Thursday, August 14, 2014

For (Some of) the Children

Children are the photo prop of choice for conflicts in war zones around the world. Photographic coverage of the Iraqi refugees trapped by Isis activity has been heavy on photographs of children in the camp. Shocking images from Syria have centered on children (upsetting enough that I'm not going to link). And current warfare in Gaza opened with children-centric coverage, to the point that some coverage made it look as if the conflict was primarily about whether Hamas or Israel were the greater offender in the treatment of children.

It's understandable. People have a strong visceral reaction to the sight of children in trouble. If you want to evoke the strongest possible emotional reaction from people, show them a child in trouble. Children are vulnerable, and if a person possesses any basic human decency at all, that person wants to protect children.

Media get that. Doing coverage in a war zone? Get some pictures of children.

Unless, of course, we're talking about American children of color.

18-year-old Michael Brown was quickly upgraded in the media to adult status, referred to repeatedly as a man (and not even a young man at that). He was a recent high school graduate, a promising college freshman-- in short, a young person who could be described in many ways far more sympathetic than the version we've been handed. As twitter was pointing out last night, even crazy James Holmes, the 24-year-old man who shot up a Denver movie theater, was a "brilliant science student" in his coverage (and not just in random coverage-- google his headline and watch it come up all across the continent).

And as any high school teacher would immediately recognize, Michael Brown was undoubtedly still part of his high school community. He would have still been known, been the guy who younger teens knew as one of the "big kids." Any death of a recent high school grad resonates through the students who are still there and about to start the new year. Of course, I have to conjecture about how those specifics play out here, because nobody is covering this.

If Michael Brown had been killed by soldiers in a foreign land, reporters would be looking for the most fresh-faced young underclassman from Brown's school, showing us groups of apprehensive but attractive youngsters and asking, "How can these children cope with a world in which something like this can happen? How will they grow up living with the knowledge of such mortal danger in their own neighborhood streets?" And politicians and leaders would soon appear in the coverage demanding that we take action For The Children.

But Michael Brown was a person of color, a teenager in America, and so, somehow, the coverage of his killing and its aftermath is devoid of any For The Children notes.

That includes, of course, reaction from the reformsters who have been banging the For The Children drum all along. Those who have launched a high profile lawsuit For The Children because they are so concerned that a student might face a bad teacher have not been equally vocal about the possibility that a student might face a bad cop. Those who have repeatedly touted school reform and Common Core as the "civil rights issue of today" have not yet spoken up to note that yesterday's civil rights issues are apparently not entirely settled. They have at least not spoken up to suggest that what Michael Brown and the other children of Ferguson really need is more rigor and grit and high stakes testing.

I don't mean to let the rest of us off the hook. It would be equally wrong to suggest that what the children of Ferguson mostly need is to be freed from the oppression of CCSS. It is tempting to say nothing because I'm aware that, for the most part, I literally would not know what I was talking about. In so many ways, I live a million miles away from Ferguson (though it should be noted that Ferguson is a working class neighborhood, not an urban slum).

But I can't say nothing. What happened in Ferguson, what is still happening in Ferguson, is so obviously effed up. It may be more complicated and complex than we can tell out here through the filter of main stream and social media, but I don't need to know that when an unarmed young man is shot to death, that's effed up. When children grow up in a setting, in America, where it's just good practical common sense daily survival behavior to approach police modifying your own behavior to minimize their threat, that's effed up. When children need to be taught how to properly raise their hands and act non-threatening when approached by the policemen who are paid to protect those children, that's effed up. And when police act like a small army facing a real war with a real opposing army, that's effed up.

I will go back to writing about education stuff, because that's what I know and that's what I do. But I do so remembering and reminding myself that our children and our schools in some communities face some huge issues that dwarf the latest stupid press release from comfortably wealthy high-income folks.

We all, on all the sides of the education debates, like to say we're in this for the children. But if we are going to be for the children, we have to look at the challenges that the children have to face, not just the child-related issues that we prefer to focus on. There are other Fergusons out there, each one with its own schools and children. There's a lot of work to do.


  1. ditto that ^^^ and well said, Peter

  2. A drinking game. (Just a joke, please don't do it). Every time a politician or reformista mentions "the children," take a shot of vodka. You'll be in a coma in no time. Dictators love surrounding themselves with children.

  3. " appeared the conflict was -primarily about whether Hamas or Israel were the greater offender in the treatment of children."

    Really, Peter? Is there any doubt? I'm not sure what pictures you were looking at but thousands of Palestinian children were slaughtered and maimed in Gaza, many of them huddling in school buildings. No debate there. No equilibrium.

    1. I'm not going to get into who was actually worse in this space. My point is that the war was presented in terms of who did what to children, rather than addressing any other issues.