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Sunday, Nov. 19, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Looking for the right kind of love for fragile teens


Some people may react to the current bullying issue with an acute feeling of deja vu. Didn't we go through this back in the 1980s? And didn't we address it in the '90s when teachers and administrators rejected the old thinking that kids were bullied for a reason and instead acknowledged them as victims of intolerable behavior? Because when they did that, they at least agreed to keep track of reports of bullying in public schools.

What we have learned with the recent rash of bullying-related suicides is that, in fact, they weren't keeping track at all. Bullying never went away, but since there were no records it didn't exist, at least as far as the government and the media were concerned.

The education establishment has become ever more bureaucratized. Even teachers work on the assumption that their goal is to achieve positive statistical results, and as in any bureaucratic organization the appearance of good results is all that matters.

When bullying became one measure of a school's quality, it was duly covered up. The other recent education-related scandal -- kids graduating high school without taking required courses because they aren't covered on college entrance exams -- sprang from the same kind of thinking. Statistics are all that matter.

It's not likely that the image of public education will recover any time soon, which means the responsibility for imparting to children the kind of values that prevent bullying falls back on the parents.

Of course, parents are always expected to instill these values in their children, at least by example, but teachers, rightly or wrongly, still shoulder more than their fair share of the blame if kids go bad. When the police here catch juveniles committing a crime, they are as likely to call the kids' teachers as they are to call their parents.

During a press conference last week, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said in his usual blunt way something that a lot of people are thinking. He expressed disdain for the students who wrote letters to the education ministry saying that they were considering suicide. He called these students "spoiled and weak," and speculated the letters were probably pranks. "If my child told me he was bullied," he said, "I would teach him how to fight back."

Ishihara's approach will appeal to a lot of people, but before children can fight back or stand up to bullying they have to at least like themselves. One of the attributes common to the kids profiled on Fuji TV's Nov. 10 "Friday Prestige" documentary special was a lack of self-esteem.

The special looked at three programs that help troubled teens overcome their problems with family, school and friends. Tough love of the type Ishihara would approve is the main mode of counseling in two of these programs.

In the first report about a home in Aichi run by a Buddhist priest who smokes, curses and beats on tables with a baseball bat, the kids seem beyond hope. One girl used to be an excellent pitcher for her school softball team -- too good, in fact. Her teammates bullied her so severely that she not only quit the team, but fell into shoplifting and eventually started slashing her wrists. Her single mother kicked her out and she moved in with her boyfriend.

The priest's combination of yakuza-grade scolding and mothering care (he personally makes lunchboxes for all 15 of his charges) is presented as the ideal attitude to take toward such troubled adolescents, but a viewer might get a different idea. The girl runs away even from the priest.

"I don't know how to please him," she says about the priest. This seems to be a common problem. Whether it's toward parents, teachers or schoolmates, these children struggle to realize how they are supposed to act. The priest hates dishonesty more than anything, but the pressure to be cheerful, dutiful, and diligent takes its toll when a child feels none of these things naturally.

In another report, a middle-aged, former juvenile delinquent named Ito runs a similar kind of live-in facility. Ito is as tough as the priest, and with his background -- he did a stint in prison -- his harsh words are backed by harsh experience. But the kids seem to be at a loss. Tough love has made them understand they are on the road to ruin, but the only alternative they are given is to return to school, which holds no appeal. The effort to conform, to act correctly, becomes even more distressful because these kids, most of whom are from broken homes, view adults, especially teachers, as being insincere.

This aspect is clearer in the third report, which is about a graduate student and amateur kick boxer named Hishida who spends afternoons with troubled kids at a Tokyo junior high school as a "school partner." Hishida is simply someone to talk to. Unlike the priest and the ex-con, he doesn't give advice, and he has had noticeable success in making problem kids less disruptive in class. Though he passes on the usual cliches about how education is the key to a brighter future, he is also a realist. He convinces one troubled 15-year-old boy to take up kick boxing, and after the boy graduates from junior high school, Hishida helps him to get a job with a construction company. A year-and-a-half later the boy has become a valuable employee. Moreover he is more at ease with himself. In school, he was a frowning ball of frustration. At the work site he's affable and confident.

There's a temptation to qualify what Hishida did in terms of class -- kids of certain means and social background don't need education. But what the boy really didn't need was school, and if we are to learn anything from the current scandals it's the difference between school and education. When teachers think like bureaucrats and students feel like prisoners, the difference couldn't be more stark.



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