Over the weekend, a number of seniors at my high school were arrested for vandalism. The actual charge was something along the lines of damage to government property, which is a felony. Sunday night, I get word that a number of students I know (and care for a great deal–“love” is a tricky word to throw around about teenagers, but I would definitely help them move, if that’s a fair indication of how much I care) have been charged with a felony.
I’m not a busybody. I didn’t spend the school day tracking down names and getting everyone’s stories; I had classes to teach. I was scared to talk to the kids in my class that were involved (more on that later). I have very little knowledge of what went on that night, outside of a list of kids arrested. The closest thing to the truth I can deduce is that a chunk of kids were embracing their assumed duty to spray paint the intersection at our school’s entrance. Some shadier elements of the group spread out, covering school building walls, walkways, and vehicles with their creative, inspiring message that, yes, they are “seniors,” and it is indeed “2012.”
I don’t remember my senior prank. I wasn’t involved, because I hated high school. Senior pranks are for those with a modicum of school spirit and pride, an opportunity to show one’s devotion by orchestrating a creative upending of normality or instilling some chaos into an otherwise ho-hum day of school. School pranks are supposed to be thousands of forks in the football field, synchronized alarm clocks, greased pigs in the hallways. You’ve got to love a place to go through that kind of effort to make light of it.
I hated high school, but I love my job. I never considered myself a Patriot, or an Indian, or even an Owl (hoo!), but I very much consider myself a Raider. And I didn’t see this as a prank. I saw it as a selfish and idiotic attack on a place I consider home. It’s one of the reasons this is so confusing; the kids in trouble for this are good kids who have demonstrated an enormous sense of school pride since I’ve known them. They run student government, make homecoming court, travel great distances to see their football team compete. Their actions were devoid of any creativity or substantial statement other than “Look at me! I can destroy things. Did I mention what year it is? 2012!”
Furthermore, it makes me feel like a failure. Of the students listed, I taught six of them as freshmen. I read To Kill a Mockingbird to them. They compiled books of meaningful passages from the novel. Nearly every single kid used Atticus’s powerful advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” They wrote about what those words meant to them. I know it’s been a while since they heard those words, but I thought I had done my part to demonstrate that ideal as much as possible. I’ve spent the next three years watching these kids grow up, talking to them in the halls, recruiting them on to my yearbook staff because I valued their talents and trusted their character. Again, I certainly haven’t a clue as to what exactly went on that night, but just their presence at such an ugly display of arrogant foolishness makes me doubt my effectiveness as a role model for young adults. Naively, I thought I had made more of a difference.
It’s tempting to chalk this up as a boys-will-be-boys scenario (though many of the culprits were girls). Also, I can certainly dig up the research about how an 18 year-old’s frontal lobe, the area of the brain that determines judgment, is nowhere near fully developed, making it almost physiologically impossible for these kids to make a prudent decision. I can also mention a number of students turned themselves in to the police, possibly the only noble act possible in that situation.
I’m certainly torn between defending these kids (because I do know they are sincerely decent human beings) and very much wanting them to learn a lesson about what happens when you destroy someone else’s property for no good reason and disrespect a place that I and many others hold dear.
As a teacher, I have to be a source of authority and discipline. I have to say “Take your hat off,” “Put your phone away,” “Don’t throw things.” I don’t really care about their hats or their phones, but my paycheck demands I enforce a few rules. But I’m really struggling with what my role is in this situation. I’d be happy to lecture them (I clearly have opinions on the matter), but only if they wanted that. It might sound crazy–who wants to be lectured?–but I think we all do sometimes, at those moments when it seems like we’ve lost control over what we’re doing.
What I want to do more than anything is listen to them. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around their motivations. I’m having trouble looking at them in my classroom, wondering exactly how they’re processing this experience. And I’m sure not many adults are bothering to hear their side of the story (again, more Atticus Finch).
I’m also frightened to talk to them about it, though. I’m worried they’re not learning any lessons at all or, worse, that they’re learning the wrong lessons. If they’re not convinced of the severity of the situation, they’ll forever look at authority figures as forces of overreaction and unjust punishment. I can also see how they could find comfort in sharing the experience with friends then claim they’re learning the value of solidarity (“we’re in this together, y’all!”), instead of the much more valuable lesson that society will judge you based on who you’re with, whether that’s unfair or not.
They get to graduate in May. They get to move on and eventually laugh about this. Maybe it turns into a English 1101 essay about how they learned an important life lesson.
But I have to stick around. I get a fresh batch of seniors, already convinced that vandalism is a prank, already thinking of ways to top this year. I also have to walk into the building past the faint outline of illegible graffiti, an ugly reminder that the only school I’ve ever felt truly proud to be a part of maybe isn’t as great as I thought it was. They get to move on, but I don’t think I can ever look at any student the same way again.