Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Fools In Old Style Hats And Coats

Our youngest daughter came home from school the other day with a funny story. Apparently the principal at her middle school broadcast a message to the entire school about an e-mail he had received: kids with drug-laced bags of candies were passing these around the courtyard to unsuspecting students. He warned everyone to be vigilant many times over.

The entire school was shocked and thrilled by this announcement. This is a small town, and although there have been drug-related incidents, they have generally been confined to a small but well-known minority.

Shortly after this, the principal came back on the intercom, apologizing for his previous announcement. The candy-drug story, he had since learned, had been a scam -- a prank started by someone with too much time on their hands.

My daughter and her friends are fairly savvy about drug and substance abuse. In some respects, perhaps they are savvier than the principal and his colleagues, who are forced to spend all their time doing things like managing budgets, dealing with academic issues, and going to meetings. They were rather amused by their principal's admission, but I gathered from the way they were talking that they thought he was a little foolish to fall for it.

My take on this was that he acted swiftly, if a little precipitously. And he had guts to admit that he'd been duped.

And I remembered Mr Bell.

Mr Bell was the principal of our elementary school my last year there. Some of the more physically advanced girls immediately noticed his classic good looks -- he was what could be described as a fine figure of a man with broad shoulders, an excellent physique, and wavy hair -- but I found him fussy and pompous. A church elder, he fairly oozed respectability and moral rectitude in his conservative suit and spiffily polished shoes. And he had a knack for ruining our fun.

One week, someone brought marbles to school and in very little time, we were all hooked -- even me. Those who were skilled at playing accumulated marbles from others, and although I could win prizes for my poor coordination, for some reason, I really cleaned up on marbles. Mr Bell got wind of our marble playing -- "gambling," as he called it -- and outlawed this. He outlawed comic books, too, and other fun things, like yo-yos.

One day as we were walking to class, we noted that someone had written the F-word on one of the bungalow walls in lurid red spray paint. Everybody knew the F-word, of course, and we were all mildly shocked, but by the time class started, we had forgotten about it.

I was sitting with a group of others during recess (mourning the loss of our beloved marbles), when Mr Bell discovered the most recent grafitti. Even now, I remember his almost exaggeratedly horrified reaction. The spray-painted obscenity spanned a good two feet, and Mr Bell immediately stood with his back to the offending word to cover it. Extending his arms so that he formed a perfect T, Mr Bell managed to hide the entire word. He asked one of the school monitors to go to the school office and bring back masking tape and paper.

It took the monitor a full fifteen minutes to execute this order.

For the entire fifteen minutes, Mr Bell stood with his arms outstretched, covering the offending word. We all felt like telling him that we knew the word -- that everybody knew the word -- and that his actions were useless. His arms must have ached, but he stood there until the class buzzer went. Finally the monitor came back with the tape and paper and Mr Bell carefully papered over it. School monitors were assigned to guard the abomination lest someone peeled back the paper, exposing the horror beneath.

To this day, I can picture Mr Bell with perfect clarity, standing there, arms held rigidly out, protecting our innocence. Because that is absolutely what he was doing: protecting us from what he saw as the vulgarity of the world. Sure, he was out of touch and hopelessly naive, but I have no doubt that he acted in our best interests.

Thank you, Mr Bell. I wish you hadn't taken away our marbles, but I get what you were doing now. And if it's any consolation, I've used that word very sparingly all my life.



Travis Erwin said...

Be careful; about admitting you lost all your marbles.

Carole said...

Protecting innocence is a lost virtue. Parents seem all to anxious to have their children grow up. 5th graders wear clothing that should be reserved for the beach and teachers are having sex with their jr. high students. So, like you, I appreciate Mr. Bell.

Charles Gramlich said...

Although certainly Mr. Bell overreacted I kind of admire his strength of character and will to stand there like that. Looks to me like he really did care, even if his efforts were sometimes misplaced. that's better than the non-caring we get in the schools too much these days.

The Quoibler said...

You know, this is a very sweet story.

I agree with you, Charles and Carole. Mr. Bell probably did care a great deal, and that's missing in our society.

What I find humorous is that you all knew the word. I hadn't a clue about the "f" word until I was a little older. :)


Mary Witzl said...

Travis -- That one's been out of the bag for ages, believe me. I've always been crazy, but it helps me -- you know the rest, right?

Carole -- I agree. It's heartbreaking to see kids pushed willy-nilly into becoming old before their time just to follow fashion trends. Of all things to sell kids, this is the stupidest and the cruellest. I didn't appreciate Mr Bell at the time, but I do now.

Charles -- Honestly, at the time I saw this it just seemed so silly. But when I think back on it now, I feel like crying. He did care; though he must have known he could not protect us forever, he still tried.

Angelique -- I think I was in the third grade when I first heard it. We had some really rough kids who lived just next door and they kept us well informed. One thing I NEVER heard was my parents using anything worse than damn or hell. We thought those words were the worst swear words anyone could use. The F-word was known, but taboo.

C.R. Evers said...

I love your use of description. I felt like I was right there.

I too appreciate those who go out of their way for the best interest of a child. It may seem naive and old fashioned to most, but protecting innocence is a moral lost by most. I find it endearing, even though it was an overreaction.

Way to go Mr. Bell! :0)

Gorilla Bananas said...

He made himself ridiculous by covering it with his arms. Treating it with scorn would have been more dignified.

Jacqui said...

Travis: Ha!

Wow. Sometimes I feel like I spend my whole life trying to protect my children for just a few minutes more. The visual image of Mr. Bell sums it up beautifully.

debra said...

Funny how things like that stick in you mind, isn't it. Sorry about the marbles, though.

Alice said...

I can remember my mom running to block the TV just like that during a sex scene, holding out her green fuzzy robe. I had a friend over at the time and I just about died of embarassment!

Tabitha said...

Jacqui, I totally agree. My kids are still very young, but they still haven't experienced much of what their friends have seen. Such as TV, news, movies that aren't animated, nifty gadgets, etc. My kids, to this day, don't know what a commercial is because they haven't watched enough TV to find out.

So I completely agree with what Mr. Bell was trying to do, even if he did it a little awkwardly. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- Mr Bell's manner irritated me so much as a child, but you are right -- "endearing" is exactly how I see it now, like he was some sort of Don Quixote, tilting at the impossible windmill of a vulgar world.

GB -- He didn't want even one tiny bit of the word showing, and this struck us as hopelessly naive. But now I can see his point. I can see yours, too: his reaction might have piqued the interest of otherwise indifferent kids.

Jacqui -- Thank you. I feel just the same, and my kids are every bit as indignant about my naive assumptions as I was about Mr Bell's. They think they are fully aware of all the evil out there in the big bad world. Sigh.

Debra -- My friends and I watched this out of the corner of our eyes, trying to suppress giggles. I had no idea this would stick in my mind for years to come. And I wonder if anyone else remembers this incident? I bet Mr Bell does.

Alice -- My mother did that too! It's a good thing she's not around to see some of the stuff on TV now. I'm not sure she could have coped.

We once had a little boy over while his mother worked overtime. He never watched TV at home, and while watching ours, he saw someone get shot and killed -- and he ran screaming from the room. That was a big eye opener for all of us.

Tabitha -- I agree too. There's so much crap out there, and all kids find it soon enough. My feeling has been that if you give your kids a good start by offering them plenty of good things, the crap won't seem so enticing.

We have shielded our kids in some respects by not having our TV hooked up. We use it to watch videos and DVDs we personally choose. Now that they're older, we're a lot more liberal, but I still feel that the reason our kids read so much is due to this. And I'm betting they're among the minority who've watched the entire West Wing series three times.

Kim Ayres said...

But in the right place it can get you a lot of points in scrabble...

Queen Goob said...

I understand the need to "protect" our kids while they're young and impressionable. We were having an influx of teen pregnancy a few years back at the MIDDLE SCHOOL. That along with the inappropriate clothing and "communications skills" my kids were picking up justified me yanking them out of public school and enrolling them into a private Christian school.

Can I tell you what they're learning THERE?!?!?! LOL

Thank goodness I'm a PK and understand.

p.s. Congrats on the award!

marshymallow said...

Reminds of an English teacher i once had for Romeo & Juliet. Shakespeare was brilliant, but man, was he lewd. We ended up watching one of the movie versions in class, and she turned the TV around for a couple of scenes. It's not like we didn't know what was going on but it was sweet of her to try.

Phil said...

Makes me wonder how I will be remembered.

Funny what we remember about school days - especially as we get older. I remember few lessons - but do recall many incidents.

Wonder if you could help me out, Mary. I'm thinking of starting a school blog. Using Blogger, is there a way of setting it up so no-one can comment or that comments can be checked before allowing them to show? Clearly, if something is to be accessed by children and parents, there has to be some safeguards to stop malicious messages being left.

If you don't have time to respond, don't worry.


Phil said...

Also fits in with the theme of protecting innocence - still a worthwhile occupation - even if it is one with diminishing returns.


Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- You bet! Big points too, what with the U and those two high-scoring consonants.

QG -- Thank you for commenting!

I know so many people in the States who have done the same thing. My cousin stuck it out for ages until one of her kids' classmates brought a gun to school. Pregnant middle school girls aren't unheard of here either, and although guns aren't a problem, knife crime in the U.K. is up. There are some schools where the teachers are so busy sorting out serious discipline and safety problems that they don't even have time to teach.

Marshymallow -- Wasn't Shakespeare a great way to learn things? The Old Testament was also a rich source of information. And the nice thing about reading both of them was that nobody was the wiser about your intentions.

Phil -- How are you doing?

You can definitely set up a blog with moderated comments. My fellow blogging pals Susan Sandmore and A Paperback Writer both have comment moderation; when people comment, the blog owner can read the comment and then decide whether she wants to post it or not. That way you can keep out scammers or people who might use words that would upset Mr Bell.

Phil said...

Thanks Mary

Barbara Martin said...

I agree that Mr. Bell had the childrens' best interests in mind, that it was paramount to him to shelter them from something he saw as vulgar.

manager mom said...

Wow.. that was a strangely moving story. I wish there were more Mr. Bells in this world...

A Paperback Writer said...

In 1977, when I was in junior high, I would've laughed at Mr. Bell for making the word a bigger deal than it was. The less fuss made with graffitti, and the sooner it's cleaned up, the better -- especially if the culprits are later seen (with no fanfare or glory whatsoever) scrubbing lockers and washing windows after school. Finding them usually only takes a few days; kids rat on each other. The important thing is not to make a big deal of it and to make the guilty party work it off.
Kids don't want adults to treat them like babies.
I've had a great deal of success with other methods of teaching the same thing.
Once, I had a girl (not really sweet or innocent or even pleasant) yell "f--- you!" at a boy who was annoying her in class.
Knowing what would happen if I over-reacted, I merely said, "Katie, I'm sorry, but I never allow sexual activity in my classroom. You'll have to meet up with Rick elsewhere for that."
The whole class roared with laughter, except Katie, who got mad.
"I don't wanna have sex with him!" she shouted, pointing at the laughing boy.
"I can understand that, Katie, seeing as he was annoying you and had better cut it out immediately, but you did offer it to him."
"That's not what I meant!"
"But that's what the f-word means, so don't offer if you don't want it."
It worked. I had no f-word problems for the next 6 months in that class.
Mr Bell may have been a very young and inexperienced principal. I bet he learned his lesson from that, too. I also did some stupid things that taught pretty much the opposite of what I meant them too when I was young and inexperienced. I bet he got better. :)

A Paperback Writer said...

I forgot the most important part:
Bravo for the principal who admitted he was wrong and apologized -- in public, no matter how hard it was. Maybe the kids thought he was stupid, but you could point out to them that he was teaching by example a very difficult lesson: sometimes we screw up and we have to fix it. It's hard, and we have to be brave.
This is a far better act than the Mr. Bell who sought to pretend nothing was wrong. This man admitted he'd been duped and did something to correct it. Few adults can do that. I sing his praises.
If only politicians could learn what this principal was trying to teach the kids.....

Mary Witzl said...

Barbara -- Looking back, I never really got the intentions of adults. I just thought they were out to spoil my fun. Now I see my kids thinking the exact same thing and I feel wistful...

Manager Mom -- I still respect the intent behind Mr Bell's actions if not the actions themselves. It might have been wiser for him to send for a can of paint and quietly cover the offending word, but the thought of him standing there with his arms out like that makes me feel like crying now, as an adult. Such a futile effort...

APW -- I love the way you dealt with Katie!! My kids would give a lot to have a teacher like you.

I agree that an overreaction like this only serves to attract more attention to the offending word, but I can now appreciate the intent behind the action. And I definitely agree that by immediately admitting he had been duped, our kids' principal was behaving admirably. I had a lot of professors who never admitted they were wrong; who, if you asked them questions, would BS their way through convoluted answers instead of simply saying "I don't know, I'll get back to you after I look that up." To this day, I remember the ones who actually said that -- and who admitted they'd made mistakes. I've aimed to be that sort of teacher myself.

Beck said...

Awww, he was a good man.
Our local school still tells kids that hippies are distributing LSD tabs with pictures of cartoon characters on them in the schoolyards. Mmmmhmmm. SURE they are.

Ello said...

Now if only I had a Mr. Bell in my school maybe that F word wouldn't pop out of my mouth so f**king readily. Ooops!

Such a cute story!

Kara said...

i use it constantly. it just slips in there like a comma. oh well...some of us have all the self restraint.

Mary Witzl said...

Beck -- Cartoon characters, eh? How sneaky! Now I'm wondering which characters would lend themselves to this kind of thing. Roger Rabbit? The Road Runner? Donald Duck? I've always suspected those guys, from their wild, erratic behavior.

Ello -- Well, when I say I've used it sparingly, I suspect some of my relatives would think one time was far too much. It's all relative. I like to save it for really, really big stuff. When I do use it, I get full value.

Kara -- You f******g mind your mouth, young woman!

Danette Haworth said...

Mr. Bell--I see him as Cary Grant. I don't know which contemporary celebrity would play him today, but he needs a little movie!

problemchildbride said...

For some reason Mr. bell reminds me of the butler in Remains Of The Day.

You wouldn't find a Mr. Bell like that any more, I don't think. and you're right, there's a little something that's lost for that.

Mary Witzl said...

Danette -- He actually looked a tiny bit like Cary Grant, come to think of it! He had that air about him too, and that sort of 50s heart-throb look, with a well-pressed suit, tie and shiny shoes.

Sam -- Mr Bell was like a better looking, more presentable version of my very religious uncles. He also had a kilt (hairy legs!) and a set of bagpipes and was a deacon in the Baptist church.

It is odd that while I still find what he did mock-worthy, my heart aches for him. His actions were pure and kindly meant.