Friday, February 13, 2004

Child rearing: The Cubby Hole Maelstrom 

Just before I left for the Bahamas, Mrs. TigerHawk and Number One Son briefed me on a disciplinary situation, as it were, at school. Since I believe that this childrearing drama involves complex moral, legal and practical considerations, I am interested in the views of the TigerHawk readership, and hope that you comment.

A little background is in order. Number One Son (“NOS”) is not the most attentive kid in the world, a condition that his school formally recognizes and his teachers generally – but inconsistently – understand. NOS’s schedule has a period free of academic classes that is sometimes used for phys ed, sometimes for free reading, and sometimes for “health,” or whatever they call that subject these days (TigerHawk is fairly slow to pick up on the new education nomenclature).

It also should be said that NOS is a good kid at school and never gets into trouble, except insofar as a teacher occasionally grumps at him for not paying attention. NOS has no track record of disrespect, notwithstanding his tweenish approach to the world.

With that background, consider the facts surrounding the incident: During the aforesaid non-academic period, NOS broke open his current sword and sorcery novel, thinking that he was free, or even required, so to do. Unbeknownst to NOS (because he was buried in his book), however, there was a teacher in the front of the class trying to make health knowledge happen. The teacher in question may or may not have asked NOS to put away his book, but he did march over and snatch the book from NOS’s hand and declare that NOS could find him at the end of the day (a Friday) and reclaim his book then.

At the end of the day, NOS hunted around the school for the teacher (it is not a big building), failed to locate him, and proceeded to the administrative office. The public area of the administrative office contains little cubby hole mailboxes for the teachers. These mailboxes are presumably used for all kinds of internal communications, perhaps occasionally private and usually, I suspect, banal. Various of our children’s teachers use their mailboxes as a way to pass specific materials to parents, such as a copy of the day’s work sheet, and there is no meaningful security.

You can see where this is going. NOS spotted his novel in the cubby hole of the teacher who had taken it. Faced with leaving it over the weekend and thereby deferring the exciting conclusion, NOS did the obvious thing: he removed the novel and headed home.


It seems that this teacher views his cubby hole as private space, akin to his desk drawer, and NOS’s self-help was therefore a gross violation of a universally understood protocol. Indeed, the teacher confronted Mrs.TigerHawk the next week, vented to some extent and demanded that NOS apologize for both the predicate offense of reading a novel in health class and the subsequent invasion of the cubby hole. This venting came complete with the assertion that there was lots of sensitive and private information about other students in the cubby hole, which compounded the severity of the second offense.

Mrs. TigerHawk duly asked NOS if he understood the nature and gravity of these offenses, and suggested that he apologize. Practical advice, to be sure.

A couple of days after the fact, TigerHawk came blundering in with a somewhat different view of things. I agreed that NOS’s teacher was entitled to be irritated at NOS for reading in class (although a more nuanced grasp of NOS’s tendencies might have qualified his reaction), and I fully supported both the temporary confiscation of the book and the requirement for an apology. However, I argued in fairly intemperate words that NOS’s teacher was, shall we say, fully of horse pucky with regard to the second offense.

First, the teacher’s characterization of his mail cubby as a profoundly private place akin to a desk drawer just didn’t hold water. Why are they out in the open in a space where any passing snoop can see the contents? Because the cubby contents are rarely in fact sensitive, and when they are the school almost certainly uses envelopes to insure privacy. Why else would other teachers use their cubby holes as drop points for lost homework and such? No, this teacher had built his rage into a disingenuous claim that NOS’s offense was worse than it was.

Lesson number one for NOS: angry people will inflate their rage into an alleged moral question, even if they have to construct a dishonest argument to make their point. Any spectator of American politics during the last fifteen years understands and deplores this tendency, but it is important to know that it is very common.

“Second” (I roared, speaking in outline form, as I often do), NOS’s teacher was himself guilty of an offense, and actually owed NOS an apology! This drew an intrigued look from NOS and a worried look from Mrs. TigerHawk, who was growing concerned that I was muddying heretofore crystal clear moral waters. Yes, NOS’s teacher was liable for the tort of conversion, which both conferred immunity for NOS’s self-help remedy and required – at the least – an apology from the teacher!

“How so?” (you might reasonably ask).

If it were truly the case that the teachers’ cubby holes are private spaces that may not be breached by any student even for the limited purpose of retrieving the student’s own property, then the teacher has exerted control over NOS’s book to the exclusion of NOS beyond that control necessary to remedy the behavior problem in the classroom. This is the tort of conversion.

Of course, Mrs. TigerHawk (who has taken and passed more bar exams more recently than I) said that I must be wrong, since teachers take things from children all the time. Good point, “but” (I roared again), those confiscations are to remedy a problem (e.g., to remove a distraction) and they endure for the class period or the school day, at most (unless, of course, they involve contraband). Never have I heard that teachers could assess “fines” of students in the form of their chattels. Would it be acceptable for a teacher to confiscate a student’s PDA because the kid “visits with his neighbors in class” (TigerHawk’s most frequent offense)? No! This case is no different. The confiscation of the book was a very appropriate remedy for NOS’s inattention, but confiscation of the book for longer than necessary to remedy the classroom situation was not acceptable. Other punishments not tried – including the writing of absurd sentences after class, a big favorite in Iowa public schools circa 1970, or forcing NOS to name the really scary STDs in front of his classmates – would have received my unqualified support. Taking my son’s property for the weekend, though, is not acceptable.

Of course, the always practical Mrs. TigerHawk asked whether all of this nifty reasoning meant that NOS should refuse to apologize for the cubby hole offense, or even demand an apology for the conversion of his book. Would that be a useful exercise for NOS, given that he had to spend the rest of the year under the scrutiny of a known tortfeasor?


My towering conviction tumbled down, and so I found myself supporting an apology that I did not feel was earned, however necessary it might be.

Lesson number two for NOS: sometimes, but only sometimes, we must forego the delights of speaking truth to power in order to achieve our greater goals, which might legitimately include the survival of the seventh grade.


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