PORTLAND, ORE. — Does life imitate middle school, or is it the other way around? If we really want to change the collective conduct of our society in a positive way, should reform efforts be focused on grown ups or eighth-graders? Year after year, I see and hear Americans who consider themselves mature, responsible citizens engaging in behavior that would earn most 13-year-olds a trip to the vice-principal's office.
So I'm wondering about the long-term effects of a campaign that took place during the past few days at middle schools around the country. "No Name-Calling Week" sounds simple. The average person might assume it's something parents and teachers would support without equivocation. And the average person would be wrong.
"No Name-Calling Week" originated with a group called the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network. One key element of the campaign is a novel entitled "The Misfits," which deals with four middle schoolers who are taunted by classmates, and one of the quartet is gay. All of which has caused controversy. Some critics of the program say it uses name calling to lure participants into a debate about sexual orientation and gay rights. On the other hand, some legislators in Colorado objected to the week because it promotes a culture of victimhood - while being teased builds character.
As Bart Simpson would say, "Ay, caramba!"
For all the accusations and rebuttals about the true purpose of "No Name-Calling Week," it has created a situation that will probably be resolved gradually as schools and teachers who support the broad principle of the campaign figure out what works best in their own classrooms. And for anyone who's interested in helping kids set goals for other areas of behavior improvement, I have a few additional suggestions.
• "Don't Let the First Words Out of Your Mouth Be a Complaint Week." Life isn't without challenges, and lots of things about school aren't fun, but that doesn't mean you should retreat behind phrases like, "This really bites!" To put it another way: You can't tell me what's wrong and then quit. You also have to say how you think it can be fixed.
• "Limit Your Exposure To Poor Role Models Day." If your favorite radio station has a team of morning announcers who specialize in crank phone calls and obnoxious banter, make a serious effort to tune them out for a whole day, or permanently. Ditto for violent video games.
• "Stop Trashing the Bathroom Month." For some inexplicable reason, many kids grow up thinking that bathrooms are play areas with running water. Leaving the lavatory cleaner than you found it is a doctrine school custodians have tried to promote for decades, with limited success. If the generation now in elementary school could be properly instructed in bathroom etiquette and held accountable through standardized testing, the impact on national hygiene and domestic relationships in the future would be impossible to calculate.
Feel free to copy these notes; pass them around. I won't call anyone a cheater or a plagiarist. I want this to be a "No Name-Calling Zone."
• Jeffrey Shaffer is an author and essayist and served on the Local School Committee for his daughter's elementary and middle schools.