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Stateside with Rosalea: How Dare You Fail!

There is something admirable about the young man who was reportedly shot in the jaw and buttocks by a police officer at El Cajon near San Diego this week. It wasn't admirable that he'd driven up with a shotgun at lunchtime and was seemingly shooting at the deputy principal for not giving him a pass grade. But it was admirable that he'd gone back to repeat his last year at high school in order to graduate. It wasn't just admirable; it was courageous.

In American culture the cardinal sin is to be a loser. It seems to me - knowing only what I've seen or read in the mainstream media - that his decision to make up for failing to graduate the first time led to him being perceived not only as a loser but as a misfit, by virtue of being a year older than everyone in his class. In America there are only two culturally sanctioned responses to being a misfit - allowing yourself to be victimised or making victims of other people.

Californian teenagers have an unforgiving eye for misfits. A couple of weeks ago a young boy got into trouble in a rip at Ocean Beach, which is on San Francisco's Pacific coast. He was brought to safety by several teenage lads who'd been surfing there for years and who archly gave judgement on why the kid nearly lost his life: his boogey board came from Toys"R"Us and his sneakers from Kmart. Their comments made me think that nothing shouts "Loser!" in America louder than poverty, but there was something far more deeply wrong with their judgement. Money, they seemed to be saying, buys immunity even from nature itself.

Money is what will solve the violence in schools, the President seemed to be saying when he responded to an earlier shooting at Santana in the same San Diego school district with the comment that there aren't any shootings on planes. Buy metal detectors and make kids walk through them. His immediate response to that earlier shooting, in which several school kids died, was to imply the gunchild was a coward.

That Santana shooting came the day after NBC aired a current affairs segment by Maria Shriver looking at the number of gun deaths of teenagers in the same week the previous year. Standing in a set that consisted of barrels and barrels of guns, she bemoaned the ease with which young people have access to guns and ammunition. And she pondered great unanswerable questions like why kids have a fascination with shooting and violence. (Hint: look around you, Maria, at the house your husband Arnie built.) That same night "Eraser" was on tv and for the whole weekend the most heavily promo-ed new movie was "15 minutes", featuring fame by firepower.

Did the Santana gunchild watch all that stuff? Well, I don't know, but I do think that there's more to this than Either/Or - either it's the ready availability of guns, or it's the entertainment industry's fault. But hey, E/Or makes it nice and simple. Republicans can say its all the fault of those ratbags who insist on giving their campaign millions to Democrats at Hollywood bashes; and Democrats can say it's all the fault of the National Rifle Association and gun-totin' rednecks who give all their campaign money to the Republicans.

Does anyone care about the children? As one mother said, comforting her frightened daughter this week at El Cajon: "This is a high price to pay for education." The young men whose lives are ruined by their actions have paid a high price too. Violence doesn't right wrongs any more than money buys safety. Were they angry young men? Or just star players in their own scripts? These are questions old folks like me ask. The question kids are asking is: Did they win?

And if you want to know where that attitude comes from, look no further than the letter from the coach of the University of California rugby team to the coach of the Stanford University rugby team when the latter forfeited the annual game between the two archrivals, scheduled for April 7: "How dare you not compete."

Lea Barker
California
Saturday, 24 March 2001

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