MAXWELL:  Where adult-child relations make sense

5/2/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A few weeks ago, I wrote about Piney Woods Country Life School, a 90-year-old, historically black, private boarding school 21 miles south of Jackson, Miss. It is one of four such institutions left in the nation.

In the wake of the massacre in Littleton, Colo. _ where two students shot and killed 12 of their schoolmates and a teacher and killed themselves _ I felt the need to return to the inspiring story of Piney Woods and its 300 students. I am writing about the school again to purge myself of some of the pain and anger I feel because of the Columbine High School carnage.

By reviewing my notebook, I wish to remind myself that many of our children can be innocent, playful, sweet, courteous, kind and generous.

In March, I spent three days at Piney Woods attending classes and Sunday school with the students and staff, observing students working on the school’s farm, visiting the boys’ dormitory, eating in the cafeteria, strolling among the towering pines and azaleas, interviewing students and personnel, traveling to Jackson to watch the chess team compete.

More than a month later, I am still impressed that all of the students, ages 12 to 18, look and act like children. Indeed, Piney Woods is a haven, a place where young people are protected from the encroachments of violence and other ills of contemporary America that abridge childhood.

Here, for example, youngsters are not burdened by the need for “image,” one of the major sources of the dysfunction and turmoil in many of the nation’s public schools. On the simplest level, a strict dress code, in force on school days and during school trips from 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., eliminates many of the potential image problems. Furthermore, everyone is clean-cut and well-groomed. I did not see the hard, lifeless faces that I routinely encounter on the streets of St. Petersburg. I felt a sense of wholesomeness in the presence of each child.

The rowdiest moments on campus are the walks back to the dorms after meals, when the children, including the seniors, scream, romp and horseplay. One girl, who chased a boy and pulled his shirttail out of his pants, was particularly refreshing for me, a writer in what most people consider a cynical profession.

Some of the administrators do not like such behavior. Others, however, welcome it because it epitomizes children being children. Here, too, anger, resentment and unhealthy rivalries are held in check. In other words, all negative excess is discouraged by students and staff alike. Kids even openly correct one another’s English.

Everywhere I went on campus, they greeted me warmly and addressed me as “Mr. Maxwell” or “sir.”

Piney Woods is a place where adults are in control. Apparently, the kids want matters that way.

In the classes that I visited _ math, Spanish and English _ the overwhelming majority of the students were polite, attentive and eager to work. When someone did something wrong, the teachers stepped in immediately. When a boy interrupted the math lecture by continuing to talk too loudly, for example, the teacher said, “I told you to stop talking. You must not understand English. Don’t say anything else.” The room fell silent for the remainder of the lesson.

When a student fell asleep in English, the teacher made him stand in a corner until he was fully awake. Good-naturedly, his classmates made fun of him until the teacher told them to shut up. This room, too, fell silent for the duration of the lesson.

In Sunday school, a boy in the seventh-grade class acted up. The teacher, a young black man, said, “If you want to be ignorant, take it outside. Right now, we’re in God’s house, and we’re having Sunday school.” The boy, mildly embarrassed, was a model student for the rest of the service.

Even when they are away from campus among students from other counties, Piney Woods boys are respectful and obedient. I drove with members of the chess team to Jackson, where they participated in a tournament at Hinds Community College. During a break between games, the boys came outside with dozens of students from other schools. Several Piney Woods boys and others started to walk through a bed of flowers. Michael Cox, the Piney Woods adviser, yelled for his players to get out of the flowers. They obeyed without complaining. Other children took their time, some even kicking some of the plants.

I was even more impressed with the boys after we went back inside for the matches. I sat near the door away from the players. One Piney Woods boy approached me and said that he was going to the bathroom and would return shortly. I was puzzled as to why he spoke to me. A few minutes later, another Piney Woods boy did the same. Back on campus, I asked one why he had told me where he was going. His answer? Because I was an adult accompanying his teacher, he thought that I deserved the respect of an official chaperone.

These incidents may seem inconsequential to most readers. To me, however, each is a lesson about one of the precious things we have lost as a nation: common sense in adult-child relations in the school setting. No good has come of our smug permissiveness, as the staff, students and parents at Piney Woods know only too well.

I would love to see the nation’s failing public schools export the best of Piney Woods.