My Town

By Mark Pitsch — January 01, 1996 21 min read
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The twilight hours of this past july 6 mark a turning point in 18-year-old Kia Moua’s perception of her adopted hometown, a calm, provincial, farm-belt city that lies in the heart of what many in the region refer to as God’s Country. “They drove past my house and yelled out, ‘Hey, bitch!’ '' Moua says of the rowdy teenagers who cruised by. “I knew something was going to happen.’'

Across the street in Hood Park--a half-city block with a truncated softball field, sand-filled volleyball court, new jungle gym, and enclosed shelter--Moua saw more than a dozen children playing in the waning daylight. The two cars stopped just beyond her house. The teenagers sprang from their vehicles and poured into the park, confronting another group of youths milling there. One of the adolescents pulled out a gun and fired off five shots, hitting a 15-year-old rival gang member in the arm. None of the younger children was hurt. A 16-year-old was later arrested and charged with attempted murder.

“I was so afraid,’' Moua says. “Stuff like this doesn’t happen here.’'

Here is La Crosse, Wis., population 51,003. With two distinguished hospitals, three postsecondary educational institutions, and industries that include beer-making and the manufacture of home-heating and cooling products, La Crosse is metropolitan compared with the rest of west-central Wisconsin. Still, the dairy farms that dominate the immediate region give La Crosse a pastoral countenance. Advertisers use Holsteins as product mascots. Drivers buy American and obey the speed limit. A sour, musty aroma from the breweries wafts through the city’s south side each afternoon, signaling the end of another workday.

La Crosse is where I was born and where my parents still live. Hood Park, 30 paces from my front doorstep, defined my youth. It is where my first best friendship and my first crush took shape, where I first learned to play ball and ice skate, where I earned my first award and first weathered feelings of guilt and shame. Hood Park is where I came to admire a 25-year-old American Indian who pushed us on swings and didn’t mind that we called him “Chief.’' It is where a handful of unsavory teenage delinquents, whose names I still remember, lurked suspiciously, smoking and swearing and seeking outlets for their restlessness.

And when my friends and I tired of the park or of riding our bikes, we visited the old men and women in the nearby taverns. As they drank shots of whiskey or the hometown Old Style beer (or both), we guzzled 10-cent Mr. Freezes that cooled away the summer sun.

My house in the Hood Park neighborhood was a two-story, three-bedroom rental with white aluminum siding and green trim. With the Stars and Stripes planted in the flag holder, it was the all-American home. It is where I spent my first 10 years, and when I visit now, it seems small, the backyard cramped. I’m told that a 13-year-old gang member and his family live there these days. After the Hood Park incident, the boy identified the alleged shooter for the police. A few days later, rival gang members pumped five bullets into his home. Into my home.

Although she’s only lived in La Crosse for the past eight years, Kia Moua’s reaction to the shooting--"Stuff like this doesn’t happen here’'--squares with mine. A dozen years ago, when I was a senior at Aquinas High School, the only shooting among young people took place outside city limits at deer, pheasant, and squirrel. The comment by Moua, a senior at Aquinas herself and one of some 2,500 Laotian Hmong immigrants living here, also captures the sentiments of third- and fourth-generation residents and middle-aged transplants, drawn by safe and quiet streets, abundant natural resources, and a family-friendly atmosphere.

La Crosse boasts 1,620 acres of parkland (another 22,000 acres of parks and woodland surround the city), a church for every 1,000 residents, some of the state’s best schools, and competitive high school athletics. There is also a small zoo, adult and youth symphony orchestras, a nature preserve, and a convention center that has drawn Bob Dylan, the Judds, and a national stage revival of Jesus Christ Superstar.

For two weeks each summer, thousands of boys from across the country, with their coaches and parents, descend on La Crosse to compete in the largest unaffiliated little league baseball tournament in the United States. In the fall, a weeklong Oktoberfest underscores the region’s German heritage. Riverfest, a less traditional summer party, features everything from airplane stunts and musical entertainment to, perhaps most appreciated of all, performances by Jim Wand, Master Hypnotist.

La Crosse has been heralded as “God’s Country’’ for a reason. The Mississippi River borders the city on the west; the pull of its current is matched by the psychological hold it has on people here. A range of mini-mountains, known locally as “the bluffs,’' stretches to the east. While much of the upper Midwest was scraped flat by massive roaming glaciers during the Ice Age some 2 million years ago, 8,000 square miles of Wisconsin countryside, including the La Crosse area, miraculously escaped. These geographic features and the local lifestyle, as well as other characteristics, led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1975 to declare the quality of life in La Crosse tops among America’s small cities. Subsequent reviews by others have been less generous but still favorable.

Bucolic and self-contained, La Crosse is not cosmopolitan. Nor is it sophisticated. And it pretends to be neither. In many ways, it has been sheltered. Its German, Norwegian, and Bohemian sons and daughters have been born here. Its Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist brothers and sisters have been baptized here. Its Heidersheit, Bagniefski, and Helgerson mothers and fathers have been buried here. Residents are proud and civic-minded. They cherish the parochial nature of their city and regard it as a strength. But, as the gang shooting in Hood Park and other similar incidents make clear, the modern world is finding La Crosse, and its traditions and strengths are being put to the test.

What the world is bringing to La Crosse is what it has brought to other cities over the past several years: higher rates of poverty, divorce, and single parenthood; increasingly explicit sexual and violent images; and a fast-paced, information-based, consumption-oriented economy in which the gap between the wealthy and the working class is becoming ever wider.

The poverty is evident in my old neighborhood. Homes, duplexes, and apartment buildings have deteriorated. The Hood Park area was always among the most modest in the city. We lived there because the rent was about what an electrician and a part-time nurse with three children could afford. It’s still a charming place with plenty of nice houses and good neighbors. But some residents now talk about drug dealers, thieves who break into cars, and out-of-town slum lords. Women are afraid to walk the streets at night; parents keep a more watchful eye on their children.

When I was a teenager, there was sexual imagery on television, but the language was subtle, the images only suggestive. Using sex to sell was mostly confined to companies hawking clothing and beer. Now, even in La Crosse, sexuality is used in locally produced TV commercials to sell basic goods and services, from sandwiches to checking accounts. And the evolution of MTV has, of course, had an impact, as well. The writhing Madonna of the early 1980s is now tame and passé compared with the in-your-face sexuality of many of today’s rap and rock videos. The level of violence in television programs, movies, and video games also has increased. Meanwhile, CNN, the Internet, and other social and cultural influences have as much impact in La Crosse as they do in New York, Los Angeles, or Miami. And those influences are as accessible to children as they are to adults.

Child psychologist David Elkind has examined these converging forces in our society. He writes in the September 1995 issue of Phi Delta Kappan that ours is a “world where children are exposed to anything and everything, [and] the information barriers between children and parents are much more porous.’'

But while the widely reported effects of these broader social and economic trends have already taken hold in certain parts of the country, they are only emerging in La Crosse--and other smaller communities. The city’s “gang problem’’ was nonexistent five years ago. It was just three years ago that police first began noticing graffiti and discussing the possibility of gangs. When my brother and sister, who were in high school at the time, told me about it, I laughed along with them. When I was in school, authorities were mostly concerned with potheads and teenage drinkers and maybe some truants and petty thieves. When police learned of a high school drinking party and decided to drop by, we were jolted. Now, in some parts of the city, residents wake to find gang graffiti on their garages, convenience stores allow in only three kids at a time for fear of shoplifting, and teenagers pack pistols.

“I’ve had a lot of calls lately,’' says Carl Taylor, a criminologist and professor in the department of family and child ecology at Michigan State University. “A lot of small communities are concerned.’'

In La Crosse, juvenile crime has shot up 45 percent in the past 30 months. Juvenile-delinquency referrals to the La Crosse County Department of Human Services ballooned from 681 in 1983 to 1,150 in 1989 to an extraordinary 1,955 in 1994. Ten kids between the ages of 13 and 17 were arrested in connection with the Hood Park and other area shootings this summer alone. Some were ordered to a local juvenile-detention center for a year or more; the alleged shooter in the Hood Park incident could face up to 60 years in prison.

Meanwhile, 35 children were born to La Crosse school district students last year; 16 girls are pregnant so far this school year. Jenny Schroeder teaches public school students who are already parents. Last year, she worked with 75 kids. Given that nearly 3,000 district students are of childbearing age, these are not shocking numbers. And Schroeder herself admitted that the figures haven’t really increased in the seven years she’s held the job. There is an alarming trend, however, hidden in the statistics: Girls are getting pregnant younger and younger. “My youngest grandmother is 29, and she was 16 when she had her baby,’' Schroeder said. “But now, I have a girl who’s 13. So, who knows? Maybe in 13 years, when she’s 26, she’ll be my youngest grandmother.’'

During the first week of school this autumn, the 13-year-old daughter of a La Crosse police officer swiped her father’s personal handgun and brought it with her to Longfellow Middle School. The girl and two other 13-year-olds kept the gun for eight days before one student overheard another talking about it and informed the principal. Teachers at the school found the incident particularly alarming. Here was a thoughtful, levelheaded kid who had never shown any sign of dissidence suddenly exhibiting a social pathology that most would consider unthinkable--even among adults.

“The percentage of troublemakers hasn’t grown that much, but the ones in between are in danger,’' said veteran Longfellow teacher Jerry Halstead. “We’ve always had our good kids, but the ones in the middle are looking toward the bottom. Last year, there was a student involved in a drive-by, and when he came back to school, he was a celebrity. There was a crowd around his locker. He was one involved in the gun incident last week. At the same time, the good kids seem to get meeker and milder, and they don’t speak up. They’re intimidated.’'

Shannon Smith, a 16-year-old junior at Logan High School, put it this way: “No one wants to be average anymore. You want to be the star, the really big person. Or you think it’s better to go the other way than to be average. The bad doesn’t seem bad anymore when everyone’s doing it.’'

Most teachers and principals I spoke with in La Crosse acknowledged that the youngsters they work with seem different from those of the past, but they maintained that most are still good people with a sense of direction and honor. (Following the gun incident at Longfellow, a group of student leaders held a free car wash for the school’s neighbors.) Teachers also said young people today are more creative and talented than they were when I was young. “No matter what you say about kids these days,’' Bonnie Pickett, my high school journalism teacher told me, “one on one, they’re really neat people.’'

Nevertheless, officials here say the shootings and the emergence of some 200 gang members in as many as 33 gangs is a serious problem that is symptomatic of a change in attitudes, beliefs, and behavior among many teenagers and young adults. Of the teachers I spoke with, almost all reported that young people today, even the studious, dutiful ones, are quicker to anger and to express that anger, both verbally and physically. They say the boundaries of acceptable teenage behavior have expanded; that the typical teenage thirst for independence, the long journey to discover self that includes questioning parents and other authority, often turns into overt hostility; and that accountability and responsibility have almost become foreign concepts.

Many students agree. “Kids hate their parents,’' Josh Moore, a 14-year-old 8th grader at Lincoln Middle School, said matter-of-factly. “Why?’' I asked. “Because they’re kids. They think they’re better than their parents.’' In school, he said, the same students disregard even the simplest tasks. “When I was in elementary school, we handed everything in on time,’' he explained. “When I got to middle school, if you didn’t hand in an assignment, big deal.’'

These attitudes reflect an increasing cynicism among the nation’s young, according to family historian Stephanie Coontz, who wrote in the March 1995 Phi Delta Kappan that American politics and culture have prompted “youngsters [to] wonder what is the point of playing by the old rules.

“The result of . . . socioeconomic and political trends has been the collapse of an older belief (or perhaps merely a calming illusion) that most of us--whatever our differences in income or status--share long-term interests and solidarities. The loss of this belief breeds a ‘me first’ mentality that is as prevalent on Wall Street and Main Street as it is on the streets of the inner city.

“Materialism, selfishness, and an almost pathological disregard for the consequences of self-aggrandizement have become fundamental features of our economy and our polity.’'

One veteran teacher told me that teachers and parents set the standard when it comes to accountability. Too many teachers, she said, “have a heart attack’’ at the thought of being observed and judged on their classroom performance, while too many parents are willing to defend the disruptive, violent, or illegal actions of their children.

At a school board hearing to consider the fate of the three Longfellow Middle School students who handled the gun on school property this fall, the parents of those involved pleaded for the board not to expel their children. Two students were accompanied by their lawyers. The board, however, didn’t listen: The two boys were expelled for a year; the girl, who had never been in trouble before, a semester.

My family has been frightened by this whole episode. A cousin, who is 14 and in the 8th grade, is a close friend of the student who first told Longfellow principal Glen Jenkins about the gun. A few days before the hearing, one of the boys involved called my cousin at home and bellowed this warning: “If [your friend] sees us, he’d better turn around and run because we’re going to come after him.’' The intimidation frightened my cousin, but she testified before the school board anyway. The telephone harassment continued after the expulsions until my aunt threatened to go to the police.

The broadening concern over the behavior of young people comes as La Crosse is experiencing the first noticeable influx of nonwhite families. There is a danger that the white majority will equate the growing violence and crime with racial minorities. White, Hmong, and African-American teenagers say they already see a difference in the day-to-day treatment of whites vs. minorities by police, the judicial system, and other institutions. The minority community is particularly upset over the fact that no white teenagers were arrested in connection with the Hood Park shooting, even though there were white youngsters who could have been considered accomplices. All those arrested are Asian.

“The whole racism issue is layered into this,’' said David Johnston, assistant superintendent for the La Crosse public schools. “And it’s going to get layered into it even further because most of the high-profile gang activity is being perpetrated by Asians.’'

At the time of the 1980 census, La Crosse was 99.5 percent white, making it one of the five whitest communities in the United States. Today, it is estimated that about 5 percent of the population is Asian, mostly Hmong refugees who fled Laos after its communist government assumed power in the mid-1970s. No one is sure how many African Americans live in the city. Some say the population has doubled, perhaps even tripled, since the 1990 census reported there were 368 blacks living here. One thing is certain: increasing numbers of African Americans from Chicago and Milwaukee are leaving the inner-city environment for the relative tranquility of communities like La Crosse.

More minority students attend La Crosse’s public schools today than at any time since the first classes were held in the county courthouse in 1851. Just two Hmong families sent their children to the parochial schools I attended in the late 1970s and early ‘80s; one boy was in my class. There were no black students.

Without question, some young Hmong and African-American adolescents are engaging in disruptive behavior. The gangs involved in the Hood Park shooting are dominated by Asians. Some black youngsters exhibit the rowdy, streetwise--but mostly harmless--behavior that is commonplace in Chicago and Milwaukee but completely foreign here. A handful of others are causing trouble in neighborhoods and in schools. But police say youngsters of all races are involved in gangs, and kids at every income level are behaving in ways normally associated with juvenile delinquents.

“The aggressiveness doesn’t look at skin color; it doesn’t look at family income,’' said Nikki Gyllander, director of the La Crosse County Department of Human Services. “We’ve had young women from white, upper-middle-class families get involved in violent activity.’'

Nevertheless, minority young people said La Crosse has been less than hospitable, especially since the shooting. “We get stereotyped more,’' said 18-year-old Nyia Yang. “If you’re with friends and are walking outside, they automatically assume you’re in gangs. If you’re in a store, you’re going to steal something.’'

Roy Heath, a 15-year-old African-American sophomore at Logan High School, moved to La Crosse with his family from Chicago six years ago. He lived with the violence of the inner city, and now he is learning to live with the prejudices of an all-white community. “When you walk down the street in Chicago, you have to deal with obvious dangers,’' he said. “When you walk down the street here, you have to deal with nonobvious dangers.’'

Hmong leaders take pains to point out that most Hmong are trying to fit in. Adults and children alike are learning English and going to school. Adults take classes and use their education to find jobs. They save their money and buy houses.

But the threat of gangs and violence, particularly for Hmong families, is acute. Some families are being torn apart as parents, who try to hold on to the traditional patriarchal family structure in which youths are obedient and serve the family, clash with their children, who have grown up in the West and long for the relative freedom of their peers.

“It’s a legitimate threat,’' said Thai Vue, associate executive director of the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association and a member of the La Crosse school board. “Seven years ago, we didn’t see gangs. We heard about gangs in California, about kids moving away from home. We thought, maybe it’s a California problem, maybe it’s a big-city problem, maybe the parents don’t know what to do. But now, we have the same problems here, and the question is, what are we going to do about it? Parents have to take some responsibility, and the community has to take some responsibility.’'

According to local police, adult gang leaders from larger Midwestern cities have recruited Hmong, white, and black youngsters in La Crosse and other medium-sized Wisconsin towns. Young people say the two gangs involved in the Hood Park shooting are locked in a turf war. Everyone expects another flare up.

It is 7 a.m. on a saturday morning, and 14-year-old Lee Thor is a little sleepy. She is a member of a citywide teenage-advisory council, but this meeting is far too early for her. She is content to sit quietly, head down, eating a doughnut, while fellow council members discuss adolescent attitudes about school, parents, and adults. Finally, urged on by her adviser, Lee begins to talk to the small audience gathered in the Logan High School cafeteria, and once she begins, she finds it hard to stop. She admits that she is both confused and baffled by the behavior of some of her peers: girls drinking and smoking in hotel rooms, settling arguments with fist fights, and losing their virginity at age 12. She becomes most animated when talking about her 11-year-old brother who recently expressed some interest in joining a local gang that their cousin belongs to.

“All the kids around him are a bad influence,’' she says. “If one ditches school, he’ll ditch with that one. If another ditches, he’ll ditch with that one. He told me he wants to join a gang because he was getting sick of us and our mom.’' In Laos and Thailand, there were no youth gangs, she says. Young people obeyed their parents. Here, young Hmong try to set themselves apart from their parents.

Lee seems energized by the 90-minute meeting. Even as things break up, she has more to say. As it turns out, Lee is not only concerned about her 11-year-old brother but also her 7-year-old brother, who, she says, has been dressing and talking like a gangster, “a G.’'

“He’s wearing his pants low and saying words like ‘bitch,’ '' Lee says. “He talks like a gangster. He says, ‘Hey, bitch’ to me. The other day, I heard he was out with my other brother, and I heard they were smoking.’'

I have lived in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area since March 1989, when I loaded all of my possessions into a dying 1980 Dodge Omni and drove from Madison, Wis., where I went to college, to a Northern Virginia suburb to begin my career in journalism. When I passed through Chicago, I was as far east as I had ever been.

In my five years as an education writer, I’ve traveled widely and had a range of experiences that would have been impossible had I remained in La Crosse. Nevertheless, my heart remains with my hometown. I know how it has shaped me as a writer and as a countryman, as a son and as a friend. As much as the shooting in Hood Park pierced Kia Moua, it pierced me.

During a recent visit back home, city and county officials told me about their efforts to create a new “youth strategy’’ by generating communitywide support for young people. But first, they said, they were asking a few important questions: Do enough youngsters have healthy, honest relationships with their parents and other adults? Do parents set behavioral boundaries and discipline their children when those boundaries are violated? Are youths involved in extracurricular activities at school, in the community, and at church? Are they motivated to do well in school and to look toward postsecondary education? Do they help other people and value others’ feelings? Do they have the interpersonal skills to express their desires, beliefs, and concerns in a constructive way?

Local heavy hitters--the school superintendent, police chief, and head of the county social-services department--are leading the effort, which began last spring. They had begun to see signs of a problem long before the Hood Park shooting.

But perhaps making sure kids are going to church or are active in sports or have learned to say no to premature sex is not enough. Perhaps the city is losing something it cannot recapture. Perhaps, as Stephanie Coontz suggests, the malaise among today’s young people is deeply rooted in economic, social, and political forces that are beyond their control, forces that only adults can change.

La Crosse assistant superintendent David Johnson believes that adults bear much of the responsibility. “You can try and change kids’ behavior, but kids don’t create slum communities, and gangs are sometimes the safest place for kids to be unless we give them something different,’' he said. “You won’t see one committee in La Crosse right now looking at adult behavior because that’s a lot of work. It’s nasty and political, and it’s where the hard part is. There’s a lot at stake for La Crosse as a community that I’m not sure everybody’s fully aware of yet. If you’ve got a community where the population is going the other way, you’ve got a dying community.’'

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as My Town


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