A month ago a six-year-old girl was put in handcuffs by the police in Milledgeville, Georgia. I wrote about it. A week later I was asked to discuss it on Cable TV. I said yes because, to quote Jonathan Ames and just about every writer I know, “I say yes to everything.” But then I remembered what John Stewart once said about a show on the very network on which I was scheduled appear: “You are hurting America.”
Stewart was referring to the way every discussion of national importance seems to get reduced to the verbal equivalent of WWF wrestling on cable TV.
My piece was about personal matters, not matters of policy. I knew on television the conversation would boil down to, “Should a six year old be arrested in school by the police and taken away in handcuffs, yes or no?” I would be asked to take a side.
In between when I said yes and when I was scheduled to appear I made some calls. One was to the principal of a Pre-K school that I hold in high regard. Her response to the whole kid in handcuffs drama surprised me.
“What if you have a very large kid who by the age of seven is five and a half feet tall, and a teacher who is half a foot shorter? What if the teacher is not physically able to control the kid of or defend herself? What is happening at home?” I could hear her Googling as we spoke. “I see the kid’s parents are pretty big. What were they giving her for breakfast? What do you do when a kid shows up to school wired on donuts and coke, bouncing off the walls?”
I spoke to another principal in New Orleans who told me that just that week he had to call the police after he had held a child in a restrained position for forty minutes. He finally called the police because, he said, “That is not what I am hired to do.”
It turned out the parent had forgotten to give the kid his medication. But I felt that in many instances the cause and effect continuum is not so neat. I tried to enlarge the parameters of the problem and see beyond the axis of parents and teachers. What else would inform a six year old child’s wild, out of control behavior?
I thought about food: It’s difficult to formulate a strategy for how and what to eat in opposition to what is modeled as acceptable and desirable on television. I’ve been watching the NBA playoffs on TV and the food commercials are a horror show.
Pizza Hut executives should be put in jail! Or at least treated like tobacco executives. They are advertising a ten dollar special that is bread with some tomato sauce and cheese, and then break sticks with artificial flavoring, and bread sticks with glucose of some kind, all of which can then be dipped into two sauces, one savory and one sweet.
Then I thought of an even more difficult topic to integrate into a discussion about punishment and behavior—environmental health. What about lead poisoning, I thought? High lead levels can result in exactly the kind of behavior that the Milledgeville police had been called in to deal with. But it would be impossible to introduce this topic into a discussion on cable TV. I would just be adding to the general thinness of thought and information characteristic of the medium. I called the producer and bowed out.
Not long afterwards I was walking down a street in New Orleans, that beautiful city ringed with refineries and populated with old houses with their old paint. The boy was on my hip. I glanced into a newspaper box and saw that USA had a feature on Lead in the environment.
How odd that USA today should run a front page story on lead, I thought, and continued on with my stroll.
I didn’t think too much about it until a week or so later. By then one of our kids had an ear infection and a the other had a stomach bug. I was in the kitchen when the phone rang. I forget what I was doing at the time; maybe getting paper towels to clean something on the rug. It was a hectic moment. My wife called my name. There was something in her voice. She ran into the kitchen holding her phone as though it were on fire. I took it and, irrationally, put it in my pocket.
I don’t know why I put the phone in my pocket. I suppose it was a physical manifestation of my wish to not hear whatever news this phone was about to deliver. She said the doctor was on the line. I took it out of my pocket and said, “hello?”
(to be continued.)
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