Peak Times at Ridgemont High

November 7, 2007

Sometimes, people seem to get upset about the strangest things. Nary a day goes by we don’t hear about another corrupt political leader, another inefficient industry being bailed out by the government, or another overseas adventure turning up two bells and a cherry, and yet a strongly concerned coalition of teachers, parents, and the paid professional organizers who alerted the media have gotten all wound up about a rather modest proposal by the mayor of New York.

No, not Rudy. I mean, yeah, he’s still technically the mayor, having been awarded this post for life by Ol’ Scratch back in 1994. I’m talking about the one actually sitting in Gracie Mansion, Michael Bloomberg, head of one of the most powerful forces in the western world: Bloomberg, L.P. Oh, and also, New York City.

Anyway, the mayor of Gotham recently floated the idea that the best way to get kids to excel in school was to award them free cell phone minutes for their success, rather accurately realizing that if there is one thing that can overcome students’ hatred of studying, it’s talking on a cell phone.

Boneheaded ideas spring forth eternal from the minds of politicians all the time, though to be fair it’s not only politicians whose creative abilities occasionally misfire. Pro football coaches, professors, pundits, religious authorities, and former best-selling pop artist Mouseketeers from Louisiana also have shown an amazing amount of bad judgment in their proclamations. In this case, though, it’s rare that the condemnation comes from all sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives cranked about how the quality of education in this nation has sunk to the level of rank bribery to get kids to study well, ignoring decades of incentives produced from not getting beat silly for not bringing home more F’s than the TNT showing of Goodfellas. And liberals cried all shades of foul because the bribes weren’t going to the teacher’s union directly.

Of course, there really isn’t any fundamental flaws in Bloomberg’s plan. Life is full of incentives, whether they be in glory, sex, or cold hard cash. It’s just our society has inured us to believe such things are improper, so we have to disguise and sugarcoat them in the form of meaningless titles, in-kind contributions to our mortgage interest rates, and subtle signaling mechanisms to our loan officer that all of our neighbors aren’t white trash by driving to the bank in an uncle’s Sebring.

And nowhere are all of these incentives distorted more than in our educational system. It’s bad enough the government has gotten involved, of course, but that amazingly horrendous confluence of teachers, administrators, parents, children, and property taxes makes a perfect storm of complete and utter chaos. It’s like Katrina and Victoria Beckham combined.

Incentives have always been a fairly impressive carrot all through the K-12 years. In kindergarten, kids are placated with cheap juice and the opiate known as the Letter People. In grade school, an established pecking order is quickly derived in the anarchy of the playyard amongst those that procure lunch money, those who defy the oppressive thumb of the sadistic librarian, and the lucky chosen few who get to clean the erasers. This is maintained in a silent truce through a complex system of bribes and threats, including but not limited to coughing up stale Ho-Ho’s and undesirable dollar coins, passive-aggressively “misplacing” books in the wrong place in the Dewey Decimal System, and taking as long as possible to go outside and pound two pieces of dusty black Malaysian fabric together so you can sneak in a smoke or two.

In high school, things tend to change. There are two overriding incentives in high school that often conflict. Students in high school direct pretty much 100% of their energies in either 1) trying to get into some other girl’s pants/not getting pregnant; and 2) getting into a good college. The former, of course, has its own set of incentives we can’t really go into here; suffice it to say it involves a mixture of self-loathing and lip gloss. The latter, of course, is one of the few effective auto-policing incentives in the school system. Kids suddenly start paying attention in AP English when they are indoctrinated into believing that memorizing two passages from Richard III is the difference between Harvard and the West Valley College of Culinary Arts and Auto Detailing.

But then we’re back into the swing of things once college pops its ugly head over the horizon. The federal loan program and Pell grants are just an elaborately concealed bribery scheme that would make Jack Kennedy cry bootlegged gin, complete with arbitrary conditions and cherry-picked recipients, all to the end of being forever indebted to the government even after they let you loose with a warning after they caught you sneaking A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out CD under your Abercrombie hoodie.

So I don’t quite see what’s so bad about the mayor’s proposal to reduce getting good grades and studying hard down to blatant bribery. Pepsi already possesses the football field, Johnson & Johnson effectively controls the prom, and Halliburton controls the textbook industry, so I don’t see why we can’t hand out throwaway phones for passing Trig on the first try.

Back to School, Back To Reality

August 27, 2007

It’s back to school time! It’s not only an important day for teachers, parents, students, and big box stationery retailers who have sixty million Bratz Trapper Keepers to unload before Christmas, but it’s an important day for Americans as well, as students get back to learning and parents get back to wondering why on earth I let him get me pregnant. He talked soooo smooth, and had a truck.

Anyway, here are some hints for the kids as they stomp back to the classroom this fall.

Go to class! Skipping class is a bad idea, since it takes precious seconds away from third period English where you can stare at Jenny Wilson’s pink bra you can see through her white blouse but she apparently doesn’t know it or does know it and wants everyone to know she’s wearing it. Either way, you win, and it’s better than staying at home playing last year’s edition of DDR. Plus, playing hooky is bad for your educational outlook. Just because Lawrence Timmons does it doesn’t mean you can.

Keep up with the fashion trends. You don’t want to be THAT GUY. I was THAT GUY in school, wearing extraordinarily gay Hawaiian shirts and those pants with about a hundred pockets in them, better for me to hide all my secret stuff, which wasn’t pot or Oxycontin but 8-sided dice. You don’t want to be THAT GUY, because you will test out of AP Physics but never know if the head cheerleader is ambidextrous or not, and let me let you guess exactly which one is going to be more important when you reach middle age. For guys, fashion shopping is easy: you could pay $8 for a white T-shirt with a gray stripe on it. But why do that, when you can get the same T-shirt and splash some Helvetica font with some letters spelling AMBERCROMBIE ironed in on it by an eight year old Malaysian child and pay $60 for it instead? For the young ladies, I recommend purchasing a modest pair of panties the size of a postage stamp and some “low-riding” jeans, a new fashion trend initiated by the National Association of Letting Everyone See Your Twelve Year Old Daughter’s Ass-Crack. Seriously, people, do you have ANY IDEA what your kids are wearing? Here’s a hint: they’re dressing like idiots and prostitutes. Don’t rush them. They’ll have plenty of time to do that in college.

Be wary of negative influences. The story of the bad seed turning good kids into irresponsible monsters goes back as far as elaborately scripted stage musicals have gone. Your tweenage (did I just write that?) and adolescent years are a time of broadening interests and social education. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be nagged by a series of ham-fisted platitudes into never engaging in any type of harmful activity such as drug use, sexual experimentation, vegetarianism, hair dyes, any clothes ever purchased at Hot Topic, music that sounds like someone dropped an electric drum machine down Hitler’s gaping rectum and lyrics that would shame Larry Flynt, cosmetics with a high glitter content, lip gloss (I mean, c’mon. They’re not cigarettes, for crying out loud. What’s your excuse?), One Tree Hill, and Scientology.

Just a side note: skateboarding is an activity you should pretty much grow out of by the time you are able to walk. Seriously, kids, you look like a thirty year old playing with a yo-yo when there aren’t any children around to justify it.

Study hard! In school you’re going to have to study a wide range of subjects, and some are going to be easy and some you’re going to wish very very hard for a medical ailment to engulf your teacher. That never works, by the way; they’ll always replace him or her with some student teacher who will be hot and you’ll be distracted and end up failing anyway. Still, it’s best to at least give an effort for those subjects you find hard to grasp. There is no shame in asking for help, whether it be tutoring or after-school instruction. No shame, that is, if you don’t mind being an incredible pussy. Real students grab their ankles and grit their teeth and learn Avagadro’s Number with only the sheer force of the proper application of scholastics. By the way, if you think American History is a difficult subject, you are a failure as a human being.

Don’t neglect extracurricular activities. While you don’t want to distract from your schoolwork (cough, cough) the act of socialization is paramount in a child’s education. In fact you’ll learn many lessons that just can’t be taught in any school book. For example:

Little League: Sportsmanship, fair play, benefits of the luxury tax, learn the basics of memorizing completely useless statistics for a sport whose fan base is shrinking to embarrassingly small numbers
French Club: Meet girls (for guys); speak French (for girls).
Chess Club: Chess, Logic, Loneliness.
Student Newspaper: making rash, incalculable statements with a house of cards for evidence and a transparent knowledge of practically nothing of value into an article that will influence millions of potential voters, customers, and workers. Also, what the hell an adjunctive is.
Cheerleading: synchronization, directions to the clinic
A/V club: How to post a video clip of a dog riding a skateboard on YouTube.
Chorus: Self-loathing, ten years of majoring in voice and ending up as the assistant manager of Blockbuster.
Marching Band: Discipline, order, coordination, invading Poland, feeling superior to chorus members.

Most importantly: stay in school. It may be a lonely, thoughtless eight hours of mind-numbing boredom, arbitrary rules, limited added value to property tax spending, and minimal gains for an extensively elaborate amount of effort, but it beats spending all day serving customers at the Burger King or, worse, with your parents.