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Curious students expel his bias

For more than 15 years, my father taught history to seventh-graders, a job he hated.

That he came to it after retiring from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, he said, meant he went from being called "sir'' by 30-year-old officers to being cursed at by 12-year-old children.

His favorite term for his students, "the wormy little bastards,'' was obviously a joke. But he sincerely believed that many seventh-graders were just about unteachable, as disrespectful as high-schoolers and even more mindless.

This was the prejudice I carried with me last week into Melanie Polk's seventh-grade reading classes at J.D. Floyd Elementary School in Spring Hill, where I had been invited to talk to about my job.

It was a bias I was glad to have shed by the time I left.

The students were polite, attentive and interested in newspapers — music to the ears, trust me, of those of us so used to hearing that our industry is dying.

More than half the students raised their hands when I asked if their parents took the paper at home; about the same number indicated they read the paper at least a few times a week.

Sure, some hands shot up to satisfy either me or Polk. A lot of the students, no doubt, read newspapers because Polk requires it.

But the hands stayed up when I asked if anyone could tell me about stories that had stuck with them.

For Nicole Celli, 13, it was "the one about the guy whose family was so messed up he killed them,'' she said, referring to last week's article about Oliver Bernsdorff of Clearwater; he claimed in a suicide note that he had killed his two children (along with himself, his wife and her girlfriend) because they had "sociopathic tendencies.''

Mikael Arboritanza, 13, remembered a column from last year about a boy his age in Spring Lake whose dirt bike had been stolen.

Because it had been a Christmas present and because the boy's family was too poor to replace it, Arboritanza recalled, "his mother had to tell him Santa wasn't real.''

Chris Chard said he was still furious about a piece by "Gary what's-his-face'' (sports columnist Gary Shelton) that had criticized the New England Patriots for running up the score on opponents.

"Last football season, he called the Patriots a joke,'' Chard said. "I took the article home and showed it to my dad.''

I didn't read the column quite the same way. But what's important was that Chard seemed engaged, that our centuries-old medium — good old ink on paper — had grabbed the attention of a 14-year-old.

And, honestly, I'm not that surprised.

Defiance is part of growing up. So is an expanding curiosity about other people and other views. This is what newspapers satisfy. In some form, I think, they always will.

I say this because I have a seventh-grader at home.

Sure, he can be a pain. But I also have watched his newspaper reading progress in the past few years from the comics, to the stories in Floridian, to, just recently, the front section.

When he spreads it out across the kitchen counter and loses himself in election coverage, when he sides with the candidate who seems most fair and generous, I don't see a disrespectful kid, and certainly not a mindless or wormy one.

I see a boy growing up to be a lot like my dad.

Curious students expel his bias 04/05/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 8, 2008 11:48am]
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