A childhood friend of mine runs one of those online newspapery things that serves as a watchdog for the rural community in which we both grew up. He keeps track of what the school board is up to, exposes the occasional corruption of the sheriff, and keeps tabs on the machinery of local governance that most folks are simply too busy to think about, let alone partake in.
He also posts links to global happenings that give him a chance to share his libertarian views regarding how government has inserted itself into aspects of our life where it simply does not belong. One of these areas is education and all its trappings, and his website recently featured a link to an article about how police were called into a school in Texas to deal with a sixth-grader who had allegedly sprayed too much perfume on herself and disrupted the class.
We agreed that this was a petty reason to call the cops, but differed in our view of whether or not law enforcement should be called into a public school. In his view, this is just another example of the police state he fears we are headed toward, while I suggested that crazy things happen, and sometimes calling the cops might be the best option. We differed further in regard to the root causes of the kinds of problems that might require the involvement of law enforcement. I view generational poverty as the main culprit, while he thinks that a lack of "personal accountability" is at fault.
As it happens, mere hours after our online debate, the state police were called to my school due to the disorderly conduct of one of my students—a 10-year-old boy who'd flipped out and attacked a classmate, then repeatedly punched and kicked the teachers who tried to break it up.
How did this happen? How did a child end up so frustrated that he lost control of himself and attacked teachers?
We can start with the basics, namely his breakfast: Froot Loops, sweet muffins and milk, provided courtesy of the US government—a nice gesture, as 100 percent of the students in my district qualify for free lunch, and breakfast is now thrown in for good measure. It makes sense: Provide poor students with nutritious breakfasts, and they'll be more likely to learn and succeed in school. On paper, at least, this breakfast qualifies as nutritious; after all, the items on the menu are "enriched" with vitamins, and the milk is low-fat. But it doesn't take a degree in nuclear physics to figure out that a morning meal loaded with sugar and other empty carbs is bound to cause some mood swings.
After breakfast in the cafeteria, my student went into his regular classroom—a classroom that has had four different teachers so far this year; a classroom that lacks structure and organization; a classroom where students repeatedly cuss and throw things at their teacher with impunity; a classroom hard-wired to bring out the very worst in a student with ADHD, a behavioral disorder and sensory issues that make it difficult for him to deal with too much noise or yelling, especially when coming down from the multicolored high of a Froot Loop breakfast.
Of course, my student brought some of his own family baggage into that classroom—baggage laden with things like foster care, heroin overdoses, abandonment, CYFD, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, premature death and chronic abuse, while utterly lacking in things like fatherhood, nurturing, stability, positive role models or sobriety. Suffice to say that this kid has gotten a raw deal out of life, almost entirely due to the poor choices made by the adults who were supposed to be taking care of him.
So one day, the kid loses control and boils over. This has happened before, many times, but I've always been able to rush to the scene and help defuse the situation, cajoling or outright manhandling him into my room for a cooldown and some deep breathing or maybe just a game of Monopoly. But this time, I wasn't there.
Despite the fact that some of my students have disabilities that make them threats to themselves and others, tight budgets and staffing shortages mean that my days are split between separate schools many miles apart, which makes it impossible for me (a special ed. teacher) to give my students the full support they need, especially during a spur-of-the-moment disaster like this one.
Flying fists, chairs thrown about and tears of rage make teachers—well-meaning, but obese and utterly unable to control the situation—panic and call the cops. They arrive, round up this dangerous kid and haul him away. He is full of fear. He's afraid of being taken from his frail grandmother and returned to foster care or abandoned altogether; he's afraid of dying like his mother and older sibling. And now, thanks to the fact that he's only in elementary school and already sitting in a police car, even if it is just for a ride home, he's afraid of ending up in prison just like the father he's never met.
I explained all this to my libertarian friend, who thanked me for my valiant work "in the trenches," but suggested that, while my efforts might help this one student, they wouldn't solve the problems that existed before this kid came into the world—problems that seem to be getting worse rather than better.
How do we change aspects of our society that are fundamentally broken? That was his final question to me, and I have no realistic answer. Quit exporting decent jobs? Quit subsidizing the 1 percent? Stop the war on the poor? Make education funding a priority? The cynic in me says that none of that "social accountability" is going to happen anytime soon, and neither is the "personal accountability" that tough-love Libertarians demand from families mired in grinding generational poverty and addiction.
Which leaves us with my student. Thanks to his federally mandated Froot Loops, he'll get breakfast each morning while his family scrapes by on Walmart wages and payday loans. Thanks to federal safety laws, he'll ride securely in an $80,000 school bus that will drop him off at an understaffed and failing school. Thanks to federal law enforcement funding, he rode in a cop car that delivered him to a home where the adults in his life continue to make horrendous decisions that doom him and his children to repeat the cycles of poverty and abuse.
There is no solution. There never will be. That’s why I’m “in the trenches.”
Joe Teacher is a New Mexico educator who works at a public school somewhere north of Socorro. He writes the monthly Joe Teacher blog at SFReporter.com.