Gotta Do Something About Where We’re Going…

“The basic thing nobody asks is why do people take drugs of any sort? Why do we have these accessories to normal living to live? I mean, is there something wrong with society that’s making us so pressurized, that we cannot live without guarding ourselves against it? ” – John Lennon

On page 2 of this morning’s LA Times, Sandy Banks seems to address Lennon.  She argues that, in many respects, even Michael Jackson was trying his hardest, seeking “a simple fix to the complicated problems of high-pressure living.”  She continues:

In our hyper-competitive world, it’s easy to feel like a failure: A parent who can’t afford college tuition; a middle-aged woman surrounded by Botoxed friends; a downsized exec who can’t find a job and has to trade in the Lexus. For me, a Blackberry with a blinking light is a constant reminder of all the people I’m tethered to, all of the messages I’ve yet to return, all of the tasks I don’t have time to do. There are so many ways to feel slammed these days, it’s not hard to see the lure of a quick pharmaceutical feel-good.

I finally was able to muster up something to tell my students other than what sounds like the canned speech that I hear back from kids, that winds up sounding not unlike this exchange from South Park, especially when we shove a microphone in their faces and ask them to read from a script:

Chef: I just want to tell you that drugs are bad.
Stan: We know, we know, that’s what everybody says.
Chef: Right, but do you know why they’re bad?
Kyle (like a robot): Because they’re an addictive solution to a greater problem causing disease of both body and mind with consequences far outweighing their supposed benefits.
Chef: And do you have any idea what that means?
Kyle: No.”

Already raw from a day designed to poke fun at nerds, I first had to hear that the idea behind such a celebration was really to give the teachers “an excuse to dress up”.  I, of course, had been under the impression all along that it was meant to focused upon drugs and alcohol.  The district had mandated observance of Red Ribbon Week, but what was emerging was a bizarre mash-up of actual federal law and a day which, at its essence, poked fun at students who wear glasses.  At my wife’s school, many of her students were honestly unaware as to why they were being allowed to dress up, they just remembered the dressing up part.  Certainly very few of my kids, when pressed on the topic, couldn’t adequately articulate the connection between dressing up and Red Ribbon Week.  (If they did, at best, they sounded much like Kyle, above…)  The wife finally set me straight–the district likely wants Red Ribbon Week observed, and federal law mandates a drug/alcohol/tobacco awareness curriculum in place that speaks to the issue of its unlawful use.  Often, said curriculum comes off sounding a lot like this:

 “I’m here to tell you about drugs and alcohol and why they’re bad, mkay? So, first of all, uh, smokin’s bad. You shouldn’t smoke. And, uh, alcohol is bad. You shouldn’t drink alcohol. And, uh, as for drugs, well, drugs are bad. You shouldn’t do drugs. Okay, that about wraps up my introduction, now uh, are there any questions?” –South Park

And I doubt that any of this is meant to spend a day poking fun at a type of person–especially since we already have a school curriculum that seeks to minimize bullying.  Nevertheless, two students yesterday wound up heatedly arguing over who looked “nerdier”.  Nice…

Finally, walking back to the classroom from the days’ Red Ribbon skit, I managed to find my voice.  A few of my kids asked me what the connection, if any, there was between the skit’s premise about wizards and Red Ribbon Week–ostensibly it was a skit about school inundated by drug dealers.  It hadn’t been made clear that the “bad” wizards were drug dealers put down by “good wizards” who had just said “no”. (Except why did the head wizard allow circumstances to go so far before intervening?  Anyway, I digress…)  Relating this anecdote to my wife, her reply was immediate and pointed:  “Oh, so the message to kids is that you need MAGICAL powers to stay away from drugs?”  In answering my kids’ question, I had been a bit less direct than she had been.  Nevertheless, internally frustrated, and desperately trying to bite my tongue, I finally told them to think about what the conditions were at the school in the skit to have caused drug dealers to have appeared on that “campus” in the first place.  I also then segued into my theme statement of the week–that beyond saying “no” (or “yes”), a huge, unaddressed point to consider was to understand what created the conditions of drug abuse in the first place.  These conditions are far more complicated than RRW had made them seem.  Ultimately, I view my role as a teacher to teach the kids ways to learn to work together to create a community wherein people wouldn’t feel compelled to have to turn to substances like drugs for an answer to their specific problems.  (And, if they did, to not unilaterally condemn them as “bad people”.)

‎”No drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we’re looking for the sources of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power.”
-P. J. O’Rourke

When I opened this morning’s paper to see how Sandy Banks had outlined the understory behind the Conrad Murray trial, Michael Jackson was, in the end, no different than we might be:

In the world of legal meds, Jackson was at the top of the food chain. If you hurt, you might get Vicodin; he got routine shots of Demerol. If you can’t sleep, you take Ambieninsomniac Jackson got propofol. But to dispatch him as nothing more than a doomed and driven drug abuser doesn’t do justice to the issue:

Like so many people, he was searching for a simple fix to the complicated problems of high-pressure living.

Can you blame him for wanting an escape inside a dreamless sleep? It seems to me that’s a universal hunger in this plugged-in, amped-up reality that passes for normal society.

What Jackson had that most of us don’t — unfortunately, it seems — was a $150,000-a-month private doctor willing to help him push past rational limits.

Understand, please, that I’m no fan of Michael Jackson per se. (I can though, acknowledge his place in music history.)  But not only is Banks’ point pertinent to the discussion of what needs to come into the discussion of Red Ribbon Week–legal drugs are as dangerous as their illegal use–but in Jackson, whose “Thriller” is a staple of not just my school site’s Halloween show, but elsewhere across the country, we’ve got the poster child for someone for whom “just say no” was easier said than done.

And sadly though, if one of the week’s memes was about “having better things to do than drugs”, we’d also inadvertently singled out a group of people who had found something better to do than drugs.  Walking to the parking lot with a close friend and colleague, apparently this was the same discussion that had been taking place in my own conscience during RRW.  I was pleased that it wasn’t just me for whom “Nerd Day” seemed like unnecessary piling on. On the other hand, this was cold comfort.

I get it though–in order to cut through the din in our students’ lives, having something pithy and simple, like “Just Say No”, is designed to be an easy slogan for a complicated issue. But doesn’t even the simplest of messages get lost when it’s couched in nerds, wizards, and Manny Ramirez Dodger jerseys, awash in a sea of red?  I had to sardonically note that even while “just say no” was shouted into school microphones yesterday, even the simplest of messages can get drowned out by unintended mechanical distortion.  (The volume on the microphone’s speakers had been set far too loud.)  Thusly, it had come out unintentionally sounding like even more noise to the students.  Despite my own reticence about the RRW skit, I felt bad that you couldn’t even clearly hear the idea to “just say no”.

But what about those factors that demand saying yes, the societal factors that cut through any sort of distortion and confront our students as soon as they get home from school? What then?  California already has 25,000 inmates incarcerated for drug-related offenses alone, with 10,000 of those having been busted for simple possession of either marijuana or another controlled substance.  And, sadly, the all-or-nothing attitude of most of the Red Ribbon Week materials used by schools have unconsciously sewn a good chunk of the seeds of the funding crisis faced by schools.  Too many people have said “yes”, and our only response has been to throw them into jail.  In the late 1970s, California was spending nearly $2 billion on the CSU and UC systems, over twice as much as they spent on prisons.  Meanwhile, fast forward to this past fiscal year, and the numbers have been reversed–UC/CSU are getting nearly $6 billion, but prisons account for nearly $10 billion of the state’s budget.  This time frame roughly mirrors the time spent fighting the War on Drugs.  Is this coincidental?

Yet schools are federally mandated to teach an anti-drug/tobacco/alcohol message even while being held to task for testing accountability and annual student progress.  Can Red Ribbon Week even be declared a success when quite a few of us all suspect that, in the long run, it really isn’t working?  Even more interesting, if you do a Google Search on “unsuccessful Red Ribbon Weeks”, you never encounter a school that admits to having an unsuccessful Red Ribbon program.   You can find this entry, however, which points you to this piece of evidence against Red Ribbon Week programs:

Joel H. Brown, Ph.D., director of Educational Research Consultants in Berkeley, told NewsBriefs, “Perhaps even the most advanced drug education programs believed to be effective in the United States were not.” Brown said that although there is a perception of variety in drug education programs, there is actually only a narrow range of programs because federal law mandates that all drug education be zero tolerance or abstinence based. “The no-substance-use message contributes to drug education program failure.” Brown said, “Youth believe the information they receive is inaccurate and misleading” because the programs equate substance use with abuse and do not reflect the students’ actual observations and experiences…[b]ased on the research, Brown said the programs are “harmful” and “have an effect counter to what is intended” because students who believe the programs are dishonest may do the opposite of what they are told. Children most in need of drug education are the first ones removed from the programs. If children take drugs, they are not receiving information to reduce the harm because of the zero-tolerance mandate.

I would like to think I have a solution.  Sadly, I do not, especially when legally, hands get tied–by 1980s “my way or highway” philosophies that have repeatedly been shown to have been failures.  We therefore do a disservice to our kids by not being more honest and open about drug and alcohol abuse, legal or not.  Even then, in a cause/effect scenario, substance abuse education focused solely upon the effect, is a losing hand.  These students aren’t dumb.  Too many of them already know how Michael Jackson died, or Amy Winehouse.  Several of my students have heard the stories about Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) and his connections to opium.  Next month, when I begin to start to teach poetry, the popular works by Edgar Allen Poe will inevitably bring about conversations about his relationship with opium and alcohol.  Each of these artists said “yes”.  But even more “role models”, including some of the students’ own have also said “yes” and did not suffer the tragic consequences of Jackson or Winehouse.  In this latter instance, among these people are you and I.

This debate is in desperate need to be reframed and refocused.   Saying “yes” is not a predetermined ticket to self-destruction.  If the supports are in place, it need not end badly.

Just like Peter Pan, who was once the inspiration for a previous year’s RRW skit, it comes down to growing up.  The German philosopher Goethe noted that:

“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”

If RRW is to be something beyond a necessary evil, if it is to be something beyond an excuse to let teachers dress up, educators have to aspire to something beyond simple half-baked platitudes.  We ask our own students to show us their depth and complexity; when it comes to our efforts in educating about drugs, alcohol and tobacco, we should do the same.  Rather than making kids fearful of controlled substances because of our own fear of speaking the truth in our classrooms, we can have the honest, grown-up conversations with them about a life filled with knowledgeable, smart choices–knowing and admitting to them that going forward means the occasional step backwards.  Then, maybe, just maybe, instead of what I wore to school yesterday, that will be the real lesson that our kids will remember 20 years from now.

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