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His name was Alex, and in 1978 I stabbed him in the face.
That was when I first heard the term “lead poisoning.” I was too young to know that the sharpened pencil had “lead” of graphite. I didn’t know that Alex would be fine after the initial upset passed. When he returned to class, he had an adhesive bandage over his cheek. The matter was quickly forgotten.
Except that it wasn’t. I remember it to this day. One of the reasons I remember it is that, but for an inch or two of elevation, I could have blinded Alex forever in one eye. A couple of inches lower and I might have hit him in the throat. We were play-fighting with sharpened pencils, you see – meaning each other no harm, but too young and too ignorant to understand the consequences of our actions.
This is a peculiar type of foolishness that doesn’t abate as we age. My mother tells the story of how my father once sharpened a bayonet for a fellow student when my parents were in college in the Potsdam, N.Y., area. The fellow with the newly sharpened bayonet promptly started “sword fighting” with another student, whose implement of battle is unknown to me. One of them managed to stab the other, again quite accidentally, whereupon he bled all over the back seat of my mother’s orange Chevy Vega as she drove him to the hospital.
There was a time not so long ago when pocketknives were not forbidden. It was a time when carrying a steak knife in your lunchbox wouldn’t get you expelled when you realized your mistake and volunteered the knife to school authorities. It was a time when students weren’t required to report to the school nurse to take so much as an aspirin. It was a time when schools spent more time teaching math and reading than they did indoctrinating children along left-wing sociopolitical lines – although, even then, we had frustrated leftist teachers who delighted in shoving their politics down our throats.
In 1988 I used my jackknife for something, set it on the couch, and then forgot it. I left for school and had to stop and find a payphone when I realized my mistake. I spoke with my father, who was not amused, and told him where I thought the pocketknife was. My concern was that one of the younger children in the household – my mother ran a day-care business – would find that sharp blade and injure himself. This was the blade I regularly carried to school with me. It was not a point of contention, and, while I don’t recall if I was bending the rules, it was not something my father gave a second thought apart from my misplacement of that knife.
What has changed?
Children in school once had much greater access to what we now classify as deadly, forbidden weapons. Today we behave as if a pocketknife or even a rifle, forgotten in the trunk of a high school student’s privately operated automobile, could leap up and start slaughtering our youth while glowing red with the fires of radiated evil. Increasing distance from the realities of rural life, coupled with the pervasive, corrosive influence of political correctness, has neutered our children, making them cringing cowards who hide under a desk at the first sign of so much as a butter knife. Bring that butter knife to school with your lunch and you can count yourself lucky if they only suspend you.
Yet high schools once had rifle teams. In foreign countries not so long ago, a student went to school regularly with a fixed blade knife on his belt. Author Donald Hamilton, who penned the superb Matt Helm series (and who recently earned an honorable mention on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show), once wrote an essay concerning how he went to school in the United States carrying the small sheath knife that Swedish schoolboys regularly carried in his day. The horror of American school officials and the furor over the knife’s presence had an effect that resonates throughout his fiction.
He understood the utility of a good knife, he saw the potential for harm in countless everyday objects, and he had nothing but contempt for the hypersensitive trends that were changing society for the worse. His character, Matt Helm, navigates through a world of limp-wristed Nancies and politically correct bureaucrats as a matter of course. Five decades ago he was already predicting the downward spiral of manliness and practicality that plagues our entitled, weakling children (and their entitled, weakling Democratic parents) today.
This is a dual lesson. The first is that children years ago had access to many more “real” weapons than kids now. They did not rampage against their fellow students at the rate kids do, or contemplate doing, today. The idea was unthinkable.
The second lesson is that despite our attempt to rubberize the classroom, to upholster the entire world in Nerf and render our children safe in a bubble of politically correct peace and amity, we cannot remove from their environment implements that could be used to harm them. We can certainly try; no doubt some idiot administrator somewhere wants to banned sharpened pencils because one can be used to stab a child to death. Ditto for pens, rulers and anything else with a hard profile or a sharp edge. But we can’t get everything. We can’t reconfigure the physical world such as to make it harmless. The spoiler will always be the intent to do harm.
That’s the third lesson. Wednesday morning, multiple children were stabbed (at least one of them to death) in the cafeteria of a Texas high school. It would not have been possible to have implemented enough restrictions, plied enough rules, hectored enough children with politically correct talking points, to stop this from happening. This was not a failure of rules. It was not a failure of laws. It was not a failure of bans. This was a failure of humanity.
The killer or killers have none.