No Excuses

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An old feature from CBS popped up on my Facebook page. It catalogued the most crime ridden cities in the United States and described what the infractions were. There were a few surprises on the list, but mostly they consisted of the usual suspects that are traditionally havens for criminals. What was more interesting was the commentary from readers that followed the article as people attempted to determine what actually causes deviant behavior and how we might find ways to curb it.

I’m not a sociologist or expert in criminology, but I spent my lifetime working to educate youngsters, and what I have found is that most of the kids who became lawbreakers shared certain commonalities that had little to do with their economic situation other than placing them in the line of temptation. In the vast majority of cases the kids were from broken homes that had become structureless, without guidance. Often they as well as their parental figures used addictive drugs and joined gangs as a way of belonging. Their lives were focused on getting from one moment to the next as easily as possible. They were not interested in school and no doubt would have simply dropped out were it not for truancy laws. Many of them were marking time until they reached the age of sixteen when they would no longer have to cope with rules that made it illegal for them to leave the world of education. They generally had few positive role models and they almost always laid the blame for their plight on society rather than themselves. They were angry and believed that they had the right to better lives, but were unwilling to do the hard work to take advantage of opportunities. It was heart breaking to watch them becoming more and more adrift and influenced by forces that would ultimately lead them into a very dark world.

As teachers we did our best to motivate them, but we were often uncertain as to how to most effectively help them to escape the bad habits that were bringing them down. We had only a few hours of influence each day and we knew with certainty that when they left us there was no telling how much trouble awaited them. There were many schools of thought as to what we needed to do.

I remember one administrator who felt that only by setting down clear rules and consequences for ignoring them would we ever rescue them. He actually encouraged us to give them after school detentions because at least in that way we would be keeping them safe just a bit longer as well as teaching them that some actions are unacceptable and will be punished by society. He often followed some of the teens home if he thought that they might get into trouble along the way. He indeed saved a large number of individuals, but others only rebelled even more. I began to realize that there was no one approach for everyone.

At the same school we had a coach who used to bring old cars and park them in front of the gym. At the end of the day he invited students to join him for lessons in repairing autos. He had quite a following and many of the youngsters who stayed might otherwise have been up to mischief. Instead they were inspired to learn a trade that would bring them the success that seemed to otherwise elude them. There were fine arts teachers and those who taught science who similarly engaged the interests of children who had once been without any kind of direction.

I also noticed that once some of our kids went to church they changed dramatically. Many of the priests and ministers in the area actively recruited our students with promises of food, fun and fellowship. When they learned Christian principles they began to think about their own lives and actions and even influenced the adults in their lives. The loving concern that they found in those churches felt even more powerful than the gangs and quite often wrought amazing changes in our students.

In my final years in education I worked with the KIPP Charter Schools and their many mantras emphasized hard work, good behavior, goal setting and a willingness to never offer excuses for bad choices. The aim of the schools was to offer students a positive pathway out of poverty and sometimes toxic lifestyles. The route to success was grounded in a focus on education and a belief that with effort anything is possible.

Every single day the students were challenged with rigorous academic work that did not allow them to fall behind. The long days kept them focused on learning with little time for frivolous or criminal pursuits. Those who broke the rules were punished quickly and according to the nature of their actions. Sometimes they were even expelled on a probationary basis until they were able to prove that they were willing to adhere to the standards.

Parents were as much a part of the design as teachers. The adults worked hand in hand to insure that the values of character and industry became an integral part of the youngsters’ lives. While not every individual made it, the majority did and overcame countless obstacles to earn degrees and certifications that lifted them out of poverty and danger.

Poverty alone is not the problem. My brothers and I grew up poor, but we had a mother who never allowed us to wallow in pity or anger. She insisted that we study and work hard. She modeled exemplary character and emphasized that with the will we might accomplish anything. She instilled optimism into our natures and taught us that lack of material wealth did not define us or make us less than even the wealthiest person that we might encounter. Mostly she showed us that sacrifice and honesty were noble qualities that would carry us far. She would have been horrified if we had become so jealous of others that we thought it was somehow our right to steal from them or harm them.

We certainly need to give the poor in our country a lift upward, but helping their children to become self sufficient producers cannot be accomplished with money alone. Instead it requires our efforts to demonstrate how they might survive in positive ways. We must show them the value of hard work and provide them with role models and inspiration. It is a daily task requiring a multitude of good people including their parents.

Dr. Ben Carson often speaks of his own troubled childhood in Detroit where he lived in the midst of temptations that might have lead him into dangerous behaviors. His mother was not willing to simply allow him to waste his life, and so she became a force that changed the trajectory of the person he would become. She pushed him to use the talents that he had by being adult enough to be in charge. She devoted her life to demonstrating to her sons that they had the power within them to become better and better versions of themselves.

I suspect that they key to reduction in crime is to be found in lovingly and firmly guiding children from the time that they are very young, never allowing them to become hopeless, protecting them from forces with evil intent, and slowly showing them how to focus on learning how to use their talents for good. This is a job for parents, teachers, religious groups, and mentors who are willing to demonstrate that the world is a good and inviting place that wants to embrace them. We have much work to do.