A Small Step for Mankind in the Making

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This September, I enrolled my 8th-grade son in a new school. It was a radical switch--which was what I had in mind. At his previous institution of lower learning, so much attention had been paid to the externals of getting an education (sock color, hair length, not sitting on the school steps after 3:15 P.M.) that my son--who sometimes went out of control and did a little break-dancing on the blacktop during recess--developed an ulcer. I devoutly hoped that this new school and academic year would blot last year from his mind.

On the surface, his present school looks rather like an academy in the fields of Mendocino, Calif. Girls can come to class with Boy George makeup jobs; boys could, I assume, wear square-dancing skirts. The administration does not bow before a dress code. Which is not to say that they do not bow at all. As it rather quickly developed, my son with the modified punk-style haircut found out that this school takes the internal world of the mind rather seriously. And not one day of the first semester had elapsed before he felt over his head.

The first night he was given a solid three hours of homework. It was like being airlifted off the beach at Fort Lauderdale and dropped into a boot camp. The light of enthusiasm in his eyes for this new and groovier school was replaced by defiance.

On the second night (with the same amount of homework), defiance gave way to fear, demoralization, and an after-supper tantrum when he hurled all of his newly covered books down the stairs, slammed his bedroom door, and went to sleep with his clothes on. I wonder how many parents all over the country are dodging textbooks at this very moment? After every summer, comes the fall.

While my son slept, I reread William James. "The human individual," James wrote, "thus lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use." True, I thought, but last summer my son had willingly driven himself to near-exhaustion break-dancing all over the city. Physically, he could push himself to extremes. The dilemma was how to effect photosynthesis and raise that energy from his feet to his mind.

During his first arduous night of homework, I suggested that he take a break and walk with me around the neighborhood. We set off toward the local park. He talked. I listened. Homework, it developed, was only the painful tip of the cattle prod. His main complaint was mankind's oldest and only complaint worth making--he wanted to be free.

"I'm sick of being pushed around," he muttered. "And I figure I've got 10 more years of it." My son's actuarial tables surprised me. "Ten more years?" I queried. "I figure that my job of being your parent is almost done and that I push you around less and less."

If that were so, he countered, then why did he have to be home at 10 P.M. on weekends, why couldn't he go to R-rated movies, and why did he have to read a boring 20-page chapter on the Aztec Indians? When he threw the Aztec Indians at me we were sitting on the grassy slope in the park, which was bright with moonlight.

A dozen elegant answers flitted through my head as we looked up at the moon beaming through a ragged shawl of clouds. How does one tell a 13-year-old that to study the Aztec Indians is to study himself? I hoped that the gamma rays would dilate both of our minds--mine to pick out the right answer from the heavens, his to receive it. But then he changed the subject.

"How high up is the moon anyway?" I confessed that I couldn't remember but that the geostationary satellites circling the world were over 22,000 miles above the earth.

We resumed our walk around the neighborhood. The moon had supplied no final answers. "I just want to be free to live my own life," complained my son anew. At that moment, we happened to be walking past a few houses whose occupants were known to us. "Everybody wants to be free," I agreed, "but you have to earn it, like Mr. Blatchford did. Do you know how he earned it?" I pushed on didactically.

My son was silent, which is what rhetorical questions usually do to people. We returned home with the Aztec Indian question still lodged between his shoulder blades. Try as I might, I couldn't put the Indians on the moon.

When William James wondered why some human beings soar and others sink under pressure, "excitements, ideas, and efforts," he concluded, "are what carry us over the dam." So far, I had failed to inspire any of the above, but then my 16-year-old son, who treats school as if it were a slightly decaying animal, came through the front door, and it occurred to me that he might be an unlikely ally.

"Do you think you could do me a favor?" I asked, "Sure," he answered. "What?"

"Go upstairs and try to give a little hope to your brother. He is totally demoralized by his new school and doesn't want to do the work."

About five minutes elapsed. Then my older son came down again. "How did it go?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said, "but I told him that school stinks. Everybody knows that, but that you have to do the work or you'll wind up a bum."

Oddly, that idea worked. Within moments, the eighth-grader was seated beside me at the dining-room table the picture of scholarly calm, with his books spread out before him. I suspect, however, that the fresh wind in his sails came less from the advice than the advice-giver, who had honored his younger brother by giving him the time of day.

To further deal with this crisis of confidence, I had made an appointment the next morning for the two of us with the school director. A wise, soft-spoken woman with crinkly eyes, Mrs. Ely dealt first with the question of feeling "pushed around."

"You feel pushed around because you are being pushed around," she told him. "Why, in the animal kingdom it's the same thing--look at the way a mother bear slaps her cubs around if they get out of line. But you know she doesn't do it to be mean, but out of love."

My son was silent, but the guarded expression most people learn to assume when confronting adult authorities melted a little. Mrs. Ely was making him feel part of the larger anthropological picture. Then she dropped back to the sixth century B.C.

"You know, it was Pythagoras, a Greek mathematician I happen to be very fond of, who once said that you should always help a person to bear his burden but never help him to put it down. Do you understand what he meant by that?"

My son with the modified punk-style hairdo nodded solemnly. Then a smile gradually lighted up his face. Mrs. Ely smiled back. One small step for mankind was in the making; I could see it in his eyes. Of course, we are still at the beginning of the first semester. But the Aztec question does not seem to weigh so heavily on his shoulders, which is not to say Indians are dancing on the moon yet.

Vol. 04, Issue 11, Page 15

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