The Real Killer of Schoolkids: Schools

Schools teach everything – albeit not always well – but they don’t teach the most basic skill of all, a skill that has the capacity to save the world. Schools don’t teach kindness.

They’re making a dent by tagging bullies and troubled youngsters. It’s a start. But I know the way classrooms were run in the 1950s when I was a kid, and I imagine they’re not much better today, perhaps worse because class sizes are larger, and random acts of unkindness harder to detect and treat.

How to be kind is easily imparted, easily learned. For me it only required one lesson. It was delivered by a fellow fourth grader, Buddy Bridgers, red-headed, smart and aware.

It was recess, we were all hell-bent on four-square, that game with painted quadrants, a large ball, and a line of kids waiting to start in the first quad where you either washed out or worked your way up the chain. At #2, 3 and 4, you held on for dear life.

 A big kid – not yet fat but hefty, with a bristle of black hair – entered the start-up square, myself in #4 and holding pat. I was a good athlete. Also smart, like Buddy. But hardly aware. Buddy held #3 when I and #2 began to razz the big kid in a not-nice way. Who knows where viciousness comes from, but suddenly #2 and I blasted #1’s volleys back with cries of rage suggesting that, after we vanquished him, we’d tie him up and roast him on a spit.

When the bell rang to return to class, Buddy followed me to a water fountain. As I drank, he said quietly, “The way you treated [big guy] was very wrong. You really hurt his feelings. I didn’t know you could be so mean. I hope you’ll apologize to him.”

I was stricken with guilt. I sought out the kid whom I’d inexplicably turned into a scapegoat. I told him how sorry I was. (He brushed me off, by the way. People of all ages are awkward with apologies, which may explain why all of us are so reluctant to offer them, but that’s another story.)

When Buddy scolded me, I was not, in fact, a bad person. My fault was that I was nine years old, simply plainly clueless about the concept of kindness itself, about what it entailed, about how it must be cultivated as a deliberate act. It isn’t difficult to be kind once you recognize the need for it when it arises.

 A few years later, in the penitentiary of the psyche called junior high school, I myself was the victim of ignorant cruelty. My family touched down briefly in a downtrodden section of Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley. In science class, a gangster girl who sat behind me (think of an infinitely less adorable Stockard Channing in "Grease") patted a length of masking tape along the back of my sweater.

When I pulled it off, I read, “I need a bra.”

For the record, I needed a bra the way Gloria Steinem’s fish needed a bicycle. At that age my chest size measured 32 quadruple A. But in the insane CC&Rs for cool teen-dom at the time, a savvy chick sported a trainer bra so that something in the nature of a grownup brassiere showed through her clothes.

Embarrassed, indignant, foolish, I marched up to the teacher, and handed him the tape. He called greaser girl up to excoriate her (excoriation, by the way, does not teach kindness, quite the reverse; it teaches hostility, just what a bully requires no further need of).

Later, back in our seats, my new nemesis handed me a note: “After skool [sic], meet me behind the fiz [sic] ed bilding [sic]. Me and my frens [sic] are gonna beat you up till you die!”

For the rest of my thankfully brief time at Van Nuys Junior High School, when the bell rang at three o’clock, I fled home. I told no one. Some mornings I woke up  nauseous and my parents permitted me to skip school. My grades deteriorated, I was repeatedly grounded, I did drugs and, although I eventually went off to college, I spent four years engrossed in other activities – theater training, some acting work, marriage, divorce, a year in Europe – none of which I regret.

A close friend whom we’ll call Sheila had it worse. For three years in junior high, also in the Valley. For no fathomable reason other than that her father was a diplomat, they’d lived in Europe, so Sheila was quite simply different, she became the class pariah. Food and trash and names were hurled at her. At home she wept in her room, in the bathroom, over her homework. Her parents sent her to a psychiatrist. Looking back, who was in need of the shrink? How about the bullies, the rest of the student body enablers. the teachers, the principal?

Sheila’s parents, fortunately, had the money to send her to a good private school. Not “good” in the preppy sense, but good in that the classes were small, the teachers were both interesting and interested. For example, one day the kids read "Bartleby the Scrivener," by Herman Melville, about the clerk in a lawyer’s office who performs less and less of his tedious copying work, always declining with the words, “I would prefer not to.”

When the teacher asked the class to discuss the story, the kids replied in cheerful unison, “We would prefer not to!” whereupon everybody, teacher included, laughed long and hard.

Sheila has stayed friends with all her classmates from that private school. She attended college in Colorado, and earned a master’s degree in social work. She has never had difficulty landing well-paying jobs. She’s funny and smart and creative, and she makes friends easily.

A happy ending?

Not particularly. Sheila has never found contentment or any kind of sanctuary with any of these jobs. Her love life is a continuous mess, and she has no idea of how badly she chooses her partners, nor of how each period of post-fling mourning is always masochistic and prolonged.

We all have broken parts. Some of them come from genetics, some from faulty parenting, but perhaps for many of us, the unkindest cut of all stems from cruelties dealt at school.

These wounds make nut cases of us all. For the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, his broken parts kicked in at the worst and highest point on the spectrum; something in him held the germ of a criminally insane killer. He snapped and returned to the symbolic scene of his own abuse.

But what about the rest of us who are all nutcases, some larger, some smaller, all in different ways? How much of our nutcase-ness comes from schoolyard violence, verbal or physical, that no one corrected? And within the chain-linked perimeter of the schoolyard, we were obliged to return day after day for fresh doses of it

All that any single youngster requires to get straightened out is a Buddy Bridgers at the water fountain, speaking words of wisdom soft and low. But, allowing for the scarcity of Buddys in the world, what if all teachers were indoctrinated in kindness to the point that they teach it all the live-long day, in lectures, in judicious interventions between feuding kids, in gentle insights shared with one lone, frightened, hurt child?

By all means, let us take action, sign petitions, and bug our elected officials to reduce gun ownership. But the root problem is far deeper, and yet, once accepted, so much easier to cure.

Perhaps we should keep our children home from school until a plan is put into place to make kindness the top job of education, with instruction in reading, writing and ‘rithmetic a quaint after-thought?

Editor's note: Holly Nadler is a columnist for Martha's Vineyard Patch and for the Vineyard Gazette. Her writing credits include the hit TV shows "Laverne and Shirley," and "Barney Miller." She also has published four books including "Ghosts of Boston Town," "Vineyard Confidential," "Haunted Island" and "Vineyard Supernatural."

Annie Bradshaw December 21, 2012 at 12:56 PM
Wow, by the amount of feed back, I'd say the heading of this blog got people's attention Holly! It's been painful to watch politicians and the media throw the blame on guns. More gun control is not the answer....it is much more complicated. Our country is socially f*#ked up. You can see where Mental Illness stands by counting the homeless in any and all major cities. The majority of these people are mentally I'll. Our kids have become a desensitized generation. It's not the teachers fault.....disipline has been removed from the classroom by parents who think little Johnny should be treated respectfully even at the cost of another child's hell. Our entire society needs an overhaul.
David Whitmon December 21, 2012 at 01:14 PM
During the time that my children were at the Oak Bluffs School, before I pulled them out for their own well being, I came to the conclusion that it was nothing more than assembly line education. So what if they screw up a kid or two every year or so. So what if another child left to fall through the cracks. It's OK. It's OK because we (society) just keep mindlessly feeding our children into the grinder, year after year after year. That school failed both of my kids. Period. No Ifs, No Ands, No Buts. My Youngest who is autistic started at the high school this year. Technically she is a Senior. I had pulled her out of Oak Bluffs and the MVPSS after 3rd grade and this is her first time back in the school system since. I have nothing but praise for the special ed department at the high school. I find it amazing how two schools, Oak Bluffs and the Regional, both under the same school system could be so different. One harmful and indifferent, the other nurturing and dynamic. My failure was to let the former cloud my view of the latter, paint the whole system with a broad brush. I've been told that there have been dramatic positive changes at the Oak Bluffs School. It's about time.
Chet December 21, 2012 at 04:33 PM
Fuzzy math ed. I, and all the people I know in the private sector, are also Exempt employees. We are frequently required to work nights and weekends for no additional pay or appreciation for that matter. We also get 9 holidays per year. I have family, friends, and neighbors who are teachers. I know their routines well and I submit they are no more overworked or underpaid than I am or any of the non-teachers I know. Also, I drop my kids off at school every day at exactly the same time the teachers are arriving, i.e., ten to 15 minutes before opening bell. (It sounds like your spouse is different, which I applaud.) Your spouse, my family members, and my neighbors all chose to be teachers. Just like me and my private sector colleagues, they are free to seek work elsewhere if they are unhappy with their pay or schedule.
Holly Nadler December 21, 2012 at 08:26 PM
Jen, are you sure you wouldn't like to take one last opportunity to call me rude and insensitive?
Holly Nadler December 21, 2012 at 08:32 PM
Jeez, by the amount of abuse I've taken in the above commentary, you'd think I'd proposed testing biohazardous waste in every playground. All I've proposed is introducing greater amounts -- great whacking amounts, in fact -- of kindness into the educational syllabus. Why is this pissing ANYBODY off?
Brian Weiland December 22, 2012 at 01:04 PM
Don’t play the martyr, you got exactly the response you were hoping for, and I for one regret rising to your bait, but I will respond one last time, because you still are completely missing the point. The idea of teaching kindness is not what pissed me or anyone else off. I was offended by the way you squarely blamed teachers for nurturing cruelty, either by design or by neglect. Do you honestly think that you are the first person in or outside of the school system to wrestle with the frustration of how to keep kids safe from physical and emotional harm, whether from peers, adults, or themselves? I took exception to not just your headline, but to the tone and content of your entire article because you never bothered to find out that the schools on Martha’s Vineyard DO teach kindness, and not just in the way that all good nurturing teachers do, but as a deliberate part of the curriculum. The Oak Bluffs School pioneered a program on the island called the Responsive Classroom, now employed to varying degrees throughout the island, whose first guiding principal is that “The social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum,” and whose main textbook is literally called “Teaching Children to Care.” This, along with amazing, dedicated, highly-skilled and hardworking teachers, is why even detractors note dramatic positive changes. If you really want an informed dialog with teachers, try not insulting them first, even if it does increase your readership.
Holly Nadler December 22, 2012 at 01:44 PM
Hullo, Brian. Something has pushed a button that has made you unnecessarily critical and, dare I say it?, unkind to me personally, something that the content of this essay (were you to actually read it: there, do I sound like a teacher myself?) could not possibly offend you so much. I hope you have some helpful ways to deal with your anger issues.
Holly Nadler December 22, 2012 at 01:50 PM
Another thing, Brian, you might find, again, were you to actually read my article, that I'm talking about the general culture of American schools, not the more ideal child-rearing environments in place on the island (w/ some exceptions, and I direct your attention to other commentary above). Also, not once do I say it's teachers who are cruel, although I'm sure cases can be made for that, and have been made, only that teachers are unable to prevent or treat the natural cruelty of children (see Lord of The Rings for more about that). However, by the tone of your multiple screeds, I have to admit I'd hate to be a kid in your class performing an erroneous f-sharp on his clarinet.
Brian Weiland December 22, 2012 at 03:02 PM
Sigh... If you can misunderstand me so completely that you feel that my obviously defensive responses are cruel, then I should allow that I have misunderstood you. You are obviously a passionate and kind person who cares deeply this issue for reasons both personal and global. Yes, protecting children from physical and emotional harm is or should be the first goal of our society and schools, even before whatever else we as a society have decided should be taught and tested. No, I don’t believe that you hate teachers in general, or me in particular (though I may have gone a long way towards that with my blunt posts!) I have reacted perhaps too defensively, and my tone has certainly not exemplified the ideal we are both talking about, and for that I apologize. I tire of schools and teachers being continual scapegoats, and your article was, for me, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. If even a school massacre inspires yet another article describing what is wrong with schools, you can perhaps understand why teachers might feel that their efforts are unappreciated?
Brian Weiland December 22, 2012 at 03:04 PM
Though I am very proud of the efforts of my colleagues around this issue, I recognize that we’re not perfect, and that I have no knowledge of how this issue is handled nationwide. As with everything else in education, improvement is our continual goal, and I recognize that this was the main point of your article. Though I still don’t like anything about your title, and I wish you’d asked some schoolteachers what they are doing around this issue before you wrote your article, I again apologize for my unkind tone, and for any moments when my reactions became personally insulting.
Holly Nadler December 22, 2012 at 03:33 PM
Brian, you have no idea how relieved I am to read your gentler, reasoned responses. It literally does my heart good. Thank you so much and I too am heartily sorry for any hurt I may have caused you. Blessings to you and your family . . .
Philip Tucker December 23, 2012 at 02:35 PM
Clearly you just skimmed the article- Holly did not "blame" the teachers, nor suggest that Ms Soto or the children "deserved" it. She simply pointed out that more awareness is needed in teachers; if they're aware of unkindness, they can address it. I grew up in Vineyard Haven, and was reasonably popular until 3rd grade, when one bully inexplicably chose me to be the class scapegoat. I was tormented until 10th grade by pretty much all of the other students, when I left the high school for the Alternative School. Just as inexplicably, I was popular again- and I was just being myself, as always. If teachers had paid attention in elementary school, my life would have been very different. I missed more school than I can say- I would hide in the attic until the house was empty to avoid another day of misery. My teachers at the Alternative School saved my life... Thanks, Clarissa Allen, Jennifer Lander, Dick Miller, and Russell Saucier. Awareness is the key!
Philip Tucker December 23, 2012 at 02:38 PM
Your article was very well written; I can only assume people are feeling defensive. Anyone who read the article through would see that it is not intended to be insulting. I always enjoy your writing- don't bow down to bullying!
Philip Tucker December 23, 2012 at 02:45 PM
@Brian- You are clearly reading what you want to see into this article. I've reread it several times, looking for what you see, and it just isn't there. People can always find a way to take offense if they are determined enough. I see nothing that badmouths teachers in any way, just a suggestion that teaching MORE kindness would be a good idea. Of course there are amazing teachers who already do it- it would just be great if there were more of them. I have nothing but respect for teachers- it is a very hard job, and often thankless.
Philip Tucker December 23, 2012 at 02:54 PM
Jen- you should read the article without preconceived ideas as to what it's about. The clear suggestion is that other kids are the problem; and possibly more awareness of situations by teachers would help. When I was in elementary school (Tisbury School) it certainly felt like a concentration camp. I know teachers were aware of how extensively I was bullied, but it was never, ever addressed. I had the good fortune to go to a different high school, for which I am forever grateful. NOBODY is saying that teachers are bad! Just that some could be more aware. I know you, and am confident that you are one of the best.
Philip Tucker December 23, 2012 at 03:01 PM
Wait- you're accusing Holly of playing the martyr? Reread your responses. And it's great that the OB School has initiated these programs! Now, if we could only get all the other schools onboard! I'm not pointing fingers at Island schools- I mean schools everywhere. My opinion is that the biggest culprit in these huge school attacks is mainstream media. These troubled kids see the opportunity to be famous. Look how notorious they have each become.
Holly Nadler December 23, 2012 at 03:52 PM
I meant LORD OF THE FLIES (rather than Lord of the Rings) as an example of kids' cruelty. What a difference!
Holly Nadler December 23, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Phillip Tucker, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and for sharing your own experiences. You turned out a really cool individual, and it's long been known in creative circles that childhood dramas, melodramas and even psychodramas can achieve a real alchemy of Art. Still, there is no reason in the world that a defenseless child should be made to suffer while all the adults in the vicinity turn a blind eye. And Philip, I'm grateful to you for pointing out that if the detractors of this essay would actually READ it, they would see that what they're objecting to is not there.
Gail Gardner December 23, 2012 at 05:14 PM
I am truly disheartened by so many posts - here and many other sites online that are beyond insulting and degrading of teachers. We do teach kindness. And empathy and compassion. And for those who have questioned it - we do work long hours. I will admit that I get to work around 8 am. My kids come to school with me and as a single parent, I have no choice but to arrive when they need to be there. As they already spend MANY extra hours at school because I stay after school every day, making them come in at 6 am does not seem appropriate to me, as their parent. But, as I said, I stay after school most days. I eat lunch at my desk many days so that children can come to my room to work on projects that they have not yet completed for other teachers or because they do not have computers or printers at home. If students need to come in early to work, I will come in early on the days that I can (and I do!). Students know they can contact me via email or phone during my "off" hours for help with projects - for other classes usually, not mine. I am generally up until 12 or 1 in the morning each night planning, correcting, or creating my state mandated portfolio to justify my existence as a teacher in the school system. While the State of MA clearly defines what teachers should teach, I agree that kindness is important. Perhaps some here didn't learn that lesson, including Ms. Nadler. Yours is truly a callous headline, especially in this difficult time.
Holly Nadler December 23, 2012 at 05:17 PM
I'm inserting this aperçue as close to the top of the commentary as I can get it, just to demonstrate that other people are re-thinking what we put our kids through. This is the subtitle of an article by A.A. Gill in the December Vanity Fair (he's a Manhattan dad, just to give you an idea of where he's coming from): "The biggest problem kids face is the byzantine education-industrial complex known as school, which ruins the most carefree and memorable years of their lives." He does not for a moment blame teachers. Basically I believe this new millennium is calling upon us to re-think everything.
Holly Nadler December 23, 2012 at 05:26 PM
Gail, I admit, mea culpa, the title was provocative, but, as you might see, if you go back and read the essay over again, no where do I say you're not working long enough hours or being the most upstanding teacher, citizen and mom in the world. That's it! I'm giving all the teachers above who thought this was about them an F in reading!
Gail Gardner December 23, 2012 at 07:32 PM
Thank you, Holly. I was noting the posts below your article which indicate otherwise. I did not say that you said any such things about our work ethic.
David Whitmon December 23, 2012 at 09:12 PM
An F! That seems rather overly generous Holly.
Gail Gardner December 23, 2012 at 09:35 PM
"Jeez, by the amount of abuse I've taken in the above commentary, you'd think I'd proposed testing biohazardous waste in every playground. All I've proposed is introducing greater amounts -- great whacking amounts, in fact -- of kindness into the educational syllabus. Why is this pissing ANYBODY off?" - Number one: We teach it to the best of our abilities. Number two: It is not in the State frameworks for any class, to my knowledge though every teacher I know would like it to be and C) It is not MCAS tested and therefore not a priority of the government and politicians who control what we teach. Two - this would be one of the posts to which I referred in my comment. "Please stop with the overworked and underpaid mantra. Enjoy your summers off, every holiday ever imagined, multiple week long, sometimes two-week long vacations during your 180 day work year, half days galore, and seemingly endless sick time." I never said Holly said we don't have work ethic. I commented on POSTS on this site and others. I voiced displeasure at her headline and the offensiveness of it to teachers, schools, administration and the general public during this sensitive time. I don't accept my F, from Ms. Nadler or David Whitmon.
Holly Nadler December 24, 2012 at 12:26 AM
Oy vey.
Brian Weiland December 24, 2012 at 02:12 AM
While we’re gleefully handing out F’s (and worse), can I offer a little more perspective, if I promise not to be so strident? The reason virtually every teacher who has responded to this article has had the same defensive reaction - sure, call it an over-reaction if you like - is that teachers feel personally responsible for the schools they work in, to the degree that teachers basically do not make a distinction between how their school is doing and how they are doing. If a student fails, the teacher immediately wonders what he or she did wrong to not give the child whatever he or she needed to succeed. Similarly, a condemnation of our school IS a condemnation of us, and not of the building, or the students, or the custodians, or the institution. Teachers are acutely aware that THEY are held accountable for the success or failure of their school at every level. Therefore, from a teacher’s perspective, the title is not just provocative, it is deeply insulting, personally hurtful, and given the recent tragedy, in incredibly poor taste. I am taking Holly’s word for it that this is not what she meant and have publicly apologized to her for my assumption and resultant over-reaction, but please understand that I (and, I’ll bet, every other teacher who read this) did not just read the title and angrily skim the article as we have been repeatedly accused, we very carefully read the article IN CONTEXT OF the title. It really does make all the difference.
Brian Weiland December 24, 2012 at 02:12 AM
Blessings to you and your family as well, Holly, and also to yours David. I think that if more parents were as wonderful as you are with your daughters, that would also go a long way toward solving the issues we are all so worried about.
David Whitmon December 24, 2012 at 04:17 AM
After I had pulled both of my children out of the Oak Bluffs school, my eldest started in the Charter School the following year. My youngest child I home schooled for three years afterwards. I really couldn't afford to home school my child but much more importantly, I could not afford to leave her in that school. The following Summer after I had removed my children from that place, we were riding home one evening from town on our bicycle built for three. We had taken a dirt path from South Circuit Ave that brought us out on to the back parking lot of the Oak Bluffs School. As we rode by that building my youngest child, who is significantly autistic, she yelled out at that building with perfect diction and clarity, "YOU WERE A LIVING HELL!"
Holly Nadler December 24, 2012 at 01:30 PM
Brian & Gail & other teachers who've weighed in above, believe it or not, I'm on your side. If I had it to do over again, I would have written this article to make this more clear. I know teachers' biggest complaint is having to teach to the tests rather than spend more creative and personal time with their students. This 100 year-old idea of public education for all our kids has had its trial run, its enormous government stamp, and now it's time to re-think it in every which way; a process teachers, I'm sure, would gladly get behind. You guys are heros the way fire fighters are heros. Let's see what new directions lie ahead of us. We're all in this together.
Cynthia Mascott June 02, 2013 at 06:24 PM
Actually I am Sheila, down to reading Bartelby in High School. I have had many successes. I had wonderful boyfriends when I was younger. I have received awards and bonuses at various jobs. I have encountered some burn out the older I get but I have helped hundred (thousands) of poor physically or mentally souls over the years.


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