Earlier today I just happened to make a small remark to my junior class, complimenting them (and indirectly their parents) on how well brought up they were. The context was that two students had gone out of their way to apologize (for things that weren’t even their fault). So I said that it was great to see that Weston students knew how to behave and were typically polite, in contrast to the usual stereotype of teens as viewed by the general public. This kind of interaction always puts me in a good mood, the same as when students say thank-you as they leave the classroom. (There are always two or three who do this after any class — not just upperclassmen, not just honors students — a fact that astonishes my adult friends who remember their own high-school experiences.)
And now for the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say.
In my Honors Geometry class slightly later in the day, a freshman raises his hand and asks me in front of the whole class, “Do you live in the ghetto in Dorchester?” This offensive question demands an immediate response from me, and fortunately the rest of the class sits frozen; no one laughs or rewards this kid in any way. I tell him that I am offended by the question and that I prefer to say that I live in the inner city, not the ghetto…and then we return to geometry, since I don’t want to pursue this matter any further. Maybe I should….
But of course this ironic combination of incidents in two classes causes a flurry of thoughts in my head:
- I remind myself that my generalization about polite Weston students was just that: a generalization. Of course there are exceptions. But I do believe that the exceptions are surprisingly rare. I’ll notice maybe a couple of incidents of rudeness a month. As I think I remarked in an earlier post, many students even say thank-you when I hand them a test. After all, it’s the right thing to do.
- Then I think of my own experience back in my first year here. Weston High School is a remarkably tough school for new teachers — and I mean “new to Weston,” not merely new to teaching. With rare exceptions (like our new math teachers this year), teachers new to Weston find it initially very troubling to cope with the degree of entitlement among some Weston students — it’s definitely not a majority of students, but there are still too many. It took me about a year to adjust. Ater that year I’ve loved teaching here. I can’t quite untangle the apparent clash between this observation and the one in my first paragraph above. Have students changed since my first year at Weston? Maybe…but that wouldn’t explain why other new teachers in recent years have had experiences similar to the one I had 13 years ago. Have I changed? Maybe that’s more likely.
- Next I wonder whether these observations are unique to Weston. I have only three groups that I can compare, or perhaps four if you subdivide the data in a certain way:
- kids who live in Weston and attend Weston High School
- those who live in Boston (or elsewhere) and attend Weston High School through the Metco program or because their parents are town employees
- those who live in Boston and attend various Boston public schools during the school year plus the Crimson Summer Academy in the summer
- those who live in Cambridge or elsewhere and attend Cambridge Rindge & Latin or various charter or parochial schools in the area during the school year plus the Crimson Summer Academy in the summer.
The bottom line is that all four groups are approximately equally polite, so my observations are not unique to Weston. At least among these four groups, rude remarks are notable for their scarcity. I can’t help but be reminded of the words of W.S. Gilbert in the immortal* Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Princess Ida:
His wise remarks are valued by his court
As precious stones.
And for the self-same cause.
Like precious stones, his sensible remarks
Derive their value from their scarcity.
*How can it be immortal when so few people in the general public have even heard of this operetta? Oh well, don’t get me started on the taste of the general public.