Case of Disrespect at Mechanicsville

COMMENT

June 19, 1994|By BRIAN SULLIAM

When I was a kid, I occasionally got into mischief.

One Halloween, we filled balloons with water and threw them at buses.

In the fourth grade, a friend and I selectively edited the teacher's schedule on the blackboard so that our class was to have lunch at 10 a.m. -- and not have reading at all.

These pranks were annoying to the adults -- particularly those who were hit by the water balloons -- but they didn't do permanent damage and weren't terribly destructive.

The same cannot be said for the sheer destructive nature of the vandalism that occurred last weekend at the Mechanicsville Elementary School in Gamber.

The two youths who have been charged with breaking and entering and malicious destruction were not interested in making a little mischief. Their apparent intention was to ruin as much as possible.

They splashed paint all over the almost-completed school gymnasium and adjoining bathrooms, ruining the newly installed ceramic tile. They spilled lubricating oil over the hardwood floor in gymnasium.

After the paint is scraped from the floors, ceilings and walls and the oil is mopped up, little of this spree will remain. But it has already left scars on the community.

An important institution in the community has been violated. Schools may be only buildings, but the teaching that takes place inside them is one of most essential activities of a civilized world -- preparing children to assume their places in society.

Perhaps it was inadvertent on their part -- it is hard to believe that people capable of wrecking a school expend much brain power thinking about the symbolic consequences of their actions -- but the vandals made a very clear statement they don't respect the rest of us.

They also probably don't have much respect for themselves. They probably don't see much meaning or purpose in their lives. If they did, they wouldn't have engaged in such a nihilistic act.

With Beavis and Butt-head -- rather than Beaver Cleaver -- defining behavior for millions of kids today, it is not surprising that two 13-year-olds might not have second thoughts about destroying a school.

In recent years, newspapers and magazines have consumed oceans of ink exploring the reasons for the precipitous decline in respect in society and why Beavis and Butt-head, Al Bundy of the Fox network show, "Married . . . With Children" and others of their ilk have become cultural heroes.

Some argue that the fault lies with the baby boom generation. Baby boomers created the social revolution. Long hair, free sex and open use of drugs were the visible efforts to disregard convention three decades ago.

To blame an entire generation doesn't make much sense. After all, it was a minority of the baby boomers who protested against the war in Vietnam, burned draft cards and closed down colleges in the late '60s and '70s.

Most of the people in my generational cohort didn't go to college but went to work in factories and offices. Many went off to war.

These people have all taken their places in society. Even most of the tie-dye wearing, pot-smoking, class-skipping members of that generation have assumed all the time-honored characteristics of American life -- burdened with mortgages, worrying about their kids, complaining about the crabgrass in their lawns, worried that they won't have enough money to balance the monthly household budget.

It is very possible that the message of questioning authority and disobeying convention has been distorted over time and then carried to an extreme.

Three decades ago, a few anarchists renounced all material goods and refused to participate in organized society. They were a minority.

Most of the people who were questioning authority didn't want to do away with it. They just wanted to replace the nation's leaders with ones of their own choosing.

Destroying for the sake of destroying has nothing to do with questioning authority. Tearing down provides great emotional release but little emotional satisfaction.

It's like eating too much candy -- you get a great carbohydrate ZTC rush, followed by a let-down. Just as it is more satisfying to the body to eat a balanced meal, it is more satisfying to the soul to create than to destroy.

While our society has burdened itself with millions of written laws, regulations and rules, the principles that govern our behavior are not to be found in the Maryland Annotated Code or the U.S. Code or even the county ordinances.

If you want to find the precepts that govern behavior, you have to look inside each of the individual members of society.

The majority of citizens in a democratic society conform voluntarily to societal norms because they want to do the right thing. They recognize that society works better when people cooperate and respect their fellow citizens.

As disturbing as was the vandalism at the elementary school, it is not much worse than people who dump their trash along roadsides and companies that pour raw sewage into streams.

Such action also violates the social compact that we have all tacitly accepted, much the way the vandals did when they destroyed the insides of the Mechanicsville school gymnasium.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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