I will never understand anyone who punches down on children. Yet that is exactly what I found in my Twitter feed a little over a week ago.
Dennis Prager, a conservative radio host, complained about a life-affirming sign posted in a school that declared, “The world is better because you are in it.” Prager responded by asking his audience, “What has any fifth grader done to have made the world better because he or she is in it?”
My blood boiled at his callous query. He must know that death by suicide is one of the top three killers of kids in this country. He must understand that suicide rates among young people have spiked over the past 15 years. Could he really be so cold that he would ignore studies that suggest pandemic-related mental health crises have put children’s lives in danger?
I understand mine was likely the emotional reaction Prager hoped to goad from people like me. He is a conservative shock jock who eschews the crude, outlandish antics of someone like Howard Stern and substitutes cruelty and outrage instead.
It is the recipe for a conservative pundit to achieve monetary success in the current climate: say something more de-humanizing and derogatory than your competitors. Prove that you can “own the libs” by deriding innocents. Demonstrate your strength by battering the defenseless.
Prager coats his commentary with an air of intellectual pretension. He alludes to some complex understanding that only he and his audience can comprehend that make his craven words witty and sardonic. In reality, he is grown man acting out an urge to bully children — something he has likely harbored since his own childhood.
Regardless, my stomach still turned. I had just finished spending two days guest teaching middle school kids. Specifically, I had been called in to ferry between two JeffCo schools and teach choir and theater classes.
Theater I have a handle on — I acted in high school and geek out enough on musicals, plays, films, television series to at least fake it for an hour or so. Choir is a different animal. I know little about formal music education and have been told to keep my singing to the shower where the sound of falling water can drown the cracked notes that fall from my mouth.
Thankfully, the teacher I filled in for left a very detailed lesson plan. A part of the plan revolved around discussing emotions and music.
Not one, but two kids volunteered that sad music made them think about friends who had recently died by suicide. Not reacting as my heart broke for them was harder than anything I have ever done in a courtroom.
So when I walked through halls at the end of the day, I was thrilled to see signs very similar to the ones Prager mocked. Signs that uplifted students, signs that urged them to be kind, signs that reminded them that each is — contrary to the rant of a bitter old man — special.
The kids I taught were funny, challenging, smart, caring, loud, inquisitive and full of life. Each unique personality shown through in the 50 minutes I stammered through the day’s lessons.
The best moment? When one girl came up to me while the class was broken into groups and discretely asked me if she could escort a classmate to the counseling office; the second student had withdrawn to a corner and been silently weeping. I had not noticed as I worked with other groups.
That is probably the best answer to Prager’s terrible question. What is something a young student has done to make the world better? Looking out for someone else and offering help when it was needed.
That is certainly more than Prager can claim.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq.
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