Imagine this scene. A remote village is nestled near a high cliff. Children play in the village, but an older adolescent child perches on the edge of the cliff, poised to jump. Our hero runs to the youth….
Our hero: You must come down from there. I will save you!
Child: No, I’ve decided to jump. I think I can fly.
Our hero: Fly? You’ll fall to your death, or at least hurt yourself!
Child: I’m old enough to decide for myself. I’m going to fly.
Our hero: But it’s too high…! You’ll hurt yourself…! Oh, well, I guess you are old enough to decide for yourself. I’ll just be going….
You’ve never seen this scene in a movie and you never will. We could never root for a hero with so little backbone. No one — heroic or ordinary — could sit idly and watch harm come to a child.
Yet we’ve done that for years, right here in our own state, with our own children.
Children in Michigan are only required to attend school until the age of 16. This policy should be changed. It is harmful to children. Students should be compelled to attend school until the age of 18.
At one time, the compulsory age of 16 was quite reasonable. Teen-age children often elected to enter the labor force or get married. By the age of 16, they had learned all that they would need to know to function well in the society of that day. Times have changed.
Census Bureau statistics support the following widely held notions: The days of abundant, minimally skilled, well-paid jobs have passed, and people are electing to marry later — much later, delaying matrimony until they are well into their 20s.
Why then, would anyone advocate allowing a 16-year-old to drop out of school? We know that jumping off a cliff would be lethal. We also know that leaving school at the age of 16 is, in most cases, a recipe for disaster.
The contributing factors underlying our lack of courage and rectitude are many (and too convoluted) to discuss here. Suffice to say that, metaphorically speaking, while we all agree that we are living in the same village and that, "it takes a village to raise a child," our voices are stifled. Our heads are down, focused on tending our own fields. We dare not look up, for then we may be compelled to correct another villager’s child who has gone astray.
I, too, have been a speechless villager.
A teacher for 23 years, I have no problem correcting children in my classroom. It’s part of the job. Recently I was in my local library working on a project. Early in the day the librarian shared with me her concern about the unruliness of some of the young "regulars" — students who came to the library every day after school, obliging her to do double duty as a babysitter. I commiserated with her. When school dismissed, the regulars rolled in. By 3:15, I thought I had been transported to a typical, noisy school cafeteria, minus the food fights. The librarian approached and asked them to be quiet. I was in the next aisle, scanning the low shelves, able to see and hear everything.
One child, a boy of about 10, persisted in a dialogue that would be at least impertinent, but more appropriately labeled as disrespectful. "We’re not too loud!" "What are you going to do about it?" "You can’t make me leave!"
I did not say one word.
I am embarrassed by this. Moreover, I’m bothered by this, and not just because I let the librarian down. By now she’s probably all too used to this equation: Not my child equals not my problem. What really bothers me is that I let those children down — the impertinent boy and his friends who witnessed the event. They may have learned more from that 30-second exchange than they had all day in school. And that lesson, indirectly affirmed by my silent presence, will not serve them well in the future.
I tell the story because I don’t want it to seem that I’m pointing my finger in blame at anyone. We’re all to blame. We know what young people need to enjoy a happy, healthy, successful life. Because children are young and tender, we do not allow them to potentially endanger their bodies by joining the military until they’re 18. Because they may be naive, we do not allow predatory salesmen to bind them to a legal contract until they’re 18. Because their lack of experience would not allow them to make informed decisions, we do not allow children to vote until they are 18. Because we know that tobacco is harmful, we do not allow them to purchase those products until they are 18. We know what’s good for our children. Why, then, don’t we tell them that their happiness, their future, their lives would be seriously impaired if they drop out at 16?
I think it has something to do with love.
Without hesitation, I can tell my students (and my own child) to do something I know they probably won’t like (write an essay, read Shakespeare, eat vegetables) because I know it is good for them. I’m willing to risk the potential backlash (complaints, anger, etc.) because I love them. What pains me is the realization that I just didn’t care enough about those library "regulars" to risk the possible backlash to help them.
Our children need us. If we love our children, they must be compelled to attend school until their 18th birthday. If we really care, we must lift our heads and find our voices. The message may not be popular, but it is needed. We must speak as the village, through our leaders. Who will be our voice? Who will be our hero? I hope it will be you.
Michael Walters is an English teacher at Millennium High School, Detroit Public Schools.