The Messy March of Time


April 21, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

I see by the Chatterbox that teen-age rights are in jeopardy. This will not come as news to anyone who has ever been a teen-ager, although when I wrote for the Chatterbox back in the Mesozoic era, we didn't dare suggest in print that teen-agers had any rights.

The Chatterbox is published by students of George Washington High School, which used to be a brick building in a grove of oaks and sweetgums on Holbrook Avenue in Danville, Virginia. Today a school of the same name is on Broad Street, overlooking Dan River and a bridge and cloverleaf and shopping centers that didn't exist back then.

Anyone who scans today's Chatterbox to see how the GWHS Cardinals are doing will look long, because the Cardinals are no more. That's because all-white GW merged a short generation ago with all-black Langston High, whose team was the Langston Lions. One of the compromises that made the merger work was calling the integrated teams the Eagles.

In my time, and for years before and after, we won a lot of newspaper prizes because our faculty overseer was one Nora Payne Hill, head of the English department. Mrs. Hill did not tolerate imprecision in spelling, grammar or punctuation in her Chatterbox. She and her breed are gone, sadly, from lots of newspapers.

Though she rolled her eyes at it, she tolerated a lot of youthful enthusiasm, in our sports slang and the jive talk with which we greeted new records by Woody Herman or Peggy Lee. But even slang had to be done right.

Mrs. Hill, whose memory I cherish, was not a prominent believer in teen-age rights. Some solemn 16-year-olds were allowed to deliver their opinions on world events, but the only domestic crusade we mounted was my campaign for repairs to the fence behind left field, where I spent the best springs of my life.

Once a brash and innocent editorialist did hint vaguely at some criticism of Dan River Mills, which dominated the local economy. It didn't happen twice. There was no overt dictation of subject matter; it just didn't occur to us that high-school students were entitled to criticize, except in our own bull sessions.

Maybe we got this realistic perception of where we stood from watching so many friends a little older go off to war and do their grown-up duty. Without its being stated, we accepted the premise that those not old enough to be drafted were not old enough to enjoy certain other privileges. There is no such clear line of demarcation today.

I don't suggest that that's why today's Chatterbox is different. In some ways, it isn't different at all. On Page 9, Aimee Babiera's commentary says, "Let's face it. Recently the word teenager has become synonymous with loud music, mischief and abusive behavior." That quote might have been lifted from any Chatterbox ever published, in any decade. But Aimee continues: "For example, a youth wearing leather and chains might be mistakenly associated with a trouble-making gang just because

of his preference for certain clothes."

Time does march on.

If in the dark ages we had run a spread headed "Teenage Rights????" we wouldn't have dreamed of using with it a photo of a Labrador retriever sniffing for drugs hidden in school lockers.

In those days, we didn't print commentary on Page 1. Even if we had, nobody would have written that students should recite the pledge of allegiance daily, and "Anyone not wishing to participate should be sent to the office. As for the flag burners, they should be kicked out of the country. . . . People who spoke out against the troops being in the Middle East should also be ostracized."

That's what somebody wrote last month. Two sentences later, he or she said Americans should realize that the flag and national anthem "stand for freedom, a democratic idea that many people take for granted."


But then, we wouldn't have started another Page 1 piece the way Emily Hayes did, either: "Leaving a child in a dumpster is a criminal offense. That is essentially what the Virginia child labor laws are doing to people under the age of 18 concerning holding jobs."

We wouldn't have started our lead editorial this way: "Teenagers are once again being abused. The hollow and porous child labor laws of Virginia are abusing working teenagers. Virginia is a pro-business state as a whole and fears business restriction. . . . " This piece ended by fingering local legislators by name, urging them to change things.

Sometimes progress is messy, but sometimes I love it.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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