Opinion Extra

Scoppe: School discipline, academics and the 18th horse

AFTER I WROTE last week about our state’s disturbingly broad disturbing schools law, I got a letter to the editor and a letter to me that both referred to the October incident when a Richland County sheriff’s deputy tossed a student from her desk and arrested her. Both letters asked, essentially: How else was the deputy supposed to remove the student from the classroom if she wouldn’t let go of the desk?

And I remembered the story of the 18th horse.

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Why we shouldn’t arrest kids, or adults, for cursing or being obnoxious

After Spring Valley: Can we find some common ground on school discipline?

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“A farmer died,” goes the story that was making the rounds on email chains last summer, “leaving his 17 horses to his three sons.

“When his sons opened up the will it read: My eldest son should get half of (the) total horses; My middle son should be given one third of the total horses; My youngest son should be given one ninth of the total horses.

“As it’s impossible to divide 17 into half or 17 by 3 or 17 by 9, the three sons started to fight with each other.

“So, they decided to go to a farmer friend who they considered quite smart, to see if he could work it out for them.

“The farmer friend read the will patiently, (and) after giving due thought, he brought one of his own horses over and added it to the 17. That increased the total to 18 horses.

“Now, he divided the horses according to their father’s will.

“Half of 18 = 9. So he gave the eldest son 9 horses.

“A third of 18 = 6. So he gave the middle son 6 horses.

“A ninth of 18 = 2. So he gave the youngest son 2 horses.

“Now add up how many horses they have:

“Eldest son: 9

“Middle son: 6

“Youngest son: 2

“TOTAL = 17

“Now this leaves one horse over, so the farmer friend takes his horse back to his farm.

“Problem solved.

“Moral: The attitude of negotiation and problem solving is to find the ‘18th horse’ — that is the common ground. Once a person is able to find the 18th horse, the issue is resolved. It is difficult at times. However, to reach a solution, the first step is to believe that there is a solution. If we think that there is no solution, we won’t be able to reach any! Would be a good idea if all our politicians could do farmer math!”

What else could the deputy have done at Spring Valley? What if that’s the wrong question?

Imagine what would have happened if, instead of calling in a school resource officer, the assistant principal had brought in the 18th horse. If he had said to the student who refused to hand over her cell phone and then refused to leave: “Fine, I’ll deal with you after class. And the results will be much worse than if you leave with me now.” If he had then turned to the teacher and said: “Resume teaching. I’ll just take a seat in the back in case the student decides she’s ready to leave.”

To me, there are no more daunting public-policy questions than how to improve the situation in our schools — whether that involves discipline or test scores, how to teach difficult-to-teach students or how to convince students to want to learn.

I can tell you how to make our highways safer, or make our tax code smarter, or prevent melt-downs like the one going on at the Richland County Recreation Commission, or improve our ethics law or our judicial-selection law or deal with a host of other problems. But those school problems don’t have obvious answers, in large part because critics are absolutely correct to lay them at the feet of parents who don’t do their jobs. What those critics refuse to recognize is that we have to find answers even when they aren’t obvious.

After I wrote in an earlier column that we have to make sure children in our state get a decent education, that we don’t have the option of throwing them away, I got a call from a man who said we could never do that until we stopped irresponsible people from having children. I tried to explain that while I would love to do that, the federal courts simply would not allow it. But the man who had just told me it was pointless for our schools to even try to educate those kids replied that my response wasn’t acceptable because he doesn’t accept “it’s impossible” for an answer.

Although he was wrong to believe his solution was possible, he was right to reject the idea of impossible.

Imagine what would happen if — instead of saying there’s nothing we can do to control misbehaving kids, or to teach difficult-to-teach children, because only more responsible parents can make a difference — we adopted Gov Nikki Haley’s “can’t isn’t an option” mantra.

Imagine what would happen if — instead of declaring that 17 isn’t divisible by three or two or nine, or shooting horses until we get to a number that is — we all searched together until we located that 18th horse.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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