Sunday, May 13, 2007

Dehumanizing kids

Something about this column, about a man who gets assaulted by some high school kids, makes me angry. For one thing, he could be talking about kids from the school where I'm student teaching -- we're a high school near Columbus Circle where the kids leave the building en masse around noon for lunch.

There's something about the author's portrayal of the kids that makes me angry. I would never want to blame the victim, and I'm sure what happened to him was frightening. But his characterization of the kids -- even before the attack -- makes it sound like to him, they're already junior prison inmates. His reference to them "counting chin-ups on the crossbeams" makes it sound like that activity isn't something any teenage boy would do given the proper terrain, but rather some sort of foreshadowing to the prison yard.

The image that accompanies the column shows a bunch of students with no faces, just nondescript clothing and hoodies. I walk around that same area every day and have never seen anything resembling what he describes.

That this man feels this way is one thing, but that the NY Times publishes it is another. I find it particularly disturbing following a recent conversation with a student who wasn't feeling well. I asked if he thought he'd have to go home.
"It depends on if I feel like getting picked up by Truancy."


"Truancy -- the cops that pick you up if you're not in school."

"Do they take you back to school?"

"Well, if they don't like your attitude they'll take you to the precinct and your parent will have to come get you."
I couldn't believe it when he said they take kids to the precinct for not being in school. To me this seems very, very wrong. Yes, truancy is a problem, but is the answer to give kids practice in what it feels like to be arrested? To treat them like criminals?

Meanwhile, the adults all around them treat them like they don't belong in the same vicinity as the Time Warner Center. The author of this column is so afraid he fantasizes about buying a switchblade and "gutting" the teenagers who messed with him. How could you have such a thought about a group of kids unless you barely thought they were human?


mrc said...

Any kid who shoves another kid into a passer-by on the street or sucker-punches someone for telling them to pay attention to how their actions affect others is not worthy of your defense here. The stuff that went on inside the guy's head after being attacked -- and keep in mind that he was attacked by these kids -- sounds pretty normal to me. Just like doing chin-ups is normal for teenage boys.

The author's choice at the end of the story to avoid further conflict demonstrates that he knows what it means to be an adult and to be a member of civil society in a way that these teenagers clearly do not. Unfortunately, they won't pick it up by cutting school. The reason adults treat kids like they don't belong in the area is because they don't. They ought to be in their seats in your (or my) classroom.

julie said...

I agree -- the kids' actions are indefensible. What I'm taking issue with here is the way this writer chose to portray the teens, the way the NY Times' design department chose to illustrate the column, and the way people in general tend to treat teenagers (as if they are criminals-in-training).