When the movie ”Kids” came out in 1995, it terrified me. Not because Larry Clark’s portrayal of a group of kids doing drugs and having unprotected sex was so disturbing, but because it was so easy to imagine myself hanging out with them. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I went to a “good” school. And, like kids everywhere since the dawn of time, we experimented. We didn’t always make smart choices. We often didn’t understand the implications of our actions.
By and large, the kids I hung out with weren’t as bad as Clark’s fictional bunch, but seeing us reflected in them wasn’t much of a stretch. It was more of an I-got-off-easy response, a, “Wow, thank goodness I turned left down the hall instead of right on the first day of school.”
That feeling -- the feeling that the events of your life so often hinge on a twist of fate rather than on your upbringing or your education or your intelligence -- raised its disconcerting head again this week, when a friend posted a link to Amos Kamil’s New York Times article ”The Horace Mann School’s Secret History of Sexual Abuse.” Over 13 pages, Kamil shares a harrowing series of abuses from his time at Horace Mann in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s.
They are not my stories. It was not my experience. But that’s because of luck, not skill or strength. Horace Mann is a neighboring high school, reasonably similar to my own, Riverdale. Riverdale, in fact, gets a mention from Kamil; in April this year, a math teacher there was arrested for having oral sex with a 16-year-old student.
Last week, I ran a social media workshop for a school in New Zealand. Predictably and understandably, administrators are concerned for the safety of their students. “What about cyber-bullying?” one asked. “What about grooming?” Fair questions, indeed; we fear the new. But while, on the one hand, social media opens kids up to new risks, the democratization of communication also offers new tools to redress power imbalances and seek justice.
Kamil writes: “Today, if faculty members disappeared from campus under suspicious circumstances or if rumors were swirling about predatory teachers, students would be texting about it in real time. Outraged parents would be organizing into networks and distributing action plans.” As citizens, we are relying less on formal structures of authority and more on our own ability to effect change. If there is one thing social media has taught us, it’s that we don’t need anyone’s permission to organize a revolution.
Obviously, social media and texting haven’t eradicated the sexual abuse of children; the Riverdale story shows that. But if they’ve made it even slightly easier to seek swift and public justice, they’ve performed a public service.
When the administrators at my workshop asked me about online predators, I hadn’t yet read the Horace Mann article, but I told them about “Kids” -- and how there but for the grace go I. We all want to protect children, I said, but we can never control the world. All we can do is teach kids how to make good decisions and safe mistakes, give them tools to handle the inevitable ugliness the world will throw at them, and then hope like hell that the vagaries of happenstance and circumstance don’t exceed their ability to cope.
My heart breaks for anyone who has ever suffered from abuse. My hope is that as the tools that empower us evolve, so too do we. We obviously have a lot of room for improvement.