Sunday, October 10, 1999

Post-Columbine fears fuel school style wars

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        INDEPENDENCE — Jessie Hasting looks like a punk Audrey Hepburn. Instead of capris and a white shirt, she wears fishnet stockings, Doc Martens and red-plaid skirts.

        At Simon Kenton High School, Jessie stands out. Anybody with a mind of his own would say she looks cool. This being high school, she mostly gets harassed.

        Boys try to hit her with volleyballs in gym. A teacher once remarked, “I guess I've got a freak in my class.” Some girls say she asks for ridicule by dressing so oddly.

        But Jessie refuses to change. She gets good grades. She's quiet, thoughtful and clever. When one of her friends likened dress codes to “putting a biology cover on a geometry book,” Jessie smiled and called him “analogy boy.”

        Of course high school has always been a drag for the soulful. Some kids are going to be mean, and many adults are going to mistake style for depravity.

        Culture wars are fueled by this myopia. Our politicians are middle-aged, which means they're appalled by the mar gins. They forget that young people often draw positive messages from popular culture, even when it's dark. They forget that all of us once made no sense to our parents.

        I visited with Jessie and her friends this week because I consider them endangered. The social stew of high school is much the same, but being different is tougher than ever. School shootings have put administrators on red alert. They're installing cops in the hallways, searching book bags and cracking down on that most dangerous of items: the hooded sweat shirt.

        This year, Jessie had to give up her pink, patent-leather Barbie book bag, which was like her signature. She might have been a quiet freshman, but she could not have been ignored.

        Now Simon Kenton, like many other schools, allows only see-through book bags. Anything else must be inspected at the front door. In the beginning, Jessie even had to show the contents of her G.I. Joe lunch box, which she carries as a purse. It usually contains papers, pens, gum and one of her many Pez dispensers.

        Every day, Jessie and her friends occupy the same corner of the cafeteria, just as other cliques occupy theirs. When I visit, she and a friend, Pam, are the most intriguing-looking people in the room. Pam is wearing fishnets, yellow contact lenses and glitter on her eyelids.

        Middle school was much harder than Simon Kenton, Pam says. Kids used to leave crosses on her desk and call her satanic.

        She wears black to express her attitude, she says.

        “I'm very sarcastic, but once you get used to me, I'm easy to get along with,” Pam says.

        Liz, another friend of Jessie's, has a pierced eyebrow, which is another look Simon Kenton may outlaw soon. Liz and her mother had their eyebrows done together.

        Among teen-agers like these, friendships are sealed by common knowledge of obscure music. Jessie and Liz like a punk band called NOFX. I picked up one of their CDs. Lots of anthems to angst and self-doubt. One song about a girl's mother dying. Another about Johnny Appleseed as a metaphor — I'm not sure for what.

        None of the songs referred to shooting people or hating anybody.

        Liz and Jessie watch two television shows: The Simpsons and a cartoon called Dragon Ball Z.

        Movies are boring, Jessie says; they repeat the same stories again and again. The Matrix was an exception. She calls it “the best movie in the whole world.”

        In it, a young man discovers humans are living in an elaborate computer program. He joins a band of outlaws to set people free.

        In one of the last scenes, the outlaws wear black trench coats and shoot bad guys. But they're revolting against mind control. It's a good thing.

        We're sitting in a hallway at Simon Kenton. Jessie raps her knuckles against the wall.

        “It makes you think, is this real?”

        She's talking about the movie, of course, but the question may apply to high schools, too. They're marching toward a militant unreality: Good kids mistaken for bad, punished for standing out.

        We don't want to go down this road. Blandness doesn't become teen-agers. Their differences should be appreciated, not erased.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at 578-5584, or by e-mail at


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