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Realism at school

By Bernard Chapin
web posted August 11, 2003

The political correctness that infects our colleges and universities has been well documented over the years. However, a lesser studied phenomenon is the amount of political correctness that is present within our primary and secondary schools. I noticed its presence during the time I interned at a major suburban district. The specter of Stalinist political correctness ended up having quite a bit to do with my future vocational decisions. Now I work at an alternative school, and when people ask me why I do, I answer by saying: "There is no such thing as political correctness at an alternative school. Life is real there and reality can't be covered up with lies and euphemisms. That's why I'll never leave."

I had already completed three years of work at a job in the sticks when I interviewed for my current position. My interview was highly unusual. I sat with the principal, who struck me a tough, no nonsense type of administrator. I was pleased because those are the types with whom I usually get along with best. She told me at the end of our chat that she was retiring in a year's time and that, after 35 years in the business, the last thing she wanted to do was physically restrain any more students. She said, "I don't want to wrestle on the floor at this point and I shouldn't have to." Therefore, in her mind, I was an ideal candidate for the job. The school, as is the norm, contained mostly female employees; so she wanted to have as many strong, young males in the building as was possible.

It wasn't until our meeting was over that I realized that her words were completely scandalous in the current social environment. You can't say you're even looking for a "hard-working person" let alone a "male person." Yet, I wondered, what was wrong with her viewpoint? I can completely empathize with her position. At the age of 33 I now have little patience for conducting 45 minute restraints on students. I can only imagine how much it will bother me at the age of 58. In my mind, working with a violent population mandates having employees around you who are able to deter and control chaotic outbursts, but nowadays, such common sense is verboten.

In the years since, I usually get dragged into a fight about twice a month. Earlier today, one of our social workers, who had the summer off, visited and told me she heard that we lost three male employees and replaced them with women. She laughed and said, "You're dead." I hope she's wrong, but usually our female employees avoid getting involved in student altercations (and I don't blame them).

Generally, we handle students with an ease and gentleness that would impress any outsider; although, on one occasion, we did not. The situation concerned a student who was a ward of the state. One morning he came to school with a set of dice, which is against our rules. No one would have made a big deal about it had he not been trying to get students to gamble with him in the hallway. A dean tried to confiscate the dice, but the student responded by tossing them to the ground. When the dean bent down to pick them up, the student punched him in the face two times. Help quickly arrived. A classroom aide struggled to control the student and they fell to the ground together. The result was that the student's arm was broken.

His DCFS guardians then conducted an investigation, complete with lawyers, at our school. They were outraged that the student's arm was broken and held us responsible. To me, it seemed utopianism run amok. I remember thinking that the way DCFS was acting, it was if the student was injured doing something benign like merely walking into his classroom.

Now I'm not trying to imply that we should not be sympathetic towards an adolescent with a broken limb, but clearly, his own actions were a catalyst for the chaos that followed. Luckily, the investigation was decided in our favor. Yet, it should be remembered that staff are incapable of acting like perfect automatons in every situation. There has to be an understanding within the system that students have some responsibility over what occurs in their lives. When they attack service personnel, it is irrational to expect us to comport ourselves like clerics.

One of my favorite politically incorrect memories came after the aforementioned principal tenured her letter of resignation and a committee of four female department heads was appointed to find a successor. I mention their sex because that was what made the story humorous. I walked into the conference room in which they were interviewing applicants and asked them at the end of the day, "Well? Who are we hiring?"

They shook their heads. An old-timer said, "All the interviewees are women and we don't want to work for a female boss." None of the others disputed her opinion. I laughed out loud. I couldn't believe it. If I had my wits about me I would have asked for their reasons.

"That's hilarious." I said. "Can I tell people that you said that?" They didn't answer me, but such a story illustrates that real people do not always speak correctly and are not the pawns of diversity counselors.

Speaking of gender, I can testify that the contemporary workplace is far from accommodating for more traditional males like me. My job is made up of meetings and then followed by more meetings. That's my role and I accept it. The meetings that concern students and parents are generally productive and enjoyable. However, what I cannot tolerate are the staff meetings. They usually take up four hours of my Tuesday and I view them as a Kolyma-esque form of punishment.

It seems that the "viva la difference" approach has been consigned to the ash heap of history. Our meetings often contain a "Story to Share" segment, in which we are supposed to tell each other about the wild and wooly things that happen to us during the week. The boss likes the stories to be sappy and kissy-huggy. It is, by far, my least favorite moment at work. I usually begrudgingly tell some story that is actually nobody's business, but then, on one occasion, I protested by standing up and telling everyone about a bat I had to kill in my apartment over the weekend. My co-workers liked it more than one of my manufactured "heart on my sleeve" stories.

What I'd like to say about all of this is that taking eight staff members out from servicing children and placing them into a conference room defeats the purpose of having specialists within your behavior modification program. However, my input on this point is not welcome. What I do input to others is that I'm blessed to be where I am at because reality is an intrinsic part of our school day. I could not assume that working elsewhere.

Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at emeritus@flash.net.

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