Making the Grade: Paul Tamburello
A monthly column in the Brookline TAB
How children create their own boundaries
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
Yessss. Finally. Someone has drawn a line in the sand. The FCC, awakened by a costume failure in the middle of a football stadium, has stirred in its den, responded to public outcry and begun setting limits on what it calls the boundaries of good taste.
Based on what is increasingly seen and heard in the media, isn't it a wonder that school-age children don't sound like little Tony Sopranos, juvenile candidates for the old-fashioned "wash out your mouth with soap" interdiction?
Some days a school teacher feels like the Lone Ranger, trying to maintain boundaries of civility, truth, justice and the American way, when there's ample evidence to the contrary all over the place. I realize that censorship is a slippery slope. As much as I'm in favor of some restraint, there's part of the adolescent left in me that still wears the "Question Authority" T-shirt under my shirt and tie. All I want is a little balance in the world of popular culture.
When I read that Howard Stern is getting the heave-ho from certain radio markets, I didn't run to the barricades to join the "Free Speech for Howard" fan club. The man's humor is demeaning. And it seems pervasive. Ironically, I am the same guy who laughed at George Carlin's classic monologue "The Seven Words You Can't Say On TV." I laughed partly because at the time a performer truly couldn't say them on TV. If s/he did, someone in the studio would simply pull the plug, the screen would fade to black and the national audience would be raiding the refrigerator until the top of the hour. Since the advent of cable, those seven words don't raise an eyebrow. But they do raise an eyebrow - and a consequence - if an elementary school kid tries them out on the playground.
What continues to amaze me is that somehow, somewhere, in the midst of all this, kids do learn socially acceptable behavior.
Most parents and teachers don't need the FCC to know where to draw the lines. They set their own boundaries on free speech and behavior so that learning can take place without the distractions of foul language, bathroom jokes and degrading remarks about others. Which brings me to the richest verity at play here. One of the great dualities of being a teacher or parent is that we get to squeeze through one of the true portals of adulthood - having experience on both sides of the great divide - the "testing the limits" side and the "upholding the limits" side. In the midst of the latter, epiphanies strike like lightning on a sunny day. Many of us realize that, to our utter amazement, we're turning into our parents.
So how do adults shape a civil environment? We can use the airwaves of life to produce our own reality shows. Kids do heartwarming things right under our noses every day. At different times in the past two weeks, students in my class huddled to give solace a classmate in tears who lost a favorite pencil, and another who was dismayed with a lousy score on a science test. They cheered a classmate who powerfully shinnied to the top of the ceiling-high climbing rope in the gym and were in accord that "She's awesome!" And I cheered them for cheering her. On other occasions, they were upset, and let me know it, when they saw a student abuse the honor system while correcting his math test. They told me when a student at recess used one of Carlin's seven words. In both cases, they watched and listened carefully to see what kind of consequence I would assign to the breach.
As I walk around my open space school, I see colleagues engaged in the daily work of delivering acknowledgement and consequence. Acts of honesty, persistence, teamwork or negotiating skills are grist for the highlight films of our day and we acknowledge the heck out of the kids who played a part in them. I've talked to enough like-minded parents to know that there are lots of us rangers on patrol for examples of a positive reality that matters to us and that have an affirming cumulative effect on a classroom or family unit.
Good behavior is as catchy as poor behavior. We just need to keep cheering the behaviors we value. The FCC can use all the help it can get.
Paul Tamburello is a writer and teacher who has taught in Brookline since 1970.