Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 15, 2013

Guest Opinion

Hidden bruises, safe schools

by Marc Vincenti

As my students streamed out of the classroom after the bell, I caught her eye. Let's call her "Nicole" — a rangy Gunn sophomore with big brown eyes and long hair.

"Got a sec?" I said quietly, with my best it's-nothing-to-worry-about smile. As a teacher, you don't want to seem urgent to a kid, with her classmates around; you'd just draw attention and embarrass her. "Only a sec," I said. "Don't want to take up your brunch."

Nicole shifted her book-bag on her tall shoulder and we stepped to a quiet corner as the last kids left my English class. With sympathy, I told her I'd noticed she looked sad during the hour, or tired — I couldn't tell for sure.

"Oh, Mr. V., I'm sorry!" She hung her head. Her instinct was to apologize for being an inattentive student, though I hadn't meant that. This was a girl who'd written me a disconsolate note after she'd missed her first vocab word of the semester, sure she was headed for a "B" in the course at best. She was a soccer player, a reporter for the school paper.

She went on to tell me: On her way to my class she'd read a long e-mail on her phone, from her boyfriend's former girlfriend, telling her what a slut she was, calling her names. Nicole had read it all, several screens. She'd been upset for the whole period, unable to concentrate. I told her how very sorry I was for her pain, and that when such things happen my students may step outside for a bit, and need not suffer "for all to see." I thanked her for confiding in me, and encouraged her to go join the people who really matter to her — her buddies — at brunch. And out the door she went.

Most such incidents at school, such disruptions, go undetected. With Nicole I was lucky. I'd taught her the previous year as a freshman, so she had reason to trust me. I'd spotted her feelings because the class had only 22 kids (a vanishing phenomenon now). And with brunch coming up, she hadn't had to rush off to biology or sports, PSAT-study or volunteering.

And for all of us, now, who want a healthy life in our schools, I'll make the point in extreme terms, maybe too strongly: in letting our teenagers use their phones during the school-day, we — the adults — are enabling bullying on campus.

Yes, okay, it has ever been thus. Stock an environment with pencils and paper, and there's a kid who'll write a nasty note, pass it across the classroom, zip it into a book-bag, or tape it to a locker. Schools have always had walls, and kids have had spray-paint. But now it's different. Today's electronic insults are posted instantly, ubiquitously, and sometimes permanently. They are endlessly, easily copied and sent on to others, to do more mischief. The power to hurt with words has grown from the potency of sticks and stones to the capacity of a howitzer.

In the Atlantic Magazine this month, Emily Bazelon — a Yale researcher who's just published a book on bullying — reports on a Connecticut middle-schooler who, styling herself on Facebook as the "Drama Queen," set up a page called "Let's Start Drama" that soon pulled hundreds of her classmates to a site that traded in tantalizing rumors, gossip about breakups, reports on who had lost their virginity or sent nude photos, and ranking of girls by looks. The site got under the radar of Facebook's policies against anonymity and rudeness. Bazelon doesn't say if the middle school permits phone-use on campus, but if so, it's easy to imagine the effects.

We need to end this kind of thing, especially as it reaches into our schools. Our kids' resilience need not be tested to such an extreme. There is no reason a young person in one of our high schools, already stressed about grades and college, perhaps sleep-deprived, perhaps upset by a failed romance or friendship, in classes as large as 35, impulsive and self-conscious as all teenagers are, should be exposed to electronic communications that make it ever more impossible for her to enjoy what she's there for: Harper Lee and Jhumpa Lahiri, Freud and Shakespeare and Moliere. Face-to-face interaction with friends. Time, in "real" time, to form ties with teachers and counselors and coaches — ties so vital to the "safety net" we all want to weave.

Among the distracting communications are not only bullying, of course — but back-and-forth with hovering parents about the day's chem test and how it went, work left at home (I had a student, once, who spent all day in an electronic frenzy with her parents, at their workplaces, cobbling together a nick-of-time delivery of a left-behind item), and after-school plans.

There will always be a need for emergency calls to and from school. We handled them in the "old days" just fine, and we can handle them now: Gunn has classroom phones; teachers have cell-phones; the Main Office has lots of phones and good secretaries; the entire campus has a P.A. system. And homework left at home, a chem test, a text from Starbucks to ask about a coffee preference (yes, I had a student who monitored her phone during class for this), recent messages and texts, the good, the bad, the ugly — these are not emergencies.

Unfortunately, as long as we don't have stop-and-frisks or metal detectors (and we shouldn't), a student will always be able to say, "May I go to the bathroom?" and leave class just to sneak in a phone-call or look at Facebook. But with a shift in culture and some sensible regulations — no phones visible or audible from the first bell to the last, confiscation otherwise, parental pick-up required — we can, without detriment to real emergency needs, rescue our kids from one particular, hidden, insidious form of schoolyard bullying.

The Nicoles of this world need the grown-ups to help them.

Marc Vincenti has taught English for 15 years at Gunn High School.

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