The Second Annual Brilliant Careers Essay Contest


Table Talk
Mom on the road

Breaking point
Teachers ARE being pushed over the edge by their students
By Nishat Kurwa

Mayo culpa
A daughter probes her mother's condiment phobia
By Elinor Lipman

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Time for one thing
By Lori Leibovich

Interracial adoption
One couple's story
By Carol Lloyd and Hank Pellissier

Interracial adoption

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Why it's time
for Mothers Who Think

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____little monsters
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - The scariest aliens on the screen this summer are our teenage children.

BY NELL BERNSTEIN | It's a little awkward, isn't it? Even as tough-on-crime types are trying to gather support for federal legislation that gives states special cash prizes for throwing away the key on juvenile offenders, juvenile crime rates continue to drop. But these promising statistics aren't enough to slow the powerful cultural momentum toward creating a new class of untouchables: our children. I'm not talking about "negative stereotypes" -- we've been portraying teenagers as dumb brutes ever since John Hughes passed the torch to Larry Clark. The morality tale currently in vogue is a warning to adults who might still harbor illusions about "reaching" these wayward youth: Don't get too close. If they don't slit your throat, they'll steal your soul, and turn you into one of them.

The new film "187" -- about a dedicated high school science teacher pushed over the edge by the unrelenting viciousness of his students -- warns not so much of individual youthful villains (although it has its share of those) as of a looming, inchoate mass of adolescent evil. Again and again, the camera hovers over teeming masses of faceless, hooded teens, utterly indistinguishable as they lumber menacingly towards us.

Into this hellish society comes Samuel L. Jackson's Mr. Garfield, a poor soul who has dedicated his life to teaching, only to have a disgruntled student stab him in the back as payback for an "F." This incident sends Jackson across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, where it doesn't take him long to discover that the kids on the West Coast are all slobbering beasts, too. Soon his new charges are making death threats, slaughtering household pets, etc. It's not long before he loses it, and starts fighting back on their terms.

So committed is this film to the perspective of the frightened adult that it doesn't imply even for an instant that attending a school that is filthy, dangerous and riotously chaotic might also be difficult for the students -- who, unlike the teachers, are legally bound to be there. Even the poor education these young people receive is apparently their own fault (cut to scene of entire class pitching textbooks out the window).

The kids in this movie aren't even given the out of a rotten home life. ("We are all responsible for our own actions" is Garfield's mantra.) Cesar (Clifton González González), the main monster, is shown at home beating up on a long-suffering parent, rather than (as is, in reality, much more likely) the other way around. His partner in crime is a nasty white kid who, we are informed, lives in a great big house and wants for nothing.

Like the juvenile justice system, like the politicians, "187" leaves no room for the possibility of redemption. We've had it with the "Dangerous Minds" worldview, that even the toughest kids have marshmallow hearts, which can be accessed with just a little kindness from a teacher who really cares. The kids Jackson is faced with would eat Michelle Pfeiffer alive. In fact, they'd eat any one of us alive. So stay away.

When New York high school teacher Jonathan Levin -- the son of the CEO of Time Warner (which, by the way, is responsible for this film) -- was killed in his apartment and a former student was accused of the murder, we chose to attach to his story the same moral: He died because he got too close. The New York Times gave us a hand-wringing feature in which every incriminating aspect of his dangerous intimacy with his students was laid out. He let them too far in, we were warned, "even taking students who had done well for celebratory dinners at restaurants in his neighborhood."

"Even" that -- his own neighborhood! No wonder they got him.

Anyone who works with tough kids will probably admit that they have at some point been scared. As editor of a youth newspaper, I once had a visit from a drunk, gun-wielding young man, and yes, I was scared. The next day, another kid I work with told me what he was worried about: that I'd generalize what had happened and come to fear all of them.

It certainly can happen. I'd bet it did happen to Scott Yagemann, the former public school teacher who wrote "187." His script is clearly meant to inspire not just fear but paranoia, that generalized form of fear that takes all comers as its object.

"187" is effective in that regard: You'll leave the theater more than ready to give wide berth to the kids you run into in the parking lot. And don't imagine they won't notice. It hurts a young person to see fear in the face of a teacher, of the man he sits next to on the bus, the woman in the elevator who shrinks up against the wall when he gets on. One guy I know whistles show tunes when he finds himself walking near an unescorted woman, in order to show he means her no harm. A more common response is to glower and strut: "If they're going to fear me anyway, I might as well be scary."

Those few young people I've met who are genuinely scary have one thing in common: They are convinced that there is no possible connection between themselves and the stranger on the street, the adult, the other. Every time we flinch when we pass a group of kids -- every time our hand goes to our purse, or the lock on our car door -- we reinforce that conviction. The further we allow ourselves to get from our children, the greater the danger they pose.
Aug. 6, 1997

Nell Bernstein is an editor at YO! (Youth Outlook), a youth newspaper produced by Pacific News Service.

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Has America become paranoid about teenagers, or are grownups justifiably afraid? Chew it over in Table Talk.