The Way We Live Now

April 27, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

PHOENIX — Phoenix. -- Here is a quote from Melissa Rodis, the president of the Student Council at Central High School here: ''If students aren't keeping their guns in their lockers, that means they're carrying them around.''

The powers that be in the new America, it seems, have taken the lockers out of Central High. ''It's really a nuisance,'' Ms. Rodis said. But she added that students are coping, carrying their guns in backpacks, along with their drugs.

The best years of modern lives -- that's what they always told us about high school -- are a bit different from what they were in what we now call the good old days.

At George Wingate High School in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, they have a storage problem, too. The place is cluttered up with an organ, pianos and other dusty musical instruments left over from the days when there were school bands and orchestras. A 1962 Wingate graduate named Meyer Kantor saw that there was no mention of music or drama in the current yearbook, compared with 17 pages in his own yearbook 30 years ago.

At Fairfax High and others in Los Angeles, there is no school newspaper. There is no money, and no teacher is interested in working (free) as adviser to student papers.

The locker thing got to me because, like many people, I can remember the trauma of being a freshman. My mother made me wear galoshes my first day at Lincoln High in Jersey City, New Jersey -- I was in a January class and the streets were slushy. Balancing a pile of new books, I was desperate to find my locker and hide the damned boots. So desperate, in fact, that I took the wrong staircase and ended up downstairs in the girls' locker room -- which then seemed even worse than wearing galoshes.

In Phoenix they are willing to buy two sets of textbooks for each student -- one for class and one for homework -- rather than provide space to hide guns, drugs and liquor. Nine guns have been confiscated in Phoenix high schools this year. At Dysart High three years ago, a student was shot to death, apparently accidentally, when a classmate reached into a locker to show off the loaded gun he had in it. And there are break-ins all the time by vandals looking for drugs and weapons.

At Sunnyslope High, where lockers were removed five years ago, the assistant principal, Chuck O'Connor, told the Phoenix Gazette: ''You'd open up a locker and there would sit a quart bottle mayonnaise jar filled with liquor. A kid would be tapping it during change of classes.''

So, that's what it's like out there, where they are trying to educate ''other people's'' kids. I use that phrase because it recurs so often in the mail I get. Whenever I write about schools or state and local taxes, I can count on letters from intelligent Americans, particularly Californians, asking quite seriously why they should care about funding public schools anymore. As far as they are concerned, their obligation as citizens ended when they had paid taxes to educate their own children in the good old days.

Well, in my view, if you accept that argument -- which seems to relate proportionally to school districts with large enrollments of brown and black kids -- you can forget about the idea of community and about America, too.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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