Learning lessons in the fourth `R': real life

Twice a week for six weeks, 20 teen-age girls in a suburban Boston high school have put aside their normal gym-class activities - volleyball, aerobics, basketball - for something far less predictable, far more dramatic: a mini-course in self-defense. Under the supervision of a physical education teacher, they have learned to anticipate and avoid danger. They have also practiced fending off a would-be attacker and flipping an assailant.

For most of the students, the class represents their first exposure to life perceived as a threat.

``The first few sessions made me afraid,'' one 16-year-old in the class admits. ``I thought, `Gosh, would I ever have to know this stuff?' But now I feel a little more confident that no matter how big the person is, I have a chance of getting away.''

Still, an unofficial ``pink belt'' in karate is the kind of youthful accomplishment that can leave a parent feeling strangely ambivalent.

Who doesn't want a daughter to be confident and competent as she makes her way to adulthood and independence, sufficiently streetwise to avoid personal harm? But what parent doesn't also want that same child to view the world as a generally good and friendly place, without seeing danger lurking behind every lamppost?

The gym teacher, reassuring an inquiring parent, explains that the course is intended as an exercise in common sense, to give students ``an awareness of our environment.''

The idea, he says, ``is not to scare the kids. Life is good. But you can't go around thinking life's a bowl of cherries either, thinking that there isn't somebody out there who wants to hurt you.''

Once upon a more innocent time, suburban schools were viewed as a kind of Elysian field, a place where children were protected from the harsher realities of the big city. But now the big city has come to the suburbs, and schools, trying to keep pace with a changing world, are increasingly forced to give lessons in the fourth R: real life.

The result can be a curious shift in priorities.

On an academic level, what is termed the ``dumbing down'' of textbooks to satisfy the demands of special-interest groups threatens to lower scholastic standards.

At the same time, a trend toward what might be called the ``smartening up'' of non-academic programs is evident in such offerings as sex education, suicide counseling, self-defense classes, drug and alcohol awareness programs, crisis intervention, and birth-control dispensaries in school clinics.

Many of these programs are viewed as preventive measures, designed to help students deal competently with shifting mores and troubling social problems. But they can leave an impression of life as a perpetual crisis, even in purely academic courses.

Last fall, during parents' night at this same suburban high school, one mother used a question-and-answer session in her son's English class to complain about the group's lengthy study of ``I Never Prom ised You a Rose Garden,'' the story of a teen-age girl's experience in a mental institution and her agonizing struggle to recover.

The mother presented the classic argument: Teen-agers have enough challenges in their own lives without having to dwell unnecessarily on other people's depressing problems in novels.

``I'd like kids to have a good feeling when they finish a book,'' she concluded.

The teacher agreed. But he also defended the inclusion of such books on required reading lists, saying, ``These kids have been brought up on an artificial happiness. Every kid can tell me every episode of `The Brady Bunch.' That's how they judge a family, and it's unrealistic.''

But questions linger:

If suburbia once erred in making Pollyanna assumptions about life, has the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction?

And by providing courses in the name of social emergencies, are schools not only failing to give a balancing view of the possibilities of life, but neglecting the core curriculum?

The answers depend on a reading of mood, of attitudes. But it would be ironic if the very institution devoted to opening the mind should, with the best of intentions, inadvertently encourage a fortress mentality.

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