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Mixed Messages In Schools

Updated on February 7, 2013

Today's students have a lot to contend with: competitive angst over getting into certain schools, over-programmed schedules bursting with planned activities, and of course, bullying and the threats of violence in the schoolyard.

There's no denying that reports of bullying have increased dramatically in recent years. In some cases, bullying has escalated into violent crimes. Playful hazing of the past has evolved into dangerous and sometimes even sick acts of humiliation or severe injury, even death. It's a real issue that requires real attention and action.

This is not a real gun.  CCL C
This is not a real gun. CCL C | Source

Safety Concerns

The Columbine tragedy and other school shootings have put safety foremost in the minds of school administrators, parents and students. Consequently, there's a strong trend in schools today to disallow and even punish any reference whatsoever to weapons. Discourse on any positive value of guns is discouraged, because that might run at odds with the popular "guns are bad" theme. This stance must present a challenge for history teachers when presenting information on the American Revolution and, well, most all of history. Luckily for them, school is not typically in session on July 4th, freeing teachers from explaining to children how we came to celebrate that day.

Students are also bombarded with other concerns. One is safety at all costs. Many playgrounds are now void of jungle gyms, and the game of tag has been outlawed in many districts. Some schools have gone so far as to ban running at lunch or recess, for fear that Johnny might fall and skin his knee, or that Jane will feel outperformed when another student runs faster than her.

While today's plastic playgrounds in cushy flooring do offer some improvement over yesteryear's collection of metal climbers set in hard asphalt, there are valid arguments that helicopter parents and administrators fearful of lawsuits are robbing today's little snowflakes of learning how to judge and deal with risk.

Which is the greater threat: riding an old-fashioned merry-go-round, or never learning how to deal with risk in childhood? CCL D
Which is the greater threat: riding an old-fashioned merry-go-round, or never learning how to deal with risk in childhood? CCL D | Source

In this effort to stem violence and promote safety, common sense seems to be the popular victim. Young children who bring brightly colored plastic guns to school, obviously toys in their fantastical space-ray gun shapes, get those confiscated in light of a zero-tolerance policy, and the kids end up getting slapped with suspension or even expulsion. Students have been arrested for simply drawing pictures of guns, or, having been relieved of their molded plastic six-shooters, for making a gun shape with their hands and yelling, "Bang, bang!" Parents file lawsuits when their gangly bookworm child trips over his own shoelaces at recess, claiming that the school was at fault for not protecting their child from such a hazard.

It seems the ones having the most difficulty identifying personal responsibility and discerning real life from fantasy are the grown-ups.

Piracy is Bad…Except For When It's Good

Pirates are evil, and therefore bad...except when they're fun, and therefore Lic: MS
Pirates are evil, and therefore bad...except when they're fun, and therefore Lic: MS | Source

And everywhere, anti-piracy themes abound. Messages are constantly pounded in not to copy movies or music for fear of being arrested by the FBI. Rarely does the conversation revolve around selling copies vs. making backup copies for personal use. Meanwhile, students are encouraged to regularly borrow (not purchase) books from the library, and no legal entity seems to have a problem with that kind of file sharing.

Speaking of piracy, real modern-day pirates are indeed wreaking havoc in the Indian Ocean today. Current headlines read of Somali pirates boarding ships and taking owners hostage, sometimes killing them, and stealing the boats and their cargo. It's a very serious matter. Meanwhile, schools across the nation hold special Pirate Days. Students are encouraged to dress like pirates, speak like pirates and basically celebrate everything pirate. There seems to be no recognition or acknowledgement that this flies in the face of all the other messages they're giving kids about how bad pirates and piracy are.

Taking all of that into consideration, is it any wonder students are perplexed at the number of mixed messages sent their way?

There's enough information for students to filter through without having to also try to make sense of mixed messages. CCL C
There's enough information for students to filter through without having to also try to make sense of mixed messages. CCL C | Source

In one particular school, students in a language arts class were instructed to write a story about pirates. But since weapons are forbidden at the school, there could be no mention of guns or swords or weaponry of any kind in the story. Presumably, no mention of violence would be allowed either, given the school's stance on bullying; however, no such directive was included in the writing guidelines.

How effective would these pirates be, these pirates who don't do anything? How would such a story look? Here's one proposal:

The Terrifying Threat of the Seas

Peg-Leg Pierre, the Beast of the Barbary Coast, shot off the sound of a cannon on his MP3 player, amplified by the very large, seaworthy speakers installed on his vessel, the Antagonizer. Malodorous Morgan, over on the nearby Menacing Marauder, knew that this signaled an impending attack. He quickly scrambled to defend his ship and onboard treasures. Lacking weapons of any kind, he pulled out a weathered sheet of paper and a freshly-inked quill, and began writing a strongly-worded letter, thereby being the first person to found principles that would be later used by the United Nations.

Morgan wrote fast and furious, but before he could complete his missive, the Antagonizer had come up alongside the Menacing Marauder and Peg-Leg Pierre had boarded the vessel. He leaped onto the deck (carefully, and while wearing a safety helmet and harness for protection, and only after capping the end of his wooden leg with a well-treaded rubber tip), catching Malodorous Morgan off-guard. Startled, Morgan fumbled and dropped his paper and quill, sending the ink bottle crashing to the ground, splashing glass and black India ink all over the freshly-swabbed deck. Crew mates rushed to the scene to mop up the spill, lest anyone slip and fall and file an OSHA report.

Heedless of the ink danger, Peg-Leg cried out, "Malodorous Morgan! Avast thar, ye swine! Ah'll be takin' that booty of yers! Aaaarrrrrgggghhhh!!" Morgan knew he meant business, due to the aggravated growl that appended his greeting.

"Not today, me bucko!" retorted Morgan. "Ye'll take not one doubloon from my chest!" Malodorous Morgan stood up straight and tall, bravely daring the brash buccaneer to defy him. He had worked hard for that plunder, recycling bottles and aluminum cans found floating in the sea, earning a respectable wage while supporting green living and helping to protect the environment.

"Scallywag! Ye'll hand it over, or be visiting Davy Jones' locker!! If ye likes underwater touring, that is. I'd not make you walk the plank, as I don't knows yer swimmin' skills, and a fall into that drink might result in your becoming shark bait."

Weaponless; therefore, he must not be a danger. Although that parrot has rather a sharp beak... Lic: MS
Weaponless; therefore, he must not be a danger. Although that parrot has rather a sharp beak... Lic: MS | Source

Malodorous Morgan considered the proposition of swimming with the fishes, and didn't like the prospect much. He had had just about enough of Peg-Leg Pierre's bullying, and was about to go tell on him to the Admiral of the Black, the famed organization of buccaneers. It was then that Morgan remembered he hadn't kept his pirate union dues current, which barred him from lodging a complaint. So, he cunningly took matters into his own hands.

"Ye'll not hornswaggle me, barnacle brain!" Morgan cried. "I knows the secret of the treasure, and ye don't. So there." In truth, the treasure held no secrets, but Peg-Leg didn't know this, and became infuriated by Morgan's needling.

"Then ye leaves me no choice but to use the cat o'nine tails on ye, scurvy dog!" threatened Peg-Leg. Saying this, he quickly reached into his large oilcloth overcoat and pulled out a plush stuffed animal, outfitted with nine tails. It was black. "Thar!! I threatens ye with the bad luck of the black cat o'nine tails!!"

Terror shot through the heart of Malodorous Morgan. Bad luck! How could he combat that? He froze in fear.

In the distance, a seagull cried.

"Ye gots me," Morgan resigned. "Ye've scuttled my crafty strategy, and I knows when I'm beat. The booty is yers."

Peg-Leg laughed loud and menacingly, hands on hips and head thrusted back to the skies. He then bent forward quietly, placing his face right up to Morgan's nose. Morgan could smell Peg-Leg's breath, which was pleasantly minty and fresh, since Peg-Leg conscientiously brushed after every meal. With eyes narrowed, Peg-Leg purred in a sinister voice, "Stealing would be wrong. Perhaps ye can teach me yer trade of recyclin'?"

"Ye drives a hard bargain, picaroon. But I yields to your request. Yer the better brigand; no dismissing that!"

"Nay! I'm no freebooter!" Peg-Leg angrily cried, and stood up straight and indignant. "I'll not be accused of ravaging your intellectual property! Why, that would be piracy! And if I'm anything, I'm anti-piracy. Legitimately-earned pieces of eight will be yours in exchange for your well-earned knowledge."

"Well, shiver me timbers!" the delighted Malodorous Morgan exclaimed. "You ran a rig on me (which is pirate parlance for playing a joke on someone, as I'm sure ye knows)! Well, then, as soon as we reach land, we'll form an LLC partnership and look into IPO prospects. In the meantime, let's celebrate! I'd bring out some grog for us to get three sheets to the wind together, but as this ship is a drug-free zone, there's no alcohol aboard. Luckily, I do have some soda pop that is richly laced with deadly high fructose corn syrup, which I hear is a sweet surprise for the tongue and is socially perfectly acceptable, and therefore not to be viewed as a weapon."

"Aye!" cheered Peg-Leg. "And we can talk all we like of pillaging, kidnapping, even murdering, as long as we do so without bespeaking of weapons!"

"Arrrrrgh!" agreed Malodorous Morgan.

"Arrrrrgh back!" cried Peg-Leg Pierre.

~ The End ~

Cognitive Dissonance

Did it seem odd for this article to begin with an overview of very serious topics, only to dive into a light-hearted humorous story? As this article began, the reader most likely had an expectation that this entire piece would keep a sober tone, addressing important issues of the day. The sudden transition to humor may have seemed not only out of place, but even rude, mocking the seriousness of the topics previously discussed, leaving the reader not knowing what to think of this piece overall. This is the very type of confusing disconnect regularly inflicted on children through mixed messages. And grown-ups run around wondering why their children seem to display signs of ADHD.

Perhaps schools should consider a curriculum including a class on Common Sense 101. First enrollees: school administrators.

© M.S. Ross - All Rights Reserved

- This Just In -

POSTSCRIPT: A few days after composing this article, but prior to publication, this news story was released. Its topic is exactly the same as one concern referred to in this hub; namely, that playgrounds are designed primarily with safety in mind--both the physical safety of children, and lawsuit safety for property owners and school or park administrators--over and above the consideration of what actually serves children best. Ironically, kids are indeed getting hurt in playgrounds today, but more often than not, it's precisely because children haven't previously been exposed to playground opportunities that held any real measure of risk. They're not getting hurt because the equipment is too dangerous; they're getting hurt because the equipment hasn't been risky enough.

Some parents are beginning to realize that failing to learn how to deal with risks, both physical challenges and mental "I think I can" challenges, at a young age renders children incapable of facing and overcoming obstacles as they grow up. Perhaps the next generation of children will be granted more leeway to discover, explore and skin a knee now and then.

UPDATE: Another news story, this from the Washington Post, has now come out, reporting that more schools are rethinking their zero-tolerance discipline stands, and reevaluating the criteria used to reprimand, suspend or expel students from school. Looks like that Common Sense 101 curriculum is starting to be rolled out after all.

- M.S.R.

Mixed Messages in Your Child's School

Some schools designate class time (30 minutes to three hours, several days a week) for students to play games or otherwise pass time in non-instructive activity; these same schools then send home several hours' worth of homework each day. The subtext here seems to be, it's okay to goof off when you're on the clock, so long as you make up for it in your own free time. How does that translate to a work ethic when kids grow up and begin their professional lives?

What mixed messages have you noticed coming from your child's school, and what steps have you taken to address them? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


Image Licenses:





MS: Used with permission from Microsoft


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