Public schools another casualty of Littleton

April 28, 1999|By Richard Rodriguez

AFTER the ribbons fade, after the dead are laid to rest, after the reporters drift away, the last casualty of the massacre at Columbine High School may turn out to be the idea of public school.

Earlier generations understood that, in a nation as focused on the individual as ours, we need an institution where children would learn to regard themselves as people in common.

After Littleton, Colo., who wonders about Yugoslavia? The most Balkanized region of America may well be the high school, where teen-agers segregate themselves, each group with its own -- jocks, skinheads, blacks, surfers, nerds, etc. What happened in Littleton -- the Gothics vs. the jocks -- was a kind of ethnic cleansing.

We have known for some time that inner-city children kill one another to establish a sense of belonging to gangs, in the city of strangers. We are sorry for them, but as long as we stayed out of their line of fire, we thought we were safe. But then we started to see white kids emerge from the forests of rural America, their parody of big-city gangs, their murderous rage against parents and school.

Now the nightmare moves to a middle-class suburb, where nice people live and the streets are wide and the houses have separate bedrooms for everyone and a three-car garage -- the domestic architecture of anonymity.

After the high school shootings, I kept thinking of the parents of the two "monsters."

A woman, a mother of teen-agers, said to me last week that she began to "lose contact" with her children when they began to listen to a music she could not decipher. Before that, they had their televisions. And now, of course, they have their own computers. "They live in their own world."

This, of course, is where the teacher comes in. We send our children, who are innocent of intimacy, to Columbine High School.

It falls to the teacher, underpaid and overworked, to teach the children of Littleton what public school teachers have always tried to teach children, that they belong to a culture in common, speak a common tongue, carry a common history that connects them to Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X.

Imagine the task of today's public school teacher. Everyday facing too many faces to know by name. Bodybuilders, pierced noses, shaved heads, Calvin Klein blues, black trench coats.

At such a school, can we be surprised to learn that a sad little tribe, the Trench Coat Mafia, published an ad in the yearbook announcing, "INSANITY IS HEALTHY." This didn't set off alarm bells among the faculty?

You will say, of course, that high school is high school. It's always been the most conformist society of our lives. What is different now is that increasing numbers of high school students come from families and neighborhoods that barely exist. They live surrounded by an architecture of impersonality and a technology of solitude: Web pages silently screaming for attention.

We've ended up with a bunch of loners looking for a tribe.

Lost in the news from Colorado last week was an educational story not unrelated. Theodore J. Forstmann, a Wall Street billionaire, who has promised low-income children scholarships to private schools, announced that he had received applications from more than a million families.

The rich, of course, long ago abandoned our public schools Now the poor want out. For many poor families, the best hope for what we might call a "public" education may be private, religious schools. Despite their theological tribalism -- or maybe because of it -- a student is grounded in a larger reality than his separate self.

After Littleton, middle-class parents may well decide that the public school cafeteria is too dangerous a place for their children.

But the question for Americans is whether we will continue to embrace public schools for all children at a time when we are so alienated from our own children.

Richard Rodriguez is an editor with Pacific News Service.

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