Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Outsiders...Or Fitting Right In?

Our eighth graders read the novel The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. When it was first released in 1967, the book shocked young readers with its violence and lack of accepted family structure. The students at my school love it. They can't put it down until they're done reading it, and they sit on the edges of their seats watching the 1983 movie version that boasts stars-of-the-future like Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, and Diane Lane.

When I first taught the book, years ago, I thought my students would whine and complain...maybe call the fifties setting old-fashioned and boring. Instead, they sat enthralled and pondered romanticized versions of boys who live without parents and who run around the town with knives while smoking cigarettes non-stop.

Fast forward to last week. Another teacher asked me if I'd seen the YouTube video of a former student fighting in the middle of the street in her neighborhood. I couldn't believe such a thing was possible - that a student fight was recorded and placed on YouTube for the world to see - so I looked it up. I was suprised to find thousands of videos featuring student fights, and, yes, one of them included my former student.

What I saw on that video clip was horrifying. There's my student, who is being referred to as MadDawg, bouncing around like a boxer-in-training, air punching around another teenager's head. The other teen, referred to as "New Girl," was standing there, arms folded, telling my student that she doesn't want to fight. It's apparent that a crowd has gathered to watch the violence, obviously knowing ahead of time that the fight was scheduled. (This wasn't a situation where two teens got angry and fought in the heat of the moment.)

I was horrified as I watched the other girl say over and over that she's not there to fight and everyone should just go home. But the crowd wasn't having it. They continued to encourage the girls, saying things like, "I left my house for THIS? I was eating chicken!" Students in the crowd even push the two girls together several times, continuing to egg them on.

Finally New Girl had had enough. She picked up my student and slammed her onto the street. Then she pummeled her in the head a few times while yelling at her to go the ----- home! Finally she climbs off of her - meanwhile I can hear the crowd bullying my student about her lack of fighting skills. Apparently, that is just enough to encourage her to air-box the new girl again...who promptly slams her to the pavement again, this time putting her face close to my student's ear and repeating, "This is over. We're going home. This is over."

I watched as cell phones recorded the entire event and listened as the onlookers talked of being nervous because it appeared a neighbor had called the police. My student's sister, also a former student, then came into camera range; she's a beautiful girl with so much potential, and I watched her look right at home in the middle of this display of violence and stupidity.

It's no wonder eighth graders love The Outsiders - they aren't shocked by anything in it; instead they're comfortable. This is a world they understand.

In the movie Valentine's Day, Ashton Kutcher's character makes this comment: "Love is the only shocking thing left in the world." Apparently he's right. Violence is commonplace and accepted, even entertaining. Those participating aren't outsiders. They're part of our current culture.

But I think of my students and wish instead they were being shocked by love. And I wish YouTube would ban uploaded videos by underage kids. Somehow we have to stop giving kids, who aren't old enough to make responsible decisions, the opportunities to promote violence and to use it as entertainment. To me....that's what's shocking...