When my son was five years old, he set off the fire alarm at his Elementary School and completely emptied the buildings.
Four hundred students in semi-straight lines marched out like excited ants while teachers and administrators attempted to corral them to the pre-determined "safety zones" that sat along the perimeter of the campus. The fire department was called and they arrived within minutes, just when it was determined it was a false alarm caused by a curious kindergartener. Their shiny red trucks circled the block in an impromptu parade with their lights flashing, trumpeting an occasional "whoop" as the bouncing crowd of students cheered and pumped their fists.
My son missed the firemen and the sirens, as he had been whisked away to the principal's office, shame faced with a sweatshirt over his head like a celebrity avoiding the paparazzi.
I know all of this because the principal told me the tale while she was attempting to cast my son in the light of a "bad egg." Granted she didn't make the paparazzi reference, but the inconvenience to the school's staff and the fire department she was pretty clear about. And while what he didn't wasn't technically "criminal" it was tantamount to yelling "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater.
While she was waggling her finger at my son and warning me about the consequences for his unruly behavior, M sat in his chair with his feet dangling off the floor, his face blooming a violent red, not from embarrassment, but from unbridled frustration and anger. To this day, he will tell you it was not his fault that the alarm went off. He places the blame completely in the lap of the school and his teacher. The school because they had placed the fire alarm at the enticing level of the keen eyes of your standard kindergartener and his teacher because, while he admits to pulling the alarm out, the bells didn't start ringing until she shoved it back in.
"They're the ones that put it there." he'd said. "I'm a kid, what was I supposed to do? Walk by it?"
At the time I rolled my eyes and chalked it up to a bad combination of adult stupidity and childhood ignorance. He was right. He was a kid and the adults who ran, maintained and built that school should have taken a moment to think about what kind of people were going to walk down those halls and sit in those classrooms. Children are children after all, they don't think like adults. If they see a bright red sign that reads "PULL", they're going to do just that. Casting someone as a "bad egg" because they followed instructions seemed, to me, a bit much.
Fast forward eleven years and we have found our selves, once again, confronted with the unbelievably bad combination of adult reality folded into the intricate territories of child development.
M is now sixteen. Any scientist out there would confirm and argue that he is, as of yet, not fully gown. No matter how tall, well formed or hairy he is, his mind is still in a chrysalis stage. He is neither a child, nor is he an adult. The two halves of his brain do not communicate with each other, and he is basically incapable of making a well thought out decision. He is an adolescent knucklehead of the highest order and as his parents we are comforted knowing his whacked-out teenage behavior is backed up by scientific research.
So, when he is bored because his teacher is late to class and he sees a pair of scissors, a ruler and a spool of Scotch Tape sitting on a table and tapes the scissors to the ruler together to create "long-range-scissors", who in the world would come to the immediate conclusion that he was intentionally fabricating a dangerous object?
And who would think that his teacher, an adult, would see said item, proclaim it a "facsimile of a weapon" (which apparently is just as bad as the real thing), not even attempt to figure out what his intentions were, kick him out of class, get him suspended for two days and start a "zero-tolerance" ball rolling that had the capacity to end with M being expelled from the entire LAUSD school district on a weapons charge that would follow him for the rest of his life?
Not me, that's for sure. But it happened, and I found myself once again sitting with my son in a principal's office, this time with his size twelve feet solidly placed on the floor. Fortunately, this principal was the good-cop to the Elementary School's bad-cop. She knew he was never a threat, and M was never bathed in the "bad-egg" light (although privately she did call him Edward Scissorhands and a bonehead... which I completely agree with).
She did acknowledge, however, that with the zero-tolerance rules, her room for discretion was minimal and had she not been the principal of a Charter School, non-existent. Her power had been replaced with policy. Fortunately, he will be able to continue school, because as his principal said, "He's a kid. Kids do dumb things."
As we drove away from the meeting, I looked at my son. The color had come back to his face, (he'd been blanched from the moment he'd been pulled out of class) and the taut furrow he'd carried on his forehead for days seemed to have relaxed a bit. The whole situation was so ludicrous I couldn't even muster the energy to get angry at anybody.
After all, at what point to office supplies become weapons? M had simply slipped up and fallen into a pit of bureaucracy. It was only the good fortune of having a reasonable principal that he was able to pull himself out. Not every kid is so lucky.
And it just made me wonder: When did it happen?
When did we stop seeing the future president of the United States, or the next great American novelist, or the person that will cure cancer when we looked out over a classroom? And instead saw the next suicide, the next drug deal, the next Sandy Hook? When did we forget that kids are supposed to do dumb things, and that we, as adults, are supposed to help them learn from those mistakes? When did common sense leave the building and rigid protocol move in?
But mostly: When did the adults of the United States start to fear our own children?
When I asked M how he felt about his stay of execution, he said he was happy that things turned out in a way that he could return to school, but that he was kinda sad too. When I asked him what he was said about, he said:
"It just never dawned on me I'd made a weapon. Why didn't she ask me? I made a mistake, I know, but I was trying to have some fun. I guess I won't do that any more."
Congratulations grown-ups, it seems this child has learned your lesson.