A Washington Post story earlier this year began, “Gunfire erupted among a group of teenagers in a hallway at Dunbar High School.” Here was yet another tale of teenagers and guns in our nation’s capital, of shootings at school, of another day when class ended not with the ring of a bell but with the frightening sound of shattering glass and bullets hitting the desks. It is a nightmare that has become all too familiar to families living in what one local columnist calls the District of Calamity.
Yet the shooting itself was less interesting than what the two reporters ingenuously revealed just a few lines later. In fact, few reporters have better described the intractable social pathology destroying the once tightly woven fabric of the inner-city American family: ‘”We were in a panic; people were running around trying to figure out what was going on,’ said 11th grader Tashia Robertson, 17, who was in the chemistry class. . . . [Robertson] quickly went to get her year-old son from the day-care facility in the school . . . ‘I was scared for me and my baby,’ Robertson said as she left the campus. ‘I’m getting out of here.'”
Undeniably, Tashia learned something in school besides how to get pregnant, i.e., the mortal danger of public education in a realm ruled by the likes of Marion Shepilov Barry. But young Tashia’s split-second brush with death and her serendipitous comment about her child ought to be more instructive to us than 12 years of school are to her. For one thing, the reporters wrote about Tashia’s motherhood, disturbingly enough, as if it were the most normal condition in the world for a teenager, which it is in inner cities. Teenagers and babies and daycare are all part of the quotidian routine at schools in Washington, D.C. Somewhere, presumably, there’s time for English and algebra.
But the subtext to the reportage is the more important lesson. Public schools, the one arm of government in which parents must place absolute trust because it has responsibility for their children, have become yet another apparatus of the therapeutic state, a place where every citizen has a problem the government must heal. In the District of Calamity, that is a herculean task, which is why six of every ten residents work for the federal city’s government.
If junior doesn’t get breakfast, the school will provide one for free. If mom cannot—or will not—pack lunch, that’s no problem. The school has a free hotlunch program. If mom or dad won’t be home when the school day ends, daycare is available. The price is right, of course. “It doesn’t cost a penny.”
Yet if babysitting a generation of bastards is the common denominator to which public schools have been reduced, then it is no surprise that the District’s government cannot fulfill its legitimate duties, such as punishing criminals. As Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly’s therapists ponder the weighty matters of Norplant and self-esteem, criminals rule the streets, which is precisely why Her Honor called for the National Guard after the homeboys enjoyed one particularly thrilling weekend of mayhem and murder.
The therapeutic state is necessarily a totalitarian state, if only because it does so much of what it should not do and so little of what it should do that it finally must do everything it possibly can do. The condoms don’t work, so the schools provide daycare. The antigun laws fail, so the police arbitrarily search law-abiding citizens for them. When darkness creeps over the Potomac, criminals rule the streets, so the mayor declares a curfew to keep everyone inside until a new day dawns.
If so much money weren’t wasted and so many lives weren’t so tragically ruined, conditions in the nation’s capital would be hilarious. They cry out for satirization in a Tom Wolfe novel. The city and its elders, after all, are the apotheosis of everything wrong with late 20th-century urban America. Sad thing is, conditions aren’t likely to improve until they get much worse and until the beguiled parents in the District of Calamity take their kids back from the bureaucratic therapists trying to destroy them.