Good Kids

(This column was first published in the June 7, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    We have been bombarded recently with news about "bad kids." It is nearly impossible to tune in our radios or televisions without hearing about several of the worst children our society has produced or pick up our newspapers or newsmagazines without reading headline stories about them. On talk shows psychologists and psychiatrists, school counselors and administrators, parents and classmates of juvenile murderers, all are invited not only to comment on what happened in recent terrible confrontations but to offer solutions. Solutions to what? The perps -- to use the contemporary term of our constabulary -- are either dead or in custody. And the responses offered by all of this coverage provide exactly the opposite of solutions. They give publicity to the crimes, just what encourages copycat activities. Surely we can see that the Georgia episode, for example, was a direct result of the notoriety assigned to the Colorado school catastrophe.

    When are we ever told about the ninety-nine percent of our youngsters who are good kids? When, except occasionally on the sports pages, are our remarkably successful young men and women extolled by us in the media? Wouldn't we have a better kind of copycat activity if we gave the positive accomplishments of our youth the kind of publicity we give our delinquents?

    I write those bitter words after having spent a few days visiting an outdoor education program for Kenmore-Tonawanda junior high school students at the Buffalo State College "Whispering Pines" camp. I cannot imagine a group of brighter and nicer youngsters nor can I imagine, it is important to add, a staff of more creative and committed teachers. These people represent the opposite side of that coin whose delinquent face has turned up so much more often.

    The camp provided an ideal setting. Deep in the forests of the Southern Tier south of Franklinville, it is a beautiful spot with outstanding facilities. (I salute the college student association for its support of this square mile education and recreation area.) And what a perfect place to offer fifty students significant outdoor learning tasks.

    The teachers, under the direction of Sam Alaimo, had prepared a packed schedule of activities involving, as expected, the sciences of biology, geology, physics and astronomy but also, as not expected, math, history and English. The students worked hard and played equally hard from eight in the morning until after ten at night.

    And while I was there, they did so under what can only be described as adverse conditions. It rained hard hour after hour with little respite.

    There were some indoor activities -- Grace Lawrence's lesson about bones and Carole Levine's about stars were exceptional -- but mostly the kids donned rain gear and braved the downpour. They waded into creeks and ponds collecting frogs, salamanders and insects; entered the woods to study mammals, trees and wildflowers; raced about the grounds on a scavenger hunt; measured a lake by triangulation; then shared marshmallows and ghost stories around a campfire.

    Their responses to the weather were not unexpected. Perhaps Kelly Cooper said it best: "All animals know, 'Wet. Run home,' while we idiots say, 'Hey look, rain. Let's catch hypothermia.'" But Ria Swanekamp looked at it in another way: "Most people would have cried for mercy and stayed inside, but we made it through. We learned a lot and have grown stronger than we were."

    This experience left me convinced that those writers and commentators would do better to visit activities like these and report on nice kids rather than awful ones. Then we might realize that the future of our society will be in good hands after all. -- Gerry Rising