From TODD WALTON
“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley
1957. Las Lomitas Elementary School. Menlo Park, California
“I invite those people with ants in their pants,” proclaimed Mrs. Davenport, my third grade teacher, “to run to the oak tree and back before we get to work on our projects.”
Those people always included me, so I and several of my cohorts, boys and girls, walked sedately to the classroom door from where we bolted into sunlight and fresh air to run across the playground to the gigantic oak that overshadowed the playing field. Upon our return, Mrs. Davenport would say, “Todd, Jody, Wendy, I invite you to circumnavigate the oak one more time because I can see you’ve still got a little jitterbug in you.”
Mrs. Davenport was from Oklahoma and proudly one-eighth Cherokee. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in all my eight mortal years. She was astute, funny, musical, athletic, and she enjoyed using words somewhat beyond the official Third Grade vocabulary. We loved Mrs. Davenport because she loved us and had great empathy for our collective predicament: being eight-year-olds.
In 1957, may the fates be eternally blessed, there was no such thing as Attention Deficit Disorder, nor were hideous drugs routinely and epidemically administered to children with ants in their pants. Thus I was spared the pharmaceutical suppression of my true nature, which was, as our beloved Mrs. Davenport so aptly put it, “To jitterbug.”
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela
1969. Oakland, California
“You’re kidding,” I said to my friend, a Third Grade teacher at an elementary school with an entirely black student body. “All the kids in your class take Ritalin?”
“Every single one of them.”
“There’s no other way to control them. Forty wild kids in a dinky classroom. Believe me, the ones who skip their meds stand out like sore thumbs.”
Lest you think the situation in that Oakland elementary school was an anomaly, think again. A monumental takeover of America’s schools was underway in the late 1960’s and continued through the 1970’s and 80’s, and is now complete. Today millions of our children are, for all intents and purposes, forced to take prescription drugs if they wish to attend school. And what saddens me most is knowing that had such drugs existed in my antsy childhood, and had my school been run by agents of the pharmaceutical corporations as most schools are run today, my parents would have dutifully signed the requisite forms allowing my jailers to drug me.
“Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.” Aldous Huxley
In 1974 I worked as a teacher’s aide and janitor at a day care center in Palo Alto. All but three of our twenty-seven kids, ages two to five, came from single parent homes with the dads missing, the moms working as secretaries or nurses or maids or salespeople. The children were dropped off at the center between seven and eight in the morning and were to be picked up by a parent between four and five in the afternoon. For all sorts of wrong reasons, I was often left alone to care for several of these little people from two in the afternoon until the last of their very tired mothers arrived long after five.
My strategies for safely overseeing seven to fifteen antsy little kids all by myself for three or four hours included story telling, snack providing, and running my charges back and forth to the oak tree, so to speak, until they were too tired to do anything other than nap or draw or play quietly until their mommies came to get them. Several of these children, according to the school’s director, exhibited propensities for Attention Deficit Disorder; but not one of these angels suffered from any such thing under my care.
“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence University education.” George Bernard Shaw
In 1989, as I began my third year of running the Creative Writing program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, the school’s director hired a renowned academic authority to conduct a workshop for the department heads. I was skeptical about the value of the workshop, Strategies for Working With Contemporary Teenagers, because after two years of working with contemporary teenagers I had yet to discern any differences between contemporary teens and the teenager I had been; and my skepticism proved justified the moment that overpaid fraud opened his mouth.
He began with the proclamation that due to the pernicious effects of comic books and MTV, “the teenagers of today are incapable of sustaining focus and interest in a subject for more than a few minutes at a time. Therefore, you must design your curriculum to accommodate their limitations.”
I raised my hand, for I was swiftly approaching the limits of my capability of sustaining focus and interest in what this jackass was saying.
“I will complete my initial presentation,” he snapped, “and take questions after.” He glanced at his watch. “In twenty-four minutes.”
“I will not wait twenty-four minutes,” I said, rising from my seat. “Or even one minute. Your premise is erroneous. The young people we work with are easily able to sustain their focus and interest for hours on end, so I will leave you to your nonsense and hope my colleagues will have the good sense to leave with me.”
Needless to say, the director of the school was displeased with my boycott of the renowned academic, but life went on and our young writers and artists proved themselves illimitably attentive. Of course, we weren’t training our students to jump through hoops and remember meaningless bits of data pursuant to passing tests pursuant to becoming docile members of an emotionally stifled population of neurotic consumers. We were providing them with opportunities, inspiration, and techniques for expressing their original visions, while modeling for them adult versions of what artists might be.
“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.” Frank Zappa
2010. There is today, the authorities tell us, an epidemic of autism sweeping America; and though no one has a definitive explanation for the dramatic upturn in the incidence of autism, massive quantities of barely tested drugs are being administered to our nation’s hapless children in the name of managing the growing problem. Autism is a highly non-specific term, almost as non-specific as the word human, and may refer to a child incapable of even minimal self-maintenance, to a teenager with abnormal speech patterns, or to an adult incapable of making eye contact with other human beings, to name just a few of the thousands of autistic behaviors found under the vast umbrella of the so-called autistic spectrum.
“Yes, well, we have administered the appropriate tests and come to the conclusion that your daughter falls somewhere on the spectrum of being human. Her particular manifestation of humanness indicates she might be more easily controlled were she to take two hundred milligrams every four hours of the drug Freedonia, an absurdly expensive drug cheaply manufactured and available exclusively from one of the unregulated and amoral pharmaceutical giants. This giant multinational corporation claims to have thoroughly tested Freedonia on several thousand unsuspecting peasant children in India. Only a small percentage of those peasant children died or went insane as a result of taking the drug, and despite a notable percentage of the subjects experiencing dizziness, loss of appetite, and an irrational fear of the color blue, a viable percentage of those taking Freedonia showed a noticeable reduction in those symptoms of humanness similar to the symptoms unfortunately exhibited by your daughter. Therefore, we strongly recommend that your daughter take the recommended dosages of Freedonia if you wish for her to continue attending Sweetness and Light Elementary School.”
“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Arthur Schopenhauer
Most people find it hard to believe that it was common practice for medical doctors in twentieth century America to prescribe cigarettes for patients suffering from anxiety, but they, the medical doctors, did just that for many decades. My father, a medical doctor, smoked cigarettes until 1957 when the Surgeon General gave his first official warning about the “probable link” between cigarettes and lung cancer.
I have several friends who feel that life would not be worth living without the prescription anti-depressants they take, and I am relieved they have something to help them feel good about being alive. I am not against the use of all drugs. But I am against the use of drugs in place of discovering and working on the underlying causes of what ails us and what ails our children.
A growing body of research suggests that the accepted truth in the not too distant future will be that the exponential rise in the occurrence of autism is at least partially related to the chronic use of computers and cell phones by children who should not be using (or exposed to the rays from) those brain-altering devices until their brains have had the opportunity to fully develop as our brains are genetically intended to develop. Crucial synaptic connections are very likely not being made in the brains of millions of young people who are texting and gaming and cyber surfing before their brains and psyches and bodies are fully and healthfully formed.
Have you ever entered a café where several people are peering into cell phones and twiddling their thumbs on miniature keyboards? These people are modeling several of the fundamental symptoms of autism: disconnection from reality, self-isolation, repetitive physical mannerisms, and avoidance of direct contact with other humans. Or to put it another way, they seem to be missing out on what we old farts call life.
(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2010. Todd’s web site is Underthetablebooks.com)