Mix It Up at Lunch Day doesn't mean stirring green beans into the mashed potatoes. On Nov. 18, at 7,000 schools across the country, geeks lunched with jocks; band kids sat next to skaters. Popular and punk, black, brown and white, they broke down social barriers, made new friends and lived happily ever after. Well, not really.

At an Oklahoma high school with Mexican-American, Indian and white students, kids were supposed to sit at tables labeled by their month of birth. Instead, many students skipped lunch, ate outside or defied organizers to sit with friends.

Denise Ramos, a sophomore, put it this way: "I thought it would be like always, and it is like always. They don't talk to us, and we don't talk to them. Why would we? Why do I want to go sit next to people who call us Beaners and Spics everyday?"

. . . Bree O'Seland, a junior, chalked it all up to insecurity.

"People just want to hang out with the people they usually do. It has to do with people's own insecurities."

O'Seland, who also chose not to sit by birth month, says she is a victim of others' insecurities every day.

"I'm Pagan, and there is a lot of religious discrimination here. People think I'm a devil worshipper. They say it to my face and behind my back."

At a New Jersey middle school, everyone knows his or her place in the  social order.

At one table, four boys seem to focus so intently on each other they form a protective bulwark. One pretends to smoke a plastic straw and another lines up pizza crusts like race cars.

"We're the unpopular group,'' one says bluntly. "We're not the sports group and everybody likes sports. People make fun of us."

"It's fun to have your own table and be the boss of your own group,'' he notes.

Lunch periods, by the way, are 15 minutes. Not much time for making new friends.

Wanting to hang out with your own kind is natural, says radio host Joe Kelly, father of an eighth grader.

In fact, I suggest that pairing up children outside their normal peer group for such a short period of time will likely widen the chasm that exists between them since they’ll only have enough time together to recognize stereotypes, not explore similarities.

Students who get together to do something -- play a sport, sing in the choir, act in a play, etc. -- tend to make genuine friendships across racial and ethnic lines. Of course, then they're jocks, choir geeks and theater geeks, so it doesn't count.

I sympathize with the desire to persuade students to look outside the cliques that formed early in middle school. But can't they have some unstructured time in the day to be with friends?

Peewee Athletes

Kids start playing on sports teams before they can tie their own shoes. Pediatricians aren't keen on the growth of organized sports for pre-schoolers. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, some kids start tackle football at the age of seven.

Like the dinosaurs, sandlot sports have vanished, and no one knows exactly why. Child-care experts generally attribute the demise to the increasing number of single-parent and dual-income households, and to heightened anxieties about child abduction.

In other words, parents are too busy to keep an eye on neighborhood games and too afraid to let children play without supervision. For a few hours a week, at least, organized sports solve both problems. But they create others.

Parents rush around to ferry kids to practices and games, eating up family time. Dad doesn't teach the kids to throw a ball in the backyard; that job now belongs to the coach.

When I look back, it's amazing how little adult supervision we baby boomers had. We walked to school with other kids from kindergarten on. We stayed after school to play pick-up games of soccer baseball or softball. We played in the park without adults. Intermural sports started in high school.

The Promise

Does your heart need warming? Read this San Antonio Express News story of a fifth grader who was offered a college scholarship by basketball star David Robinson if he stayed in school. Thirteen years later, Tyler Darden is back at his old middle school in San Antonio.

"I had to come home," said Darden, a first-year teacher assigned a class of boys with behavior problems.

"I felt like I needed to come and give back what was given to me over the years."

Darden constantly reminds his students that he came from their neighborhood. And he urges them to go to college.

For their part, Davis students have thanked Principal Ruben S. Fernandez for giving them "a real teacher."

In addition to Robinson's promise, Darden had a mother, grandmother and aunt who cared for him. He had the Boys and Girls Club to keep him away from trouble, and athletic talent that won him a football scholarship. He used Robinson's money to pay for a master's degree in special education. Sadly, less than a third of his fifth grade classmates were able to claim scholarships.

Robinson also funds the Carver Academy, a private school in San Antonio.

Letters

Matthew Mccampbell writes: 

I feel sorry for school principals. After Columbine and the other killings at our middle and high schools, critics attacked the principals for "missing the warning signs." The tape that was recently released showing the two Columbine killers in the woods, on their own time, shooting guns did not affect the school according to your argument. However there has been no end to the second guessing of 20-20 hindsight opinion makers screaming about how this type of behavior was missed. 

So now principals are trying to be proactive, trying to stop something bad before it happens and they are yet again being second guessed. I guess the only way they get it right is if the stop the kids right before they step through the school doors with a gun? 

You can't have it both ways. The price of safety at schools is vigilance. Maybe these principals go over the top sometimes, but that is a heck of a lot better than more kids shooting each other.

Lisa Zeimer of Juneau, Alaska writes: 

I have been continually staggered at the utter stupidity and complete lack of common sense demonstrated lately in the schools. What happened in South Carolina is the worst yet, and it is my fervent hope that all involved in this debacle -- the police, the principal, the school board and the school district -- all get slammed with hefty lawsuits. This sort of unthinking, robotic, knee-jerk hysteria has got to stop.

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at JoanneJacobs.com. She’s writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

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