Today something entirely unexpected happened.
Since last spring I’ve been a therapist in a local elementary school, something that is harder to explain than it should be. For one, I don’t work for the school district, I work for a non-profit which contracts with the school district to place myself and a partner in the school. The school provides a room, furniture, colleagues, and clients, while my actual employer is able to bill for what I do because of their license as a community mental health center. My real-fake boss, the principal, provides marching orders daily and is with me when we’re triaging crises and trying to avoid being spit on by angry 5 year olds. My fake-real boss sees me once or twice a week and provides quality guidance, while recommending that HR keep paying me. This convoluted employment structure embodies in miniature the societal situation which created this job in the first place; while asking more and broader of our public schools, as Americans we are funding them less and less, and then inquiring as to why there is such a shortfall.
The fallacy here has been rooted since the very beginning of public education in America. Public education became widespread as a response to European immigration in the 19th century, and was set up to make sure that acculturation was universal and consistent, something which quickly morphed into a more pervasive mission of socialization. When John Dewey wrote that “…to prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself” he was speaking about the archetypal (male) student having enough self-mastery to be not only employable, but not criminal. Dewey most frequently spoke about this social mission in more lofty terms, of making children ready to be citizens in the Madisonian sense. This optimism, this idea that the proliteriat will be in a position such that their first daily concern could be civic, and not more primal, has misguided American education ever since.
In the days after the second world war American society grew, both in affluence and in shear numbers. The result has been (to skip over several chapters of history) school districts and often whole towns which are as a rule rather than as an exception heavily biased towards certain ends of various class and ethnic spectra. People in modern America tend to find and be near other people like them, for reason both sinister and not, deliberate and quite unconscious. We, for instance, do not live in the school district where I work, because many little things about our background led us to desire a historic house in a certain part of town, and the totality of the many people who ended up near us has led our neighborhood school to not think a position like mine necessary. M and mine’s secure background, in other words, made us confident enough to buy a potentially problematic house, and there are enough of those houses in the area that our neighborhood school has ended up as one of the “nice” ones.
The school I work in is not “nice” insofar as that word is traditionally regarded. The houses nearby are smaller, the school district itself is large and largely rural and heterogenous, with more (to stereotype in the name of brevity) trailer parks hidden on side streets and around hills than one would think. My clients generally live there, and as befits one of the silent assumptions of 21st century America these inhabitants generally have less education, more legal trouble, and more children when they are younger than the people up on the hill around our house. Their progeny, for reasons that are as nuanced as they are obvious, tend to come into school with more behavior problems. There are many exceptions, but those many exceptions just tend to prove the rule.
Which brings us back to my moment of astonishment this morning. Our administration is nothing if not phlegmatic. Old school would be a term neither uncharitable nor inaccurate. This is Montana, and thus our district does not really have snow days. My principal can’t recall any, just school closing once due to flooding, and another time to a railroad spill which led to a toxic chemical fire. So I was surprised last week when their collective eyes went wide with terror when I mentioned that a certain student might be returning from a residential placement. Said students continued funding had been denied by the state, against the objections of the therapist there, and in the absence of other programs care would default to the school district, and to me. Our school felt so strongly about this not happening that circumlocutions beyond my wildest dreams took place to secure the cost of a few months more treatment, a figure roughly equal to a nice new pickup truck. I wish I could be more specific, but I can’t, which is why I write about my day job so infrequently. Confidentially and the discretion of our little big town makes all the best stories untellable.
What does this have to do with guns? Nothing more than that the calls (hollow and earnest) for more mental health intervention in schools, to prevent shootings and to generally make the country a better place, can’t really be expected to encapsulate both the historical and pragmatic complexities of doing so. People tend to parent, and live their lives, within a narrow range beyond the window of possibilities show to their parents. And by middle school most people are fixed enough, in terms of behavior and neurology, that any further intervention and services is mainly in the service of whomever their future kids may be. Mental health services are for adolescents and adults largely band aids and damage control, insofar as societal effects are concerned. Envision for instance the child who comes to school dirty, boots shot through with holes, stuck with below average emotion management, because their parents often yelled at each other, and poor attention and impulse control, because they usually watched Youtube rather than read books or played with toys, things that require perseverance and delayed gratification. Neglect can go very far indeed before the state will remove that child, and rightfully so, as often the only living situation worse than those parents is anyone else. The number of skilled and even keeled foster families is small, and as for grandmother or uncle, well, who did those problem parents learn from in the first place?
It is not a coincidence that so many shooters return to schools, if not necessarily their school, to express their rage and discontent. This should not be read as any kind of simplification of the individual psychoses involved in any particular case, but it should be read as a recognition of the central, and symbolic, role schools have in our society. They are primary agents of socialization, in the full range of justice and injustice, and where those from a “different” background are generally first exposed to the full range of what they were born into. Good and ill both. A few years ago Malcolm Gladwell wrote a typically Gladwellian piece on school shooting, which was fraught with typically Gladwellian misreadings and overgeneralizations of social science research. What he got dead right was the totemic, symbolic weight schools have long had in American culture, which explains why school shootings have become a cultural epidemic. Like any cultural epidemic, such as poverty or transgenerational sexual abuse, contemplating a cure requires a timeline measured in generations.
This idea is particularly relevant, and comes full circle, in the era of Trump. Perhaps the most tribal president in US history, or at least behind only the elections of 1800 and 1828 in this respect, Trump has solidified class and racial divisions as a means of building and maintaining support, using and then consolidated existing cultural schisms. If one way of improving public schools on a social level would be to make them less fraught tools of socialization, it seems safe to say that Trump has made this more difficult. How pragmatic the call to arm teachers may be is largely irrelevant, as it is a request designed to polarize and inflame. People on one side of the gun question often lack the personal experience to see firearms as anything other than scary phallic symbols, and the other side too often defaults to the 2nd amendment as a cultural shorthand for a litany of far more complex objections against the state of the county and American society in general. School shootings are more worrisome because they are more deadly, just like gun owners are far more likely to succeed during a suicide attempt than non-gun owners. But school shootings are also worrisome because all too often the guns involved are symbols in addition to tools. By acquiring and then using them the shooters are making a very purposive statement against a select and significant cultural institution, with an instrument whose weight is not just grounded in it’s utility.
I’d like to see actually substantive discussions of mental health care taking place today, ones which decoupled mental health from the medical institutions and financial restrictions under which it has grown up in America. Programs like mine, made more universal and more embedded in school districts, would be a good step. So would a change in teacher education standards that better admitted the on-the-ground reality new teachers will generally find. I surveyed the 20 teachers at my school earlier this year, and during undergrad work not one of them had been required to take anything in the mental health realm beyond basic developmental psychology. This does these folks the injustice of making a huge part of their daily job something they’ll learn trial by fire on the job, and also paints an inaccurate picture of what their professional lives will look like, which increased burn out. It would also be nice if as a society we finally, consciously, threw off the stereotype of primary education as woman’s work only worthy to be paid as such. Most of my current colleagues are truly exceptional, and of necessity none of them get too fired up about their salaries, but if as a country we want education to actually be as important as we claim it to be, it should be staffed as such, and those professionals should be compensated accordingly.
None of these things are complicated, or in federal terms enormously expensive. They just require some uncomfortable admissions of what we’ve been as a country, and why we haven’t done what we haven’t done.