Middle-school theme strikes chord at home

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

The faculty couldn’t decide.

Two appealing character themes emerged in their planning session for the upcoming school year, and the middle-school faculty faced a stalemate. This year, “ownership” and “civility” vied for the yearlong honor, but both found equal support.

Bruce Wilhelm, principal of St. Paul’s School middle school, explained the dilemma to us at our back-to-school parent’s night.

“It required a healthy and lengthy discussion,” he said, “with no obvious choice emerging.”

“Ownership” would encourage each child to take responsibility for their actions and behaviors, while nipping the tendency for kids that age to blame others.

“Civility” would encourage each child to treat others with respect and courtesy, striving to “be a St. Paul’s gentleman,” as Mr. Wilhelm reported.

“Amen,” I say to both. No wonder the faculty could not decide. For kids in those middle- school years, taking ownership of their lives while minding their manners is a tall order.

Ownership eludes them. As we watch our kids leave their childhood with each additional responsibility, the infamous “fault line” sharpens its jagged edges.

Several years ago, when my daughter was in middle school, a parent left me with a “fault line” image that I will never forget. While waiting to pick up our kids, I’d lamented giving my daughter the incorrect start time of the event and was anticipating the grief she was going to give me when she returned.

“But it wasn’t really my fault,” I explained to the group. “They printed the time incorrectly.”

“Does it matter?” another mom replied. “Don’t you get blamed for everything anyway?”

And we all laughed at the common experience, amazed at her honesty.

“You know,” she continued, “I’ve told my husband to just give me a large T-shirt with a bull’s-eye printed on it for Christmas, since I am always the target for blame from our kids.”

We laughed again, but inside I knew she hit her mark, too. From then on, it became my mission to move that bull’s eye from my shirt to my daughter’s. I would be a target no more.

Kids find the most creative ways to put blame on anyone else but themselves for misplaced books, socks, athletic equipment, homework – and the list goes on.

“Not my fault,” is truly the arch-enemy of ownership.

Civility takes a healthy hit, too, during these middle-school years. Shoulder shrugs, rolling eyes and mumbled replies often creep into the most mannerly child’s repertoire. Kids teeter between childhood and those teenage, limit-testing years where being “cool” edges out being courteous, sometimes pushing civility to the side.

My father often referenced journalist Hugh Sidey’s quote from the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey. “The first sign of a declining civilization is bad manners,” Sidey reported some 20 years ago for Time magazine.

It’s a statement that haunts.

And one that challenges weary parents (and teachers) to make that extra effort to remind our children to say “please,” “thank you,” and to look people in the eye when talking to them.

So I applaud this faculty for adopting both “ownership” and “civility” as themes this year.

However, I am even more grateful to faculty member, Patrick Walsh, for repackaging the dual theme to a quick and memorable sound bite.

“Own it. Act it,” Mr. Walsh quips.

“You know when you should have to take responsibility; you know how to act with civility – now just do it,” he clarifies.

Own it. Act it.

Let me find a magnet. That one’s going on the refrigerator.