to the school.  The officer questioned F.M., who of course denied the belching incidents — and the “school resource officer” decided to place F.M. under arrest and charge him with the misdemeanor offense of disrupting school activities.  F.M. was put in handcuffs, patted down, and driven to a juvenile detention facility, where his mother picked him up later that day.  He also was suspended for the rest of the school year.

In this modern world, the inevitable response to the overreaction by the gym teacher and the “school resource officer” was an overreaction by F.M.’s mother, who sued alleging that F.M.’s constitutional rights were violated.  The school officials involved argued that F.M.’s behavior in fact constituted disruption of school activities under the New Mexico statute, which is why a federal court of appeals recently handed down a 94-page opinion holding that arresting a teenager for repeatedly burping in class wasn’t actionable.

It’s one of those stories that tells you how much things have changed.  When I was in junior high, if one of the class clowns disrupted gym class with belching the gym teacher would have gotten in his face and made him run laps until he puked, or sent him to the vice principal, a severe, scowling former Marine who kept a long wooden paddle hanging on the wall in his office.  There wasn’t a police officer — or “school resource officer” — at the school, and no teacher or school administrator would dream of calling the police on a jerky kid who was fake-burping to impress his classmates.  Paddling?  Sure.  Detention?  Absolutely.  But no handcuffs, pat-downs, or trip to juvenile detention.  And, if a kid was disciplined for disruptive behavior, his parents not only didn’t sue, they always sided with the teachers and school, and the kid was going to get punished on the home front, too.

There used to be a saying:  “Don’t make a federal case out of it.”  It was used to convey that people shouldn’t overreact to some minor incident.  Now we’ve reached the point where the gross, but nevertheless common, behavior of an adolescent boy can lead to arrest and a lengthy opinion by a federal appellate court.

I don’t consider that progress.

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There Goes Somebody’s First Job

Popular Science has an interesting article about the development of a robot in Germany that grills sausages and apparently does a pretty good job of it.  So what, you say?  Here’s what:  the German robot shows just how easy it is for robotics to eliminate jobs.  And, since robotics mostly focuses on performing basic, ministerial tasks, the jobs that are eliminated tend to be entry-level jobs — the kinds of jobs that many of us had as our first jobs, back when we were teenagers.  Whether it is grilling sausages, flipping burgers, washing dishes, or bagging groceries (which was my first job), we’re likely to see increasing robotic inroads, which means fewer jobs for kids trying to earn some spare money so they can take their significant other on a date or go to the prom.

If you’re the owner of a sausage restaurant, why wouldn’t you use a robot instead of a teenage kid?  The robot in the Popular Science article has a natty moustache and is wearing a chef’s hat, apparently issues some German witticisms as he grills, and will never, ever complain about working conditions or fail to show up for work on time.  You wouldn’t have to pay for health care, perform withholding, or worry about unionization.  And, since we all remember the personality issues that inevitably afflict the teenager years, you wouldn’t have to deal with sullen, hormone-addled employees, either.

When robots take over those “first jobs” that many of us had, I think it will have a profound impact.  I thought getting that first job was an important step on the road to adulthood, where I jarringly realized that not everybody is going to treat me with kid gloves like my parents did.  If teenagers can’t get a first job, how are they going to get a sense of the working world, and how are they going to stay out of trouble?

The Impossible Challenges Of Modern Parenting

The tragic tale of the stabbing death of Nicole Lovell is one of those stories that demonstrates, yet again, that being a parent in the modern world poses challenges that our parents and grandparents would never have thought possible.

Nicole Lovell was a 13-year-old girl who lived in Virginia.  She had liver transplant surgery that left her scarred, and she took medication that made her gain weight — which in turn caused her to be the butt of ridicule by some of the mean kids at her school.  Like many kids do these days, she turned to social media as an outlet and apparently created alternative personas on-line, on a number of different sites.  Unbeknownst to her parents, for example, she had multiple profiles on Facebook.

nicole-lovellAuthorities believe that Nicole Lovell’s social media activities brought her into contact with an 18-year-old named David Eisenhauer — a student at Virginia Tech.  According to police, Eisenhauer and another Virginia Tech student, Natalie Keepers, plotted to kill Lovell and dispose of her body.  Lovell went missing from her bedroom after midnight on January 27; her body was found days later in a remote wooded area in North Carolina.  Eisenhauer is charged with Lovell’s abduction and murder, and Keepers is charged with being an accessory.

All parents know there are bad people out there.  That’s always been true.  The difference now is that social media makes it so much easier for the bad people to find your children, interact with them, and lure them into danger.  In more innocent days, parents could ensure their children’s safety by making sure they stayed in the neighborhood.  In the modern world of America, however, physical location is no longer an assurance of safety, because the computer in the family den can be the gateway for predators.

Nicole Lovell’s story involves a lot of common, nightmare scenarios for parents: unfair bullying at school, a child entering the teenage years who feels lonely and friendless at school while feeling liberated by the anonymity and possibilities for self-reinvention that social media and the internet offer, and, in all likelihood, that youthful confidence and certainty that nothing bad will happen to them — until it tragically does.

Modern parents know of these risks, but how do they keep them under control with so many social media options available in the modern world?  One of the social media options mentioned in the news stories linked above is called Kik, which is a messaging app that allows its users to remain anonymous and send photos that aren’t saved on the phone.  Have you even heard of Kik?  I hadn’t until I read the stories about Nicole Lovell — but I bet many young teenage kids have heard about it at school.  The kids are always way ahead of the adults on the social media/technology curve.

Our children survived the teenage years and made it out into adulthood.  I’m grateful for that, because I really don’t know how modern parents are supposed to thread the needle and allow their children enough freedom and self-sufficiency to develop as autonomous human beings while ensuring that they don’t fall prey to the evil people that we know are out there.  Sometimes, as the story of Nicole Lovell suggests, modern parenting just seems impossible.

The Air Guitar Time Machine

I probably first played air guitar when I was 13 or 14, after we moved from Akron to Columbus.  We were living in a bigger house and I had gotten my own room, which I equipped with a radio and with the family’s hand-me-down record player, a cheap and unsteady Panasonic unit with plastic speakers.  In that little enclave of my own, I really started to discover rock music beyond The Beatles and The Monkees.

Like many teenaged boys, I was drawn to the guitar gods of the day — Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple, and others, the slouching, long-haired titans who delivered the intricate, crushing solos that kicked your spirits into another gear and managed to look uber-cool while doing so.  I saw clips of their performances on the late-night music shows and how they looked while playing.

So, was it really so surprising that, when you put a song like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven or Cream’s Crossroads or the Rolling Stones’ Monkey Man on that flimsy Panasonic turntable and felt the surge of energy that those songs inevitably produced, a little air guitar solo would surface?  When you were in the grip of those songs, you had to do something to participate, and the choices boiled down to playing air drums with the John Bonhams and Ginger Bakers and Keith Moons of the world — or playing air guitar.  I chose air guitar, even though I had no idea what I was doing and whether my chord-fingering on the air fretboard and picking and strumming on the air strings bore any relation to guitar-playing reality, and even though I knew I looked silly doing it.  It just felt like the right thing to do, and it was fun, besides.

It still does, and still is.  Even now, more than 40 years later, if you put me alone in a room and start playing Derek and the Dominos’ Key To The Highway or Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Call Me The Breeze, the impulse to play a little air guitar (and in the latter case, a little air keyboards, too) and feel like a kid again while doing so will be irresistible.  Those songs are like a kind of time machine that transports me back to that poster-filled room with the scratchy Panasonic unit playing at the loudest decibel level I dared, and my guess is that the same is true for many of us fifty-something guys.

It’s nice to know that, lurking under the extra pounds and the grey hair and the aching back, there’s a little bit of that teenager energy and silliness still to be found.

Criminal Knockouts

According to news reports, there’s a new, sick, violent “game” that has taken hold in some large cities.  It’s one of those cultural tales that makes you hope that the uproar is overblown — because if the stories are true, you have to shake your head and wonder about the future of things.

The practice is called “knockout.”  (I say “practice” because calling it a “game” diminishes what is actually the crime of assault and battery.)  Young kids find an unwary person, sneak up on them, and then throw a sucker punch, hoping to land a knockout.  It’s happened in Brooklyn, Hoboken, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis — as well as London, England.  In some cases, the victims are Jewish, but other targeted people seem to have been picked purely at random.  One victim was a 78-year-old woman.  Many of the individuals who have been preyed upon have suffered serious injuries, and some have died.

Have we really reached the point where some teenagers have become so disassociated from society, and so divorced from normal behavior, that they can viciously attack an entirely innocent person as part of a cruel “game”?  How could anyone with normal human feelings attack a 78-year-old woman laden with shopping bags?  What kind of upbringing and home life have these kids had?  (Don’t get me wrong — I’m not absolving the criminal attacker of blame, but I am wondering what kind of conditions could have caused an innocent child to grow into a monster who thinks it’s funny to cold-cock and seriously harm a random stranger.)

Just what we need — another bit of senselessness to worry about as we walk down a public street and pass a group of young kids.

 

Giving Advice To Your 16-Year-Old Self

Recently I read a letter that author Stephen King had written to his 16-year-old self as part of a collection called Dear Me:  A Letter to My 16-Year-Old Self.  King’s advice to himself was “stay away from recreational drugs” — advice which, if heeded, would have allowed King, a self-described “junkie waiting to happen,” to avoid a ten-year dark period.

-5The letter got me to thinking about what I might say to my 16-year-old self, a callow, insecure, yet arrogant kid now buried deep under countless layers of memory and experience and middle-aged weight.  I decided I wouldn’t try to give any life-altering guidance, because I’m quite happy with how things turned out.  I’m mindful of the theory of the butterfly effect, where even a slight change might drastically alter the course of your life.  So even though I’ve made countless bad decisions and behaved in mean-spirited and embarrassing ways, I don’t think I would change any of that.  In fact, I like to think that making those bad decisions, and suffering the consequences, ended up being a positive thing that helped me to grow and mature as a person.  Perhaps I’m rationalizing a bit, but I believe that although lessons from the school of hard knocks might be painful at the time, they tend to be lessons well learned.

So, my advice to myself would fall into the platitude category, and therefore would likely be utterly ignored by that know-it-all teenager with the bad ’70s haircut.  Things like “don’t worry about being popular in high school, it means nothing after you graduate” and “the world doesn’t revolve around you” and “try to be nice to people.”  The other nugget would be:  “buy fewer things and take more vacations.”  I’ve been as much a participant in our consumer culture as anyone, and now I look at closets and cupboards filled with stuff that we don’t use and don’t need.  I’d much rather have less stuff and more wonderful memories of trips to faraway places with Kish and the boys.

Body Mass Buttinskys

Lilly, a sixth-grade girl in Florida, is the star player on her middle school volleyball team.  According to her mother, the girl is 5′ 5″, weighs 124 pounds, and is “all muscle.”  So the mother was shocked when the school sent her a letter advising that the girl is “overweight.”

How could such a letter possibly be sent?  Because Florida is one of a number of states that has begun sending letters to parents advising them when their child is viewed as overweight and warning of the dangers of childhood obesity.  Florida mandates “health screenings” for kids, and then uses a body mass index calculation to determine when a child is overweight.  Experts recognize that body mass index statistics are a crude means of determining whether a child is overweight, and in Lilly’s case the measure was made even cruder because she was reported as being two inches shorter than she really is.  The so-called “fat letter” was the result.

Childhood obesity is a concern, but sending “fat letters” based on rough measures like the body mass index hardly seems like a prudent way to address the problem.  We live in an age of eating disorders and concerns about the messages popular culture sends to girls about their bodies.  What does it say when a healthy, active volleyball player gets a letter from a government agency saying she is teetering on the edge of obesity?  Why send such personal, stigmatizing letters to kids who are already wrestling with the incredible self-consciousness and self-esteem issues that are an inevitable part of the teenage years?

Moreover, why are schools involved in this process?  The last I checked, American public schools were struggling to educate kids and, in some instances, keep order in school buildings.  Saddling schools with the job of policing childhood obesity is just giving them another task that distracts from the basic mission of education.  And when governmental entities are involved in making broad generalizations about health, mistakes such as the misreporting of Lilly’s height happen, letters that should never get sent are posted by mistake, and the damage is done.  I think the weight of individual children should be left to their parents and pediatricians and the children themselves.  Government buttinskys should butt out.