I may be several thousand miles away from the school system I had my kids enrolled in, but via social media I am still able to keep up with the annual events. Not long ago, I was making my way through my Instagram feed when I came upon images from friends who were sending their kids off to the various themed days of Red Ribbon Week, the daily observances of which involve dressing up in various silly ways and learning about drugs. It’s a connection that still baffles me.
If you are not accustomed to this tradition, it is sort of inextricably aligned with Nancy Reagan’s drug free agenda of the 1980s, though it seems to have had its own distinct roots. There is some criticism that this was a period of time when the increased criminalization of drugs was more or less a cover for incarcerating minorities. Beyond that, I have additional reasons for disliking the week.
First, it’s yet another school tradition that places a burden on parents. Additional prep time and expenses, two things we don’t need. It’s a week full of stressful nights when you realize around bedtime that your kid is supposed to have something lame to wear the next day which you don’t happen to own. It’s a time when you find yourself buying things you don’t want or need because you don’t want your kids to feel left out.
Second, my kids’ first exposure to the concept of drugs came from Red Ribbon Week, and probably at a time that was premature. Apparently, my oldest daughter’s school did such a whizz-bang job of explaining exactly what it is that kids should be avoiding that near the end of the week they had spent talking about saying no to drugs she was still completely confused. Four days into the celebration I was walking home with her in the afternoon and we passed by one of the anti-drug posters. She turned and asked me, “dad, what are drugs?”
It reminded me of a time in a high school history class. For about three days straight I had been listening to my teacher drone on and on about ‘grangers.’ After day one, I thought I must have missed something because I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about, but I didn’t care enough to consult the text. Actually, we didn’t have texts because we were one of those underfunded rural schools, so we just had terrible teachers instead. And there was no internet. Nonplussed, on the next day I asked some friends, ‘what’s she talking about, what’s a granger?’ Universal cluelessness (but they all had the good sense to keep quiet). Day three, in a rare act of boldness, I raised my hand and asked her to explain. She chastised me in front of everyone in such a demeaning way that I still remember it nearly thirty years later. I never did learn what a granger was. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to Google it now. I’ll take that bit of ignorance to the grave just to spite her.
Point is, that was bad teaching, which apparently extends itself to the anti-drug movement as well.
The themes for the days of Red Ribbon Week all seem to be pretty standard in my experience. There is a crazy hair day, which seems like good prep for the teen years of drug experimentation. There is a pajama day, which might also be, but we’ll just let that one slide for the time being. There’s usually something about sports teams. And then there is the day of the photo that caught my eye: nerd day.
Here’s where my issue really comes into focus: in my view, this has the resounding feel of institutionalized bullying,
My issues with this can be boiled down to two categories: First, the pictures I saw posted online inevitably had children who did not wear glasses wearing glasses for the occasion. Which would inevitably lead to the kind of question my daughter posed on science night which I wrote about here. In other words, if she didn’t think that she was different for wearing glasses, this would be a sudden realization that in some way people who wear them are nerds.
The second major issue is that our schools are having a hard time making the grade. We are more in need now than ever to have students commit to those disciplines most associated with nerdiness: the sciences. The last thing we should be doing is stigmatizing being smart and academic in the very halls of academia. Do we wonder why kids lose interest in math and science at young ages when we send them messages like this? When what we are telling them is that they will be relegated to the rank of social misfit if they show signs of academic aptitude?
I don’t suspect that there is any malicious intent here nor that the school principals and various PTO members have thought through these consequences. But in a sense, that is a major part of the problem. Bullying and stigmatizing academic achievement will not end so long as the people most intimately associated with school functions fail to acknowledge that their programming is complicit in perpetuating the problem.