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Friday, April 22, 2016

Great Valley Senior High School

My high school reunion is coming up in October and I’m making plans to attend. While I won’t reveal the number of years it’s been since I graduated from Great Valley High in Malvern, Pennsylvania, I will say this: it was a long time ago.  
   Some from my class have passed away; a few died in Viet Nam, and one died in a tragic motorcycle accident the summer following graduation. Other students seem to have disappeared or refuse to entertain the notion of attending a reunion.

     I can understand their reluctance. In high school you are not the person you later become in life. The high school experience can also leave deep wounds in a person, mainly because teenagers can be cruel. In a few cases the tendency to be cruel never “grows up.” I’m thinking of Janis Joplin’s return to her Texas high school for a reunion after she had become world famous. To Joplin’s shock and dismay, she found that her old classmates had not changed at all. She was still ignored and made fun of, despite her star status. 
    On my first day at GV I walked through a floor to ceiling window pane on a first floor stairway. The glass panel looked like an open thruway since much of the school was still under construction. Shards of glass rained down alongside me in all directions, the blood-letting spears narrowly missing me by centimeters. My high school years began with the crashing sound of broken glass.

   Were I a high school student today and experienced a similar scare, no doubt I‘d be ushered away to a safe space near the guidance counselor’s office where I’d be fed cookies and invited to watch a video of frolicking puppies. I’ve just described a real description of a so called safe space that can be found in many universities today, a lot of them designed for women who wish to retreat from the pressures of the campus “rape culture.” (The reality of that culture, of course, is grossly exaggerated.) At GV there were no safe spaces at all, just a quick check by a faculty member –“Are you okay?”—and then an acknowledgement that “You were a very lucky young man, now run along to class.”  

    High school Homeroom in those days had the appearance of a safe space but it was actually a place of occasional tension. The tension had to do with what happened after the class recited the Pledge of Allegiance.  Every morning a different student was required to read aloud a passage from the King James Bible. Catholics were excused from the readings because their version of the bible was the Douay Rheims. The Catholics refusal to assimilate in this one small instance cast them in a peculiar light. By marking themselves as “different,” many (but not all) were treated differently.  
     At GV there was no overt bullying but there was a subtle class system. The school was almost all white Anglo Saxon Protestant. The popular students were   cheerleaders, football players, gymnasts and members of various honor societies. GV’s cliques were unique in that a kid could be conventionally homely, fey or overweight and still be accepted as a part of the “in” crowd.  My group of friends hung out before homeroom around a large table inside a glass booth that we termed “the booth.”
    “The booth’ was not a safe space because we were not trying to run from reality or protect ourselves from students who appeared aloof to us.  If we had gone to any teacher then and complained about the presence of so many snobbish student cliques, we would have been told that Great Valley’s social class structure “mirrors the world.”  A teacher might also have told us, “If your place on the social totem pole seems low, then learn to pole climb.” 
    Today the concept of a student safe space is more of an ideological ‘no thought’ zone where students can escape reality and be protected from things that make them feel uncomfortable.  At Brown University, for instance, there’s that safe space for women when they experience too many “trigger” vibes from peers that threaten their beliefs, especially around feminist issues. The Brown room is the one with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play Doh, pillows and streaming videos of playful puppies. You might say the room is a throw back to kindergarten.   
    The hyper sensitive students of today are more indulged than they were when I was in school.  Many in the safe space world object to being exposed to people they disagree with.  Disagreements, especially in the political realm, are categorized as trigger warnings, meaning that the only way to deal with political opponents is to shut down dialogue. Social critics call this new crop of kids “grievance industry students, people who wrap themselves in the cloak of victim hood.”
   There were many times when I felt sorry for myself at GV, especially the time when a jock pushed into a swimming pool during the senior class trip, yet I never once thought of telling a faculty member that so-and-son pushed me into the pool. While the push may be seen as a form of benign bullying, the jock who pushed me also seemed to be asking that I stop isolating myself and at least make an attempt at group socialization. 

    In some safe space school circles applauding a speaker is seen as a trigger warning because the sound of applause upsets some people. Rather than applaud, students are urged to snap their fingers, which is seen as non-offensive. The safe space mentality has also morphed into the belief that putting students of marginalized identity into positions of power, regardless of their qualifications, is the correct way to right past societal wrongs.   
    New York Times writer Judith Shulevitz sums it nicely when she wrote:  “…The notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer. “
   From the safe space of a glass booth students now want entire university campuses to be safe spaces, and so they attempt to bar speakers from campus because the speakers make them feel uncomfortable.  At Edinburgh University recently, a female student broke safe space rules when she raised her hand during a student council meeting. Raising her hand was seen as an act of aggression, and the offended (triggered) students wanted to ban the woman from the group although she managed to stay in when a vote was taken. The insanity continued when the poor female student was charged with violating another rule when she shook her head as someone was speaking.
     At Hampshire College a student group cancelled the appearance of an Afrofunk band when it was determined that there were too many white musicians in the band.
   At Yale University, the safe space student group went ballistic when their demand to ban certain Halloween costumes went unheeded by school administrators. The students were angry when one faculty member stated that “the students should be able to wear anything they want.”  Rabid protestors confronted the administrator and called him “disgusting,” insisting that he resign. The administrator kept his cool throughout the ordeal, which seemed to enrage the protestors even more. 
   A good university should be a battleground of competing ideas, a place where students can learn the art of civilized debate while respecting their opponents’ right to disagree, and even to have unpopular or hateful opinions. This is the purpose of education.  The purpose of education is not to ban or silencing all opposition, a la Vladimir Lenin.
  Why? Because first you ban, then you persecute, and then you liquidate.