NEW YORK, May 16 (UPI) -- As a guy who survived teenageism without going to jail or getting my high school diploma revoked, all I can say is: I was damned lucky.
Given the standards of today's let's-get-tough-on-hormones shock therapy, I would have done reformatory time, at the least.
For alcohol violations alone I would probably have been expelled as a hopeless repeat offender. (I could score beer from the age of 14 by ingratiating myself with liquor store owners, dispensing even with the necessity of a fake ID.)
Then there was our custom of spending every study hall period smoking in the woods on the edge of school property, which I'm sure would be a "one strike and you're out" offense today.
Not to mention the tradition of the annual Band Football League, in which we played full-contact 11-man tackle football on a dirt field with no pads, no helmets and no referees, frequently knocking out teeth and drawing blood. I'm sure that's some kind of hanging crime.
Or maybe I should recall our annual Halloween rotten-egg- throwing vandalism runs, including the time we hit a squad car by mistake and had to outrun the cop on Arkansas State Highway 10 by pulling into the all-black town of Panky, hiding the car in a parking lo, and diving out of sight. (I was driving, and I chose the hiding spot. After the cop sped by at 90 with his lights on, I pulled out and headed in the opposite direction, but not before several people ran out of the local church and congratulated me on my "good dodgin'." I had probably dodged a felony.)
I could continue, but my point is this: I was an honor student. I was the class salutatorian. I was the president of the student body. I went to college on a full-tuition scholarship.
I just never got caught.
Now. The hazing incident at Glenbrook North High School in suburban Chicago is a messy affair involving all my own teenage crimes -- drunkenness, unregulated sports, and beating the crap out of one another for no apparent reason.
The difference is that these kids are going down. They're not just getting suspensions or F's in citizenship. We're talking the possibility of actual jail time. Fifteen of them already have criminal charges filed against them, and the state's attorney for Cook County had an actual NEWS CONFERENCE to discuss the indictments! (We've got grandstanding prosecutors in New York, too, but it normally takes a Mafia-level bust to get them to the microphone.)
"We do not have what you would call a harmless prank," said Richard A. Devine, the state's attorney. "There were victims in this case. It simply is the kind of behavior that any community cannot tolerate and will not tolerate."
And I thought Chicago was a tough town.
There's a certain type of adult leader who at some point forgets that he was ever an adolescent himself. He assumes that teenagers are little adults. He doesn't understand the first thing about the systemic rebellion that every child must go through in order to BECOME an adult. And most of all, he doesn't understand teenage mob psychology.
I'm willing to bet that not a single one of those 15 kids would have been able to strike a single blow in the absence of peer pressure. I don't mean that the kid didn't WANT to strike the blow. I don't mean that he didn't ENJOY striking the blow. I just know what temporary derangement occurs in that type of situation. It's not entirely beyond your control, but the weaker your personality, the more unformed your character, the more likely you are to act in a way OPPOSITE to your nature.
In other words, the kids least likely to be violent in later life are oftentimes most likely to commit a symbolic act of violence in order to fit in. And I don't think it takes a genius to figure out why this might be true.
I was in two major bare-knuckle fistfights during my school years, and I didn't want to fight either time. They were secret fights at our "official" place -- by the creek behind the drug store -- with audiences of about 30 other boys each time. I did it only to save face. When 30 guys are watching, you've got no choice.
I got my butt beat both times, but I showed up at the appointed time and I enjoyed every punch I got in on the other guy, and I suppose, as the loser, I would have been able to go to the authorities and get somebody kicked out of school. But I don't even remember WHY WE WERE FIGHTING. One thing I realized after each fight, though, was that I hate bare-knuckle fights. They're always unfair. Even if you win, they don't make you feel good. Fortunately my dad bought me some boxing gloves and took me down to the Boys Club and I learned to do it in a more controlled environment.
The result of my fighting, my vandalism, my rowdiness was simply this: I got to the end of it. I saw the futility of it. Someone more mature than I was could have gotten to that same place by empathy or imagination, but for some reason I was the kind of insecure kid who had to have the actual experience of it. I had to see my own blood.
Look at the videotape of this particular hazing incident.
The juniors -- the ones being hammered by the drunken seniors – are all sitting in a circle, taking it. They're not running away. They're not fighting back. They have no idea why they're doing it, just as the seniors have no idea why they did the same thing the year before. They're going through a rite of passage.
Do I think they should be punished? Absolutely. As I say, it's futile and it's dangerous. But should they have their names in the paper? Absolutely not. The circle of people who already know them is sufficient to humiliate them.
Should they have criminal charges filed against them?
Should they have their chances of going to college endangered? Absolutely not.
Banned from the prom? Fine. Suspended? Fine. Hammered on their report cards? Fine. Grounded by their parents? Fine. Sent to all-summer-long detention hall? Fine. Forced to apologize to their victims and pay any medical bills? Fine. Forced to do community service? Fine.
But one of them might be our future president. Let's not embitter her or harden her. Let's shame her with mercy. I can attest to its power.
(Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at email@example.com or through his Web site at
joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)