My alma mater, Glenbrook North High School, in Northbrook, Illinois, has always had a reputation for excellence: Its students score significantly higher than state and national averages on standardized tests; its debate, math, and science teams are multiple-time national champions; it was featured in ‘Outstanding High Schools in America’ in U.S. News and World Report in 1999; and thanks to famous alum John Hughes, it even appeared in the movie classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s not surprising, then, that the most recent installment of its annual powder-puff/hazing ritual turned into an international media event.
When we do things, we do them right, by golly.
The amateur video footage shows a cross of Fear Factor, a British soccer brawl, and some kind of mass cult activity: The junior girls in their pale pink jerseys passively kneel in a tightly huddled group while yellow-jerseyed seniors douse them with various food and fecal stuffs before beginning the more serious assault. It is atavistic and primal—and straight out of Lord of the Flies. The fact that it happened in a wealthy district that spends nearly double the national average per student for an education makes the irony simply too rich to ignore, despite the many more horrifying things going on in the world.
The knee-jerk response in the community was, naturally, to pass the blame around as quickly as possible. The school board and administration stressed that the event was unsanctioned and did not occur on school premises. Principal Mike Riggle also claims that attempts were made to ascertain the location of the event, but it proved impossible to wheedle information out of any of the 2,100 students. All around, parents and students complained about the media glare and tried to stress that the actions did not represent the school.
Some of the blame is falling to the victims themselves because it’s claimed that ‘they knew’ what was going to happen, which appears to be true and is all the scarier for it, but most of the ire, in and outside the community now focuses, perhaps as it should, on the perpetrators of the actual violence. These girls are being punished, perhaps severely, but it looks as though the bystanders (despite their obvious culpability) and the administration and school board (despite their failure to prevent the hazing) will ultimately get to wipe their hands of the mess.
And the parents of those kids who were not directly involved will get to go on believing that those kids are not their kids. Parents of high-school-age children in other communities will express thanks their kids wouldn’t and couldn’t conceive of such a thing.
Normally, I wouldn’t be such a prude about these things. High-school kids do stupid things: yes. They drink beer: yes. They bully and ostracize others: yes. School administrators often act in the interest of preserving their jobs. Parents are blind to the faults of their children. I’m aware of all of this, and I accept it. In fact, I used to be more accepting, but now I teach college. And these Glenbrook North kids, or at least ones very much like them, are going to wind up in my classroom in another three-and-a-half months.
Let me first say: I love my job. I very much enjoy my students and am consistently impressed by their kindness, dedication, and honor. However, over the last couple of years, I’ve realized that many—not a majority—but many of my students, prior to landing in my class, have yet to be introduced to the simple concept of choice and consequence. Take this not-uncommon scenario:
Student A has a quiz on a Monday morning. Student A, being an average college student, has decided to visit some friends at another college perhaps 250 miles away to indulge in some good, probably unclean, but typical college fun. On the way back, usually late Sunday night, Student A has car trouble, keeping Student A from reaching home until late Monday afternoon, thus causing Student A to miss the quiz. When Student A takes the make-up quiz and is informed that there will be a one-grade penalty for missing the quiz, and that this one-grade penalty was outlined in the syllabus, as Student A should know, the conversation usually goes like this:
Student A: But my car broke down, I couldn’t make it back.
Teacher: You are aware that cars can and do break down on road trips, are you not?
Student A: Yeah.
Teacher: And you knew there was a quiz, right? And that there’s a penalty for missing the quiz.
Student A: [silence]
Teacher: So, really, what you’re saying is that through a set of unfortunate, yet foreseeable, circumstances you did not meet your obligation of attending class and taking the quiz on the assigned day.
Student A: But my car broke down, I couldn’t make it back.
Now, having quickly and maddeningly come full-circle, there is a temptation at this point to give in, to absolve the student of blame. After all, the car did break down, students are not required to stay on campus on the weekends. But the dedicated teacher knows that to give in will invite a semester of petty frustrations as students oversleep, computers mysteriously malfunction, sudden illness strikes, and so on; therefore, the dedicated teacher soldiers on and explains that the penalty will indeed be enforced.
Student A: But that’s unfair.
Teacher: It may be a drag, a bummer, a buzzkill; it may bite, suck, reek, and blow, but it is not…unfair.
At the beginning of the year, it’s hard to even blame students for their initial incredulity in the face of consequences, as the vast majority have been bailed out many times by parents who will lie for them, who will create fake excuses or justifications for bad behavior. Some even threaten and intimidate teachers and schools (read: litigation) that may stand in the way of their child’s achievement. In the Glenbrook North hazing incident, there are now even reports that one or more parents may have even been present at the melee and perhaps even arranged for the keg and some of the more disgusting items used to douse the juniors. It is hard, ultimately, to blame administrators for not cracking down on an unsanctioned event when at least some parents are involved at this level. And to the school’s credit, they have now found solid enough legal pretext to suspend and perhaps expel the worst of the perpetrators despite the events happening off of school grounds. As those familiar with the Northbrook community could have predicted, the parents of the suspended students struck back, as reported in the Chicago Tribune, ‘Within hours of the school’s announcement, lawyers for one of the suspended seniors, Marnie Holz of Northbrook, asked for a temporary restraining order in Cook County Circuit Court, saying the school district is denying her right to an education.’ Perhaps nothing beyond the speed-dial numbers for the local lawyers is being learned in this case.
But I know my students are learning the concept when they simply admit that they have no excuse for their actions, a response I’m likely to greet with more sympathy than some convoluted tale about how they keep the dorms too cold, which makes it impossible to get up for a 9:30 class (an actual student excuse from this year).
Sometimes, however, students’ bad training lasts longer and has more serious consequences. Every year of my teaching career I have caught at least one plagiarist, and more often than not the response is something along the lines of ‘I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway.’ A telling remark, I think, not suggesting absent morality, but simply a lack of experience with the consequences of a bad choice. It is as though they’re saying, sure, I understand ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ but if the result of doing something ‘right’ and doing something ‘wrong’ is the same, why not choose the path of least resistance? Having met resistance, my student plagiarists reflexively try to bargain their way out of their jackpot: ‘What can I do?’ ‘Is there anything I can do?’
But what can they really do? After all, they’re clearly only modeling the behavior of others. Now former Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy has laid the blame for his drunken escapades with University of Missouri co-eds squarely at the feet of…his illness (alcoholism), and bargained his way through the professional sports media to a nearly million-dollar settlement. Short-lived Alabama coach Mike Price, who was fired for dropping a few hundred in a strip club and allegedly organizing a hotel-room get-together with some of the strippers, would now like to ‘reclaim his reputation’ despite being (admittedly) too drunk to really remember what when on. He has now even appealed his firing despite someone else already being given his old job.
The New York Times is now encouraging people to come forward to help identify all of the inventions in disgraced reporter Jayson Blair’s work, while simultaneously trying to downplay the warning signs that should have had the paper booting him toward the door before he had the chance to make up details on a story as prominent as the D.C. sniper case, for which he was rewarded front-page placement.
For now, Blair has slunk into hiding (after invoking the de rigueur excuse of ‘personal issues’), but perhaps he will rise again, like that other famous fabricator Stephen Glass, a man apparently absent shame, and who is currently profiting from his inventions at The New Republic by spinning them into a novel. Next, in the words of my friend, Stephany Aulenback, Glass will move into self-help books. First: How to Behave Badly and Profit from It. And then a sequel: How to Behave Badly, Get Found Out, and Profit from It Even More.’
Shit happens. College students party too much and oversleep. Road trips turn sour. Excuses to the community, to superiors, and to themselves can whirlwind out of control. It’s our job to make the consequences commensurate with the crime, to give opportunities to learn and do better next time. My first-time student plagiarists are not booted out of college, but are simply failed from my class, having to repeat it so they can do it all over again, and do the work properly. Eustachy and Price need not be permanently disbarred from the coaching fraternity, but perhaps a return to their assistant days is in order. Jayson Blair can turn out reports on town council meetings in a lower stakes atmosphere until he learns the basics of reporting. The administrators of Glenbrook North High School will have to accept the stain on their school’s reputation. The students who directly participated in the assaults should be punished as the law dictates, no more and no less. The parents who condoned this behavior by providing beer and fecal matter should be taken to the forest preserve and beaten with sticks. (Just kidding, sort of, maybe.)
And if we have any sense of justice, every single copy of Stephen Glass’s book will be remaindered, pulped into insulation material or some such thing.