Connections: The Enemy Is Us

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A few years ago, the Business Roundtable, a group of chief executive officers from the nation's largest corporations, sponsored a public service television advertisement in support of better schools. The ad portrayed an elaborate and dramatic rescue of a toddler who fell into a deep well. The point was that we—society—will go to great lengths to save an innocent child in peril, even as we stand by idly while the lives of hundreds of thousands of children are in equal danger of being destroyed.

Two feature articles and a commentary in this issue illustrate that reality with heart-wrenching poignancy. They are about the children we leave behind and the people who struggle mightily on a daily basis to rescue them. John Pannell, principal of Malcolm X Elementary School in Washington, D.C., has spent half his life engaged in this crusade as a social worker, a counselor, a special education teacher, and a principal. ("A Man Of Principle.") He has battled for 25 years to save the lives of children often born with two strikes against them. He cajoles, threatens, inspires, and begs his staff and students to prevail—to work harder and to care more. Malcolm X, he proclaims, is "a school of love"; X stands for excellence.

The ceaseless struggle has taken its toll, and the aging warrior thinks more and more often of retirement. But the children keep coming with ever-greater needs, and John Pannell can't stop asking himself at the end of each day if he has done everything he possibly can to help his students."It's not really a lot of bad kids here," he says. "There are badly treated kids who come to school here. And they are excited to be here. And we have to get them focused on the reason they are here: to learn. We don't beat them. We don't curse them, scold them, yell at them, or yank them."

There are not enough John Pannells to save all the children in peril. Many—perhaps most—slip through his net of love. As they move through school, always struggling, they fall further and further behind. Some of them engage in antisocial and self-destructive behavior, displaying their growing alienation and anger.

To cope with these troubled youngsters who disrupt classes, public education is creating a new system of "alternative" schools. Washington Opportunity School in Clark County, Nevada, is such a place. ("Reform School.") Critics call these schools "soft jails," and the description seems apt. Principal Matthew Lusk functions more like a warden than a principal, and he acknowledges that behavior modification, not academics, is the goal of Washington. "All we're trying to do," Lusk says "is teach them basic values and certain rules so that when they go back to their regular schools they can take these things with them. But I don't want them to get used to this, because the next step is jail."

For some of these benighted souls, the institutional restraints are not enough, and they cross the line. Even then, we jump to conclusions and assume the worst of young people. In his commentary, Greg Michie, an 8th grade media studies teacher, writes about one of his students who has been accused of shooting and killing two teenagers. ("Guilt By Association.") Michie knows the 12-year-old pretty well and finds it hard to believe he could have committed the crime. The teacher laments that the media coverage makes it seem like the boy has already been tried and convicted, confirming in the public's mind the perception that all poor students in inner-city schools are violent and dangerous.

That is a sad distortion for Michie, who spends his days with these young people. "I look around at their faces and see none of the heartless, predatory teens who, according to the mainstream media, are taking over our cities. Instead, I see pain and hope, confusion and wonder, beauty and, most of all, possibility. I see kids."

The Pannells and Michies offer love because they know that it is as essential as food and shelter to the healthy development of a child. The troubled young people who cause such problems for their schools and for themselves did not choose to be bad. They are essentially what adults have made them. One has to fear for the future of a society that makes enemies of so many of its children.

—Ronald A. Wolk

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