Acts of rebellion: From schoolyards to the fourth of July

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The confusing thing about that bus monitor story from the U.S. is that it was treated as a case of bullying. Bullying usually means kids assaulting kids, in the schoolyard or cyber-yard. When adults bully kids, as they routinely do, it's called discipline or education. When adults bully adults, which also happens often -- think about political attack ads -- it isn't called bullying. This was a case of kid-on-adult "bullying." But what it really involved was youth dabbling in ways to undermine adult authority and exploring their right to rebel -- necessary, if painful, parts of growing up.

This occurred to me on the fourth of July this week -- which marks the moment in 1776 when the U.S. rebelled against its British parent. That didn't go down smoothly either. Historians say about a third supported the revolution then, a third opposed it, and the rest abstained.

You can see the value of resistance models, in the current U.S. opposition movement, the Tea Party, named after an American revolutionary event. But since you can't resist all authority everywhere, what you need to figure out is: when, where and how. That requires experience and practice, which kids get, starting around the age of the boys on that bus: 12, when they still aren't large enough to simply defy adult commands. The process continues through adolescence, causing increasing grief for teachers, parents, etc.

So I'm basically sympathetic to those kids though if I'd been there I'd have done what I could to shut them down. I think you can hear them testing the limits of what they can get away with, verbally moving from "freakin'" to "fucking," poking the monitor's hearing aid, endlessly repeating "fat-ass." It isn't pretty but humans aren't, always, and these are 12. It doesn't mean they're destined for depravity. As for the monitor, I think she acquits herself decently: sobbing but getting control of it, keeping up a conversation with them and declining to file a report, as if it all qualified as part of a normal process.

I consider it an adult duty to provide a safe, controlled setting in which kids can explore the arts of rebellion. Teachers do that, with the aid of detentions, grades, threats and tantrums. Vice-principals -- those embodiments of adult control -- are especially useful. Kids never feel a VP is going to cry or collapse, abandoning them to a terrifying situation of total power. If adults fail, it's not because they're too permissive or don't articulate sturdy values; it's because they dissolve the solid framework which kids need to rebel in, when they're still too young and shaky to take full responsibility. You can sense a touch of that kid panic in the bus video; the kids are doing their job but she isn't quite up to hers.

I don't mean the whole incident is simply a civics lesson in the need for learning to dissent. It's also a grotty exercise in some of the less appealing behaviour that humans are capable of. But that's a learning experience too. One of the boys' dads said he was stunned by the video because it's not how he raised his kids. I'm sure it isn't but maybe when he was a kid he got caught up in the same kind of thing.

I know I did. I went to the circus at Maple Leaf Gardens with some pals when I was about 12 and we pitilessly tormented a kid we didn't know in the row ahead of us, just because we could, as if it was an experiment. What you can eventually learn is that those impulses are inside you, but don't have to control you. The whole complicated brew was captured in the U.S. film, Rebel Without a Cause, from 1955, when conformity -- i.e., submission to the authority of what everyone else is doing -- was considered a national scourge.

There was also an unexpected online coda to the incident, in which carloads of money were thrown at the monitor for her misery. It seemed a little bizarre but, compared to the billions in bailouts for miscreant banks simply because they were Too Big To Fail, it probably counts as a model of sage spending.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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