Notes on the News

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I often muse on the news but seldom write about it, but several of today’s stories in my part of the world are particularly compelling. The pieces that catch my eye tend to be cautionary tales of both positive and negative import relative to topics that have personal meaning for me. Only one is about education, per se, but both are sure enough about learning.

Years ago our family had a Sudanese foster son. He was a student at the school where I taught who suddenly needed a new living situation early in his junior year in high school. From knowing almost nothing about the foster care system, refugee services, and even the civil war in southern Sudan (which grinds on as a war in South Sudan decades later), we went to being at least knowledgeable. We enjoyed every moment as we saw this wonderful young man through high school, through the citizenship process, through graduation for college at the high of the recession, and into the job market. Today we root for him as he looks for a woman to be his spouse, a process which has so far involved a couple of trips back to Africa—the war zone, the refugee camps, and even to the villages where he spent his very early childhood.

Thus, we take the situation of African refugees in the U. S. rather personally, and so it was with delight that I read in the Boston Globe of the trend among Lewiston, Maine’s Somali refugee population toward returning to farming as both a food source and a “therapeutic hobby.” It’s a heartening article, especially as it chronicles the transition from rather unwelcome to increasingly engaged that the Somalis have experienced in Lewiston. Somalis aren’t Sudanese, I know, and the cultural differences are huge, but it’s just kind of nice to be shown that our nation is still capable of absorbing a population whose “differences” are apparent in many, many ways and that there are possibilities for immigrant populations to find “oases” even in small places with unfamiliar, even strange, cultures and climates. (A sidenote: Most of the Sudanese refugees from the “Lost Boys” era were from herding villages, and at least some of those who made it to college in the U. S. in later years studied dairy science; I assume but do not know for certain—and I certainly hope—that some of these young people found both employment and personal renewal in the diary industry.)

The other story has to do with “the sexual culture at an elite boarding school,” or words along those lines. There’s no need to name the school and add to its discomfort today; the story is easy enough to find.

Like so many “scandals,” this story affords the regional press all kinds of opportunities to drop words and phrases redolent of privilege and corruption and gives reporters the chance to feel as though they are unearthing the dreadful among the one percent—and after all, they are. But what the story tells me is that the conversation on sexual behavior, and perhaps particularly on the sexual expectations of males, needs to be much broader than the usual fare we read about every day where “rape culture” and fraternity-related crimes and misbehavior seem to be confined to, once again, more or less elite colleges and universities.

Our society oversexualizes all kids, not just the wealthy, and the life it tries to sell to them, and the messages sent by the entertainment and liquor industries in particular (but, oh, so many more!) and meekly accepted by the generality of our citizenry don’t include much about sexual and personal responsibility. If students at one boarding school tally their sexual conquests on a laundromat wall, kids everywhere, and their older siblings and (gasp!) even their parents are tallying theirs in other ways, or worrying themselves that they are underperforming.

The media will continue to pillory highly reputed institutions where certain kids and adults get caught doing certain things, but I wish they would also take the lead in helping our society do more to self-reflect on and unpack the deeper issues that underlie the “scandals.” What happened at the school that’s in the news today is happening all over the place, and the kids and adults whose lives are damaged or destroyed by this behavior aren’t just those who are headed to Harvard, as today’s story so gleefully reports. We could all do a lot more to ask Why? and to build cultures where kids treat one another with integrity and respect—and where adults do the same. It’s my romantic idealism showing again, but really, why won’t we?

So that’s the news for today—good and bad, with lessons to teach and lessons for us all to learn.

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