School Zones: A Meditation

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishment after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

No good route exists for my drive from my house to my university; my commute is a Groundhog Day of the Southernism “Can’t get there form here.”

To avoid the daily morning ritual of accidents on the interstate I could use to make that drive quicker, I tend to snake my way along back roads, and on that journey, I typically pass through two school zones—a high school near my house and then an elementary school closer to the university.

Both school zones bring traffic to a crawl, and then often, to a stop as crossing guards shepherd teens and children across the road to their schools.

These crossing guards are armed only with day-glo vests and matching wands to protect students from 4000-pound automobiles and the increasing reality that drivers are distracted by their smart phones.

The paradox of this cavalier optimism, this nod to the greater decency of people confronted with the frailty of children, is that schools have increasingly become more and more prison-like—police in the hallways, doors locked, intercoms to screen any who try to enter the building, and discipline codes and practices that parallel and even intertwine with law enforcement.

School zones and barricaded schools contrast sharply, however, with the broader disdain for and disregard for the conditions of children’s lives in the U.S. The largest group of people suffering in poverty are children, and this reality is far worse in the U.S. than many other countries.

And despite efforts to control students as well as protect them from the gun violence that the U.S. views as normal beyond the walls of schools, the U.S. also has more school shootings than almost four dozen other countries combined.

Our daily behaviors also reveal that too often our care for our own children, and children who look like us, exposes our disregard for “other people’s children”—in the cruel tolerance for corporal punishment as somehow just parenting and the rush to punishment in grade retention that negatively impacts poor children of color.

In our caustic and calloused political debates about healthcare, school choice, public monuments, and more, the absent voice is always that of children, and they are also rendered invisible as if our policies are not ultimately the world in which these children live.

No child chooses their parents or their places of their birth and living.

It may seem cliche, but there is no doubt that a people should be judged by how they treat their children.

The U.S. is the wealthiest and most powerful country in history. How we spend public funds and the laws as well as policies we implement are who we are.

Crossing guards in day-glo vests raise their orange wands to oncoming traffic all across the U.S. throughout the academic year, and drivers stop their cars while children laugh and even skip across the road to their schools.

It is in those moments mornings and afternoons that who we could be passes right by us.

Who we are remains in the tragedy of Tamir Rice, mostly ignored, mostly forgotten. Just a child who may himself have been shepherded across a road by a crossing guard in a school zone.

Who we are remains to be a truly negligent people unable to put grand ideals into our daily behavior, driven by a nastiness and callousness that in the future will be an ugly monument that tells a story of how we failed despite all the opportunities before us for being good and kind.

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