For a thought experiment in this first column of 2009, let’s take a trip down memory lane and see how things have changed in the last fifty years.
Fifty years ago, kids were given names like Robert, David, Emily, and Susan. Today they’re named Moxie, Suede, Apple, or Ocean. But it’s not the names that get me going as much as the spelling. I’ve seen Brian spelled Bryahnn, or Kayla spelled K-La. That’s not trend-setting; it’s dumb.
Fifty years ago, if you had a headache, you took an Aspirin. In this brave new millennium, sophomore Amanda Stiles in Louisiana was expelled for a year for carrying Advil in her purse.
Fifty years ago, seventeen-year-old Susan becomes pregnant. Susan has the baby and puts it up for adoption. For the rest of her life she grieves over the son she never knew. Nevertheless, she marries at 22, has four more children, and lives a happy life, though that hole in her heart is always there. Her child is adopted by a kind older couple, where he is loved and nurtured. He grows up to become a stable business owner and philanthropist.
Today, Susan is given welfare and told she should keep the baby. She smokes all through her pregnancy, and gives birth to a boy named David. When he is six months old she is pregnant again, though she can’t name the father. Over the next few years she goes through a succession of boyfriends. One of them sexually abuses David. The CAS temporarily apprehends the boys, but gives them back. Susan never gets a steady job, and never marries.
In 1959, if David were disruptive in class, he’d be sent to the Principal’s office, where the Principal would discipline him. David would return to class and shape up. If he didn’t, he could eventually be expelled.
Today he’s left in that classroom to disrupt everyone else. Other students in his class develop stomachaches caused by stress. Occasionally David wins Student of the Week to help his self-esteem. It doesn’t work, because David’s self-esteem is fine. So the school starts a Character Building curriculum, taking time away from multiplication and reading, so that all the children, even the good ones, can learn how to be nice to each other. David is the only one who doesn’t listen.
David’s younger brother Bryahnn is also disruptive. The school demands Bryahnn be put on Ritalin. Bryahnn becomes a zombie. His personality changes, he rarely eats, and he stops growing. He never learns to deal with the chaos in his life; he just tunes out.
Fifty years ago, Emily’s sister Mary is killed in a car accident. Emily is distraught. Emily’s grandfatherly math teacher, Mr. Claus, notices Emily crying during class. Afterwards he comforts her with a hug and dries her tears. Emily feels a little bit better and smiles everytime she sees Mr. Claus from then on.
Fast forward to today. Emily’s friend Kandi witnesses Mr. Claus hugging Emily. Kandi reports it to her mother, who calls the police. The police investigate Mr. Claus, who is two years from retirement. Mr. Claus is charged with sexual harassment. The scandal is on the front page of the local paper. He resigns rather than putting his family through a protracted legal lynching. He loses much of his pension. He lands a job as a clerk in an insurance agency, and never smiles at another woman who is not his wife again.
To be fair, fifty years ago, if Mr. Claus had abused Emily, nothing would likely have been said. Emily would have been devastated and humiliated, and would have had to live with that shame alone. But while we’ve minimized the chance of that, we’ve simultaneously precluded kindness and decency.
The last fifty years have brought us much progress in safety, and technology, and comfort, and leisure. What they’ve taken from us is common sense. I wish we could all experience life in 1959, if only temporarily, to find our moral compasses once again.