In the opening of this story, the main character, Harmon, gets suspended from school. Why write about kids in trouble? Why not write about regular good kids?
Harmon is a regular good kid. His story needs to be told because all over this country regular good kids--especially boys--are struggling in schools that don't meet their needs. Especially in middle school, pressure to do what the other kids do makes it very difficult for kids to act in their own best interests. Educators, threatened by discipline problems and the need to be "accountable" create systems with rules and regulations that crush, rather than nurture, creative thinking and self-discovery. Too many boys give up on academics just when their capacity to grow and learn starts to expand. They disengage from the very process that will ultimately help them grow into their best selves. Even regular good kids from caring homes too often find themselves heading toward self-destruction.
Does that mean that schools shouldn't have rules?
Of course not. Kids need rules. Rules help to maintain order so that learning can take place. However, kids also need to test rules and rebel against rules and judge whether the rules are fair or not. Ultimately, they need to decide how they are going to behave. That's part of growing up. However, if the rules are unreasonable, or if the enforcement of the rules is unfair, kids lose respect for authority. With that respect for authority goes respect for the learning process in school. If too many kids in any given classroom have lost that respect for the learning process, even the most brilliant and dedicated teachers will struggle to keep kids engaged and on task. Once kids develop a hardened anti-intellectualism, it's very hard to get them back. Fixing this problem is tremendously difficult, but the cost of not fixing it is enormous, both to individuals and society. When they show up in community college classes begging for another chance to master the middle school curriculum, it might be too late.
Is Harmon somebody you know?
Harmon is completely fictional. Specifically, Harmon is not my flute-playing son or my bird-watching nephew or my home-schooled neighbor. Harmon is an invented kid who has to deal with lots of real situations that I've seen real people deal with over the years. As a pediatrician practicing in Prince George's County, I worked with lots of kids with weight problems due to poor eating habits and inadequate exercise. I've also worked with kids who fail in school, not because they can't do grade-level work, but because they can't or won't work within the system. I've watched several family friends bail out of the public school system to home school their kids or flee to alternative schools. I've listened to the concerns of many mothers worried about how to raise good kids in this less-than-perfect world. I gave Harmon good ears and a good heart, in hopes that he might find harmony amidst all this noise. I became quite fond of him as he developed. Now, sometimes I'll see a kid Harmon's age wakling home from school, and I'll think, "Hey, that could be Harmon."
Why don't you talk about race? He's African-American, isn't he?
Yes. But Harmon doesn't want to be put into categories because of the way he looks. It bugs him that people jump to conclusions about what kind of person he is based on his shape and color. That's one attribute he shares with me, even though we're different shapes and colors. His race is a fact of his life, but it does not determine his unique world view or the decisions he makes about how to live his life.
I wanted Harmon to develop an interest in something that most of his peers pay little attention to, something that came from his own unique experience and perspective as a human being in his own place and time. Being a major proponent of the health benefits of walking, my inner pediatrician sent him hiking for therapeutic purposes. Since he's very tuned in to sounds, he naturally got interested in the birds. When given time to pursue his own interests through home schooling, he developed an expertise that he probably would not have developed had he followed the well-worn path through a typical middle school. Besides, I wanted an excuse to learn more about birdsongs. I've always wanted to be able to know who's singing in the trees even when I can't see them.
The world's a dangerous place. How can we keep our kids safe?
Wrong question. The right question is: How can we teach our kids to cope with dangers so they can work to make the world a better place? Well meaning parents, like Harmon's mother, want to eliminate risks to protect their children. Of course, we all want our kids to survive to adulthood. But what kind of adults do they become if adults solve their problems for them and keep them walled off from the evil world in protective cocoons? Kids who face no risks have no opportunities to practice problem solving. Somehow, kids need to learn to assess risk and make decisions. As families everywhere wrestle with this issue, inevitable fireworks erupt. When, if ever, should a kid walk home alone, or use the Internet, or ride the subway, or go to a party, or drive in the dark? How do kids learn to make reasonable choices if they're not trusted to try?