Last week, when administrators at Hampstead Hill Middle School in East Baltimore tried to suspend every boy in the sixth grade following a big fight there, they told the children that the school system considers every little boy a potential trouble-maker and thug.
Little boys in this city get that message a lot.
But, when Superintendent Walter G. Amprey overruled the suspensions and removed Hampstead Hill's principal from her post, he told the children that city schools will no longer tolerate that kind of attitude about them.
And that marked the first time in memory that anyone in this city has ever told little boys so clearly and so indisputably that we do not fear and despise them.
Our new superintendent has made a good beginning.
For you can buy a packaged lesson plan touting self-esteem and order all teachers to ram it down the children's throats.
You can bring in successful people to boast about their accomplishments in the hopes that underprivileged children will become inspired by the good fortunes of others.
You can even paper the walls with inspirational slogans.
But the bottom line is, our actions will always speak louder than our words.
If we fear our children, they will act like monsters. If we decide they are doomed to failure, they will live down to our expectations.
At Hampstead Hill last week, administrators did everything wrong.
They levied suspensions willy-nilly when the school system is struggling to keep children in school. They singled out boys when both boys and girls participated. They punished everyone when, at most, less than a third of the sixth-graders were involved.
They acted as though they were faced with a full-scale riot at the maximum security wing of the Maryland Penitentiary, instead of with a bunch of 11- and 12-year-olds wrestling on the floor.
The principal had to go. She had to be held responsible.
"Just to suspend kids randomly, without really knowing who was involved and without taking the trouble to find out, that was just a poor administrative decision," explained Jackie Hardy, a school spokesperson. "You have to look at the source -- look at how the situation was allowed to get so far out of control."
Added Willie J. Foster, director of middle schools: "We know that middle school children are at a very difficult age to begin with. They need a lot of guidance and a lot of structure and it is incumbent upon adults in the system to provide that. What the administrators [at Hampstead Hill] wanted to do was quiet things down, restore order and then get parents involved -- all laudable goals. But they went about it in the wrong way."
Educators may not even be aware of how very different they sound this year.
For instance, after 13 students were injured at Herring Run Middle School Tuesday when students rushed to their buses after a school assembly, the principal was quick to blame himself.
"There was no fighting," said Leon Tillett, "no malicious intent, no running or pushing -- just a crowding situation that created problems."
Tillett immediately revised the way his school handles school assemblies to prevent such situations in the future.
As recently as last year, it seems to me, administrators would have assured us that children at both schools were little hoodlums. They would have blamed the kids, blamed the parents, blamed society. (All the while wondering why children, who aren't deaf, appear to have so little self-esteem.)
And then they would have appointed a task force to study the problem.
"Education reform," noted Amprey in a recent interview, "doesn't come in the way we think. It begins with a change in the mental attitude about the way we see our children. We have to look at our kids differently."
And, by golly, our new superintendent seems to be a man of his word.
For the first time in memory -- nay, maybe for the first time since World War II -- the adults running the city school system actually sound like grown-ups capable of giving guidance to the young.
Moreover, they actually can be heard acknowledging that the children placed in their charge are not loathsome creatures at all, but only children. Only children, after all.