Thursday, November 14, 2013
Zero Tolerance, by Claudia Mills
But Sierra doesn't do that. She's always been the kind of kid that teachers and principals adore; she's never had any reason not to trust the system. So she immediately brings the knife to the lunch supervisor, who turns her into the office, where, under the school's zero-tolerance policy, she receives in-school suspension and an appointment for an expulsion hearing. Effective immediately, no Leadership Club, no choir competition on Saturday, no Mayan history project, no way to stay caught up in her classes. No more life as she's known it.
For a mistake. Not an "I made a bad choice" mistake. She simply picked up her lunch bag from the kitchen counter, as she'd done every morning, and came to school. She had done nothing wrong. In fact, it was her mother who had taken the wrong lunch and left for work earlier, so Sierra wasn't even in a situation where she should have checked two lunch bags to make sure she had the right one.
This book took me straight back to childhood. I was also a "perfect kid teacher's pet," yet after the rare scrape or two I learned several things: (1) You cannot afford a mistake, ever. (2) If any authority figure in a school feels disappointed by you -- in other words, they no longer have you to make them feel successful in their jobs and be a bright spot in their day -- they will turn on you in a flash. (3) You will be punished for honesty. (4) When you are "the perfect kid" you have nowhere to go but down, and if you fall you will fall twice as hard and twice as fast as any other kid. I wanted Sierra to put the knife back in her bag, but of course she could not, and not only because if she had there'd have been no story. It was that she was still a system-innocent. She had no idea it could betray her.
I enjoyed Sierra's parents, and their close-knit family. Her father is a hot-shot lawyer who "always wins" and doesn't really respect his wife, but I got a kick out of him and cheered him on, perhaps because in my day parents did not take up for their children against the schools. The first thing he does is call the media, and the story of the honor student facing expulsion over an innocent lunch bag mistake ends up on national TV. Sierra must report to in-school suspension every day, and in a scenario not unlike The Breakfast Club gets to know the bad kids, especially the baddest of the bad, Luke Bishop, at the same time she is losing some of her perfect, surface-level friends. When Sierra gets an idea to actually do something wrong, I understand her emotionally. People live up to or down to what we think of them; if you're accused of being bad, you will eventually think of yourself as bad, and then it's a short step to doing something bad. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he."
The ending is realistic in that Sierra isn't totally judgment-free by that point, yet we absolutely believe that from now on she will be much more open to different kinds of people and different ways of life than she would have been had she not gone through this experience.
I have learned, at this point, that you do the right thing because it's the right thing, and you have to trust God to help you through the consequences, because you cannot trust that the world will treat you right. I'd like to think that Sierra will come this far, too. And, for me, a concern lingers for the Luke Bishops of the world: We want Sierra to have gotten off, because she was a good kid who made virtually the most innocent mistake possible. But suppose Luke, who had a history of trouble, had made the identical innocent mistake? Would anyone, especially the Sierras of the world, cut him a break even though he were innocent? The answer, "Not likely," is disturbing. An excellent MG read, full of ideas and issues to be discussed.