Back in the late 1950s, when I was in the seventh grade, I brought a deadly weapon to school. One morning, into the pocket of my Catholic school uniform, I slipped a knife. I then said good-bye to my mother and got on the bus for St. Ambrose School in Bridgeport, Conn. Although I knew that bringing the knife to school probably was testing the limits of acceptable behavior, I also knew that owning the knife was perfectly fine. Otherwise, my father would not have given it to me.
A few months earlier, the knife had been my Christmas present from him. I remember folding back layers of tissue from an oddly shaped gift that clearly wasn't a pair of mittens or a book, until suddenly, the last layer of tissue gone, there it was — a knife! A Bowie knife! Named for Jim Bowie, the American hero who died fighting in the Battle of the Alamo and the subject of a popular TV series. A great woodsman, Bowie had popularized a knife with a sharp curve like a cresting wave on its blade's upper edge, and mine, with its 5-inch silver blade and tooled leather sheath, was beautiful.
Why my father had given me the gift of a knife, I can't say. Perhaps, as one therapist later suggested, I was supposed to have been a boy. Or, perhaps, my father thought a knife would make a great gift for someone who loved going to Girl Scout camp, as I did. Or perhaps he just grabbed the knife at the last minute when he visited an accounting client of his who owned a sporting goods store.
All I know is that, in March, just when the school year seemed endless, something inspired me to bring my knife to school. Not because I felt I needed to protect myself. And certainly not because I wanted to stab someone. But in a moment of misbegotten adolescent impulsiveness, I thought my knife would make me cool. So, midafternoon, during a dreary geography lesson, I slid it out of the pocket of my uniform blazer.
The whispers eddied out in every direction: "Patricia has a knife ... Patricia has a knife."
But there were over 40 students in my seventh grade, and the waves of whispers lost their energy before they could reach the ears of Mother Elizabeth, the mountain of a nun who, in addition to teaching, also was the principal of St. Ambrose. Probably because bringing a weapon to school was so unthinkable in those halcyon days of the '50s, there were no policies for such an occurrence. No protocols. No governing principles. There was only common sense, a trait that Mother Elizabeth had in superabundance.
And the worst that probably would have befallen me was that she would have confiscated my knife. My beloved Bowie knife gone — punishment enough!
Nowadays, doubtless my punishment would have been expulsion. Which would have meant I would not have received my scholarship to a local Catholic high school. Which further might have resulted in my not going to college. Or having a career. Or meeting the man I married. Or raising successful children. Or mentoring an at-risk young man, as I did for several years. Or volunteering for various organizations, as I do now.
Had my ill-conceived adventure with my Bowie knife transpired in today's rectitudinous climate, my whole life could have turned out differently. And so would have the lives of all those whom I have touched.
My Bowie knife didn't survive the culling of goods through the generational slurry, and the last time I saw it, rust had pocked its blade and mildew spores dusted its sheath. But I recently thought about how I took it to school when I read about Josh Welch, who, on another March day, ate the edges of a breakfast bar during snack time until his breakfast bar resembled a gun. Then, apparently, Josh pointed his ill-conceived creation at his classmates in the second-grade of Park Elementary School in Anne Arundel County. As a result, Josh, who was 7 years old at the time, was suspended for two days. And a letter was sent home to the families of the other students explaining what had happened. The Sun reported that the letter said he had been "removed from the classroom" for making "inappropriate gestures that disrupted the class."
As might be expected, the blogosphere soon lit up with all manner of mocking commentary about Josh's punishment. Headlines blazed with phrases like "Pastry Pistol Packing Pupil" and "Bang! Bang! You're Blueberry." But the truth is that a child is at stake here. For Josh, the situation isn't laughable at all. And, unless "suspension" is expunged from Josh's permanent record, as his father and his attorney are hoping, the word will stay to serve as a determinant for others making judgments about Josh throughout his remaining school years.
In carefully and clearly worded statements on its website, the Anne Arundel County Board of Education details its policies on student conduct, including strict and specific procedures for any student bringing a weapon to school. Elsewhere on its site, the board delineates its philosophy and mission, including its responsibility for providing "Opportunities and encouragement for creativity, self-expression, and critical thought" — it seems to me that Josh got A's on the first two, and a C- on the last.
In reading through its policies, it's obvious that sometimes the board's responsibilities to all the students in Anne Arundel County, as well as to individual students, sometimes are at odds with each other. No philosophy or catalog of policies can possibly address all the contingencies arising from the dynamic imaginations of 7-year-old boys. Nor from the itchy, adolescent minds of seventh-grade girls, for that matter.
Compared to the likes of Mother Elizabeth, the educators determining Josh's fate are at a disadvantage. Because they never stopped being nuns, those women in their dark habits were always aware that their educative role extended beyond the classroom. When they jumped rope with us, they taught us the joys of simple pleasures. When they walked beside our neat, disciplined lines to the bus stop, they taught us that we represented something larger than ourselves. And when they bowed their heads in prayer, they taught us to silence our inner voices and listen.
Today, educators seem to think that teaching ends at the classroom door — but it doesn't, and those dealing with Josh have already taught him a great deal since that March morning he ate his snack.
They have taught him how it feels to be outside his peers. To be excluded. To be the "other." They have taught him how it feels to be regarded as having committed an offense so grievous that a letter was sent to his classmates' homes with assurances no one had been hurt.
And they have taught him that distant authorities have the power to determine the words that will define him throughout his school years.
As Josh's appeal process wends forward to Kevin Maxwell, superintendent of schools for Anne Arundel County — and beyond that to the courts, if necessary — I fervently hope Josh learns two more lessons.
I hope he learns what common sense sounds like when spoken by the voice of reason. And I hope he learns how good judgment appears when made manifest through wisdom.
These are lessons that last a lifetime.
Patricia Schultheis, a Baltimore resident, is the author of the book "Baltimore's Lexington Market." Her email is email@example.com.