The Price of Beans


The Price of Beans

I wrote this during difficult times. My point, however subtle, was that bullying has a distinct cost to society. I experienced bullying in school, and it was terribly disruptive to my education. I implored school officials to intervene to no avail. They finally got involved after I employed physical violence to defend myself; but their target was me, not my attacker.

Bullying has come to the fore in years since, but not enough.

Published in The Log

The nation shook on Tuesday, April 20, 1999. Two boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, grabbed it by the shoulders, put a gun to its heart and fired at point blank range. Children are, after all, the heart of our nation,aren’t they? Or is it just a portion of our children who sit in our school auditoriums being fed that you-are-the-future spiel who know it is for them? What is not acknowledged is a percentage of our nation’s youth sit in those auditoriums and wonder why they were invited. Their self-esteem has been flushed out with the waste left behind by the heart.

Are these words too strong? I don’t think so. We stroll the halls of a school determined to produce the next generation of education’s guardians. Many of our graduates prowl the halls of public schools harnessed by public and union mandates.

Public mandates see that available funds stretch so thin that services for children slipping through the cracks are hard to come by. In a Boston Globe story on Oct 25, 1997, Massachusetts’ House Speaker Thomas Finneran called parents who manage to get the educational system to meet their children’s needs “pushy parents.”

During difficult contract negotiations, unions set “work to rule” mandates which threaten teachers– who have the drive to help a student in crisis after the negotiated end-of-day–with sanctions and fines. Any fellow teacher may report such a rebel if he or she is moved to do so. A negotiated minimum level of education in special-needs courses ensures that teachers with seniority, who may not be prepared to deal with these children, can win out over younger teachers with an abundance of relevant courses and experience. One special-education teacher pulled me aside to tell me that a classroom limit of eight can be an attraction for less-than-qualified teachers.

How do I know these things? I have two grown sons: one who, years ago, I easily could have envisioned holding one of those Colorado rifles pointed at other people’s treasures. In the years he was in public school, I had to fight for every scrap of help; heard every derogatory remark; was thwarted in some actions, and saw the looks of disdain marking the end of education’s patience. I accepted the fact I somehow had failed, tucked the dirty looks under my belt and pushed until he was placed in the out-of-district school which saved his life.

I am a taxpayer, and not a day passed that I did not think of how much money flowed into his education. I assuaged the guilt by telling myself “Pay now, pay later.” I feared prison would become home for the better part of his life if I did not keep trying. After fighting to keep him there for seven years, his out-of-district education hovered around half-a-million dollars–but the rewards are priceless.

After three failed attempts at a degree (one right here at Salem State College where he was “Student of the Summer” in the ’96 AID program), he became a trusted gas station manager and is now a pipefitter’s apprentice. The anger boiling in his face on occasion still has the propensity to frighten people, but years of support have taught him how to channel it positively. A young man, treated as a throwaway by his peers and the academic staff in public schools, is a productive member of society. In twenty years, he will have repaid society for his education, and he won’t be racking up a bill at the local house-of-internment.

In another circumstance at Salem High School several years ago, a gang called the Misled Young Players terrorized students, finally involving themselves in the death of an initiate. I learned of them when my younger son suffered a gang beating on school grounds. The sight of his bruised scraped head so alarmed me that when I picked him up after school, I drove directly to Children’s Hospital. I filed Child-Abuse-and-Neglect charges against the school and his teachers because they failed to send him to the school nurse. Later that year, I had one gang member suspended for pressing a six-inch blade to that same son’s back in auto shop. Some of those young men are in jail on murder charges since leaving school. Teachers were aware of how dangerous these kids were, and nothing short of murder on school grounds would have caused them to address the problem.

My point is this: Children with this kind of anger spit signals out of every pore. I saw it with my older son; I saw it in faces of children sitting in school audiences during speaking engagements I performed over twenty-five years ago, andI saw it in classmates during my childhood school years. If I saw it then and know it exists now–I know teachers can see it.

Teachers spent many hours with the Colorado killers. Teachers moved through the day and saw these two simmering. Teachers have a broad reference base with which to compare adolescent behaviors. Harris and Klebold swaggered through school causing disturbances. Teachers knew. They should have told somebody. But schools and their administrative departments are burdened with bean counting. Just so many students will make it, and the ones that don’t will cost them millions if they point them out.

In the Salem School system, there are maybe a hundred angry kids that will turn into angry adults. They may kill themselves, or they may kill others. The running bet is they will do it AFTER they leave school; otherwise, they could cost Salem four million or more per year to educate. And if they aren’t supported early in their education, it is almost impossible to make a difference.

The price of beans has become dear these days. A few million is a pittance compared to the lives of our children. If children are the ones reaching into our tax pockets, are we going to allow them to do so? Can we be counted on to save children like my son—like Harris and Klebold—because alone they cannot be saved? If we cannot be counted on, the consequences may be far worse than we can imagine.

Think quick: I hear the price of beans is going to drop tomorrow.

Copyright 1999 Joyce Bowen


About the Author:  Joyce Bowen is a freelance writer and public speaker.  Inquiries can be made at


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