Stop the trend of putting people down

I have now completed the long march from kindergarten through high school twice. During the 1960s I made the journey as a student; for the past 12 years I've experienced it as a parent.

My congratulations to the Class of 2007. Graduating is no simple task. Thanks also to the teachers and support staff. And if anyone reading this has small children who are about to enter the educational system, I have some observations that might help you deal with bumpy spots on the road ahead.

First and foremost, don't think of the school building as an oasis shielded from the outside world. All the trends and tribulations of modern America echo up and down the hallways.

I'm not going to rant about life being nicer when I was a teenager. Change is inevitable. But one of the changes that truly bothers me is how everyday attitudes in this country have become provocative. Questioning authority is a knee-jerk reaction. Huge numbers of people think being outrageous or confrontational is just a form of entertainment.

When I was in high school we had cliques, loners, activists, and people who weren't sure where they fitted in. That's still happening. What's different now, the change that leaps out when I compare the past and present, is that my classmates didn't spend time thinking up ways to torment people who weren't part of their group.

These days it's standard operating procedure to have peers walk up and say, "Where'd you get those clothes? They're really ugly." Persistent pointing and whispering are normal communication techniques.

I once talked to a middle school principal who patrolled the cafeteria during lunch period. What surprised her was the behavior of incoming sixth-graders. "If I see a napkin on the floor and ask someone to pick it up, there are two frequent answers," she told me. "One is, 'That's not mine,' and the other is, 'The janitor will get it.' Then I explain that everyone keeps the school clean."

It's ironic to me that students nowadays are bombarded with slogans in school about showing respect and celebrating diversity. There's no incentive to take these ideas seriously when the world of adults is simmering with scorched-earth talk shows, online blogs that let contributors spew venom and personal attacks without restraint, and cinematic productions such as "Borat" that are the visual equivalent of prank phone calls.

Whenever I'm asked to make a classroom presentation, the one piece of advice I stress to the audience is this: There's nothing creative or original about telling other people "Joey's an idiot" or "Janie's family is weird." If that's what your pals insist on talking about, find some new ones.

And, finally, I can't overemphasize the value of geniunely nice friends. On New Year's Eve my family went to a party that could serve as a blueprint for the rest of society. Everyone had fun, we talked about interesting subjects, nobody said anything nasty about people who weren't there, and when it ended I picked up a lot of confetti off the floor. Even some that didn't come from my popper.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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