THE SCHOOL is composed of brick and glass and occasional notices of things lost-a cat, a book and things like that. The floors are polished and the children in the classroom are quiet and outside on the street the dogwoods are in bloom. Behind a closed door, in conference with a parent, the principal sits, a lady in a tan pants-suit-sweet and experienced and up to something new. She fines kids who use dirty words.
The principal smiles. Her name is Camay Brooks.
"Have you fined anyone yet?"
She shakes her head. "No," she says. "Not yet.?
Sometime before spring vacation, the children of the Ashlawn Elementary School in Arlington came home with one of those notes mimeographed in blue ink. It said something about the year book and something about the fair and something about the math workshop and then something about dirty words:
"Please note that we are making a real attempt to 'clean up' our language in and around the school. We have established a system of may report any child who is using foul language but children may not report each other.
"The fines will be flexible and within the child's earning capacity.
"We do hope that these fines will not have to be imposed."
And then there was something about kindergarten registration.
And then a parent called me. It was a parent with no name, although surely a woman from the sound of her, and a member of the American Civil Liberties Union from what she said. She said this was an outrage. What, after all, is a dirty word? She supplied some, of which I remember one-bitch. She said it means female dog, which indeed it does. It is a fact. It is also a fact that not since 1853 has a child referred to a female dog as a bitch, and with the exception of the world grooving, which is currently used among my son's circle of friends to mean, ahem, sexual intercourse, most of the time we know a dirty word when we hear one.
In fact, a small cheer went up inside me at the sheer capriciousness of what Mrs. Brooks was contemplating. It is, of course, probably illegal to fine a child-a violation of more codes than you can think of, not to mention the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights-but it is the first example in a long time of a principal acting as a principal and not a school chaplain. In the old days, which was before the late 1960s, principals ruled all the surveyed. They had the unquestioned right to do with a child as they might want-even sell one into slavery, providing the right form was filed and a note sent home with an older brother.
Black to Ashlawn. The principal, Brooks, is talking of fines running as high as $5. She says she will give the children the option of working off their fines, or paying them. She got the idea, she said, when visiting a ghetto neighborhood in Baltimore and heard the children there talking about how you could be fined for breaking the law-doing this or doing that. They uttered the word fine with something approaching awe and since the children in the generally affluent Ashlawn school have yet to draw a fine, who is to say they don't have the same reverential view?
Not me, It's hard to argue that if you're a kid a fine will set you back some and you'll learn, as we all had to, that you have to pay for what you do-or what you say. But there is more here than that and it goes to the notion-a very American one at that -that if you have the money you can buy your way out of trouble. This is not a lesson that needs to be learned by corporations that do exactly that sort of thing or to criminals who do that one way or the other or, say, to Spiro Agnew, who having corrupted his office and stolen from the taxpayers, paid a fine and went on his way.
This is, in fact, a basic American rule. It is incorporated in the order; expounded frequently from the bench by lots of judges, that the convicted can either pay a fine or go to jail as if the two are equal. It is the rationale behind the ubiquitous parking ticket in which both the rich and the poor pay the same fine for breaking the same law-the poor may be punished severely, the rich hardly at all. This is maybe why people scream bloody murder when their car is towed. They have to pay in time as well as money to get it back. Time is something we all have in equal amounts and it is scarce.
So maybe the kids are learning this lesson and maybe they're learning the lesson Mrs. Brooks intended. No matter.In the end it's the same. The kids from Baltimore see a fine from their vantage point and the richer kids of Arlington see it from theirs. But any way you see it, it comes down to the same thing.
If you have the money, you don't have to do the time.