Rescuing the ciphers

Loneliness and alienation in our schools are not new. It's just that the symptoms are becoming more pronounced. President Bush called the shooting at Santana High School in California "a disgraceful act of cowardice." So much for compassion. I call the shooting a cry for help, a desperate attempt not to be a cipher - a faceless zero.

As I watched the morning news, I studied the face of Charles Andrew Williams as he was being led away into custody. His mouth was tightly pursed and turning down at the corners, his jaw was clenched. He looked so determined even in his hopelessness. It appears that young Williams was indeed isolated, targeted, "picked on because he is scrawny," called "freak," "dork," "nerd," bullied, humiliated. As of Wednesday, it had been reported that no family members have visited him in his cell. This child was lost long ago.

The ongoing discussion of the profile of a "school shooter" certainly accentuates the image of hopelessness. I remember studying the faces of thousands of students during my years of teaching high school English. Some of those faces, not all, reflected helplessness. I came to know in my bones their pain of blighted ideals, their passion to grow toward the light and out from under whatever heavy thing kept them down. And sometimes I was the one who felt helpless in the face of their need.

So after the news, I just sat there, remembering. And I remembered a short and true story written sometime in the early '60s by a teacher, Jean Mizer, about a boy who was so lonely he simply fell dead in the snow on the way to school one morning. The story, "Cipher in the Snow," describes the school personnel in their search to find out his identity, and the never-to-be-forgotten lesson his teacher learned during the course of the search - that to be a teacher means to really look at your students. Jean Mizer was given the Teacher of the Year Award for Idaho in 1964.

Surely by now we know that social alienation can at times produce violence toward oneself or toward others. I remembered another short story, this one by Joanne Greenberg about a young boy who wants so much to belong that he murders a man, just to present himself to his sinister coach as worthy of belonging. The story is called "Rite of Passage."

Joanne Greenberg knows whereof she writes. She endured teen years in a psychiatric facility. She recovered, and has now published 12 novels and four collections of short stories that show clearly her depth of understanding and compassion.

I feel helpless now in the face of all these school shootings, and I want to cry out, too. And say what? Maybe that when keepers want to train bald eagles born in captivity to fly so they can be released into the wild, they put television sets in their cages. The baby eagles love to watch TV, and they see themselves flying and soaring just as the images on the screen are flying and soaring. And they learn to fly.

If we can use TV so creatively in the endangered-species programs, why can't we use television to encourage our children toward life? Children are endangered, too. What kind of images do we put up for our young ones to emulate?

In 1914, George Bernard Shaw said: "The cinema tells its story to the illiterate as well as the literate; and it keeps its victim (if you like to call him so) not only awake, but fascinated as if by a serpent's eye. And that is why the cinema is going to produce effects that all the books in the world could never produce."

Harvard professor Robert Coles has studied children closely and has written with understanding and vision about his findings. We may be surprised at his words: "Children, if we can listen to them, will tell us of a life richer in moral values than most grown-ups can comprehend.... If faced by the prospect of total annihilation, young people will try in some way to make sense of the mystery and madness of their lives."

So then what are we doing with our powerful imagemakers in the media? How do we reconcile Robert Coles's conclusions with the messages we are getting from some (not all) of our young people today? Where, and how, and why are we failing them? Failing them so much that they take such desperate means in their hands in order not to be just a cipher? I think one thing is certain. We do not listen to them enough - or soon enough.

Barbara Smith is a retired public school teacher, and at one time worked at Santana High School in Santee, Calif.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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