Kids are learning all too much, all too fast, as charges of sex and lies beam into every home
By Steve Lopez
(TIME, February 9) -- So you think we've got trouble now? This is nothing. Give it 20 years, maybe 30, when today's children are running things, and then we'll know trouble.
If there was a shred of innocence left in their warped little hearts and minds--and there is no reason to suspect there was--we have probably driven it out of them over the past two weeks with dispatches that sound as if they were pulled off the walls of public rest rooms.
Kids still young enough to carry lunch pails bearing cartoon characters have seen and heard the lurid stuff of Zippergate everywhere. We have tried to protect them with dashes here and there, but is there a fourth-grader who has seen b---j--- and lost that game of hangman?
"There's no avoiding it," says Dalia Victory, a Sherman Oaks, Calif., mom whose son, Andrew Rahimi, 9, is doing what President Clinton should have done long ago. "Every time the word sex comes on TV," she says, "he covers his ears."
In the cafeteria of a school in Shutesbury, Mass., a sixth-grade boy tells a pal he is thinking of two-timing his girl. "You'll be just like Clinton," the classmate deadpans. Great. Now we've got late-night acts in the elementary schools. Did we want our children to be this jaded?
"His eyes don't seem like they're telling the truth," Cassidy Berlin, 12, a sixth-grader from West Lafayette, Ind., observes of the President. "I was doing my spelling homework in front of the TV. It took me an hour to get it done instead of the usual 15 minutes." But of course. Bill and Monica have added a few words to the vocabulary list.
In Philadelphia, Suzanna Schamber, 10, says that it's good gossip at recess and that nobody is going to talk her out of what she knows in her heart: "He did it. You can tell by the way he's hugging her in the films. They did something they weren't supposed to do, I think in the Lincoln Bedroom." But there's an even more serious offense in all of this, Suzanna warns a nation desperate for sound advice: "Monica wears too much makeup. Big ol' chunks of it."
Just imagine their world. There is smut on the Internet; music comes wrapped in parental advisories; and television finally kills off Al Bundy but keeps the formula alive--take the lowest common denominator and divide by 2--with a succession of centerfolds turned prime-time stars. And now the White House is made out to be just another tasteless sitcom that causes us all, regardless of age, to feel as if we need a vaccination.
Max Favela, 10, a fifth-grader in Pacific Palisades, Calif., got the Monica Lewinsky story on MTV news. "They said this lady accused Clinton of a sex scandal, like Paula Jones. I was shocked." Well, what exactly is the President accused of, Max? "He, like, raped a woman." Unsure of his answer, he confers with his friend Josh. "A sex scandal," Max now clarifies. "Having sex with a lady, and she comes back later and accuses him. Now he's in big trouble."
Try to imagine that this is the first presidency you've known. Kids must think Special Prosecutor is a Cabinet post, with someone always rooting around in bedrooms and closets. With any luck, they have forgotten that Clinton's closest adviser last year was a guy who savored women's toes and helped run the President's campaign while in bed with a hooker.
"It's very unfortunate that this is their first exposure to government," says Melicent Rothschild, a seventh-grade humanities teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. "This generation is seeing a kind of politics characterized by meanness and the absence of privacy. It's difficult for me to teach students to respect the office of the President."
It could be worse. How would you like to be in charge of teaching current events? Or self- control? In Philadelphia, Ginny Coco teaches sixth-grade health at the J.R. Masterman School, and she had just got to "Sexuality and Decision Making" when the names Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers bumped Fidel and the Pope off the radar screen.
"How are you going to stand in front of a class and tell them they have to make responsible, smart, healthful decisions [in that context]?" she asks. "I told my students, 'I need to apologize to you. One of my peers may have made some errors in judgment.' It was a tough week to talk about right and wrong."
Given the fact that the education President has helped spark a national debate on whether oral sex constitutes cheating on your spouse, parents may feel the need to turn the discussion to simpler moral questions. "We focus not on what's legal or illegal about his actions but on the fact that if he did it, it was wrong," says Chicagoan Ginnie Rugis, whose daughters are 13 and 7. Even the seven-year-old was brought in on that discussion. "We talk about impulse control. She compared it to when she is in the library at school but she really wants to eat lunch. She understands that you can't always do what you want to do."
"Why don't they just leave the President alone?" That's the question Sherman Oaks fourth- grader Cassini Quinones asks. "She says he seems to be a nice man, and the world is running O.K., and isn't he doing his job?" says her father Adolfo. "This comes from a nine-year-old! Children are very smart. She wanted to know what allegations are. I explained that it's like when your brother says something about you is true, but we don't have proof."
Maybe they should get a tape recorder, like everyone in Washington.
"If he lied about this, what else would he lie about?" Ethan Stillman of Chicago wonders about the President. Ethan is 12.
"Even if it's true, it doesn't have to be the most important thing in the world," says Ruthie Rosenberg of Philadelphia. "I would rather see happy news. About Leonardo DiCaprio." Ruthie is 10.
The President just needs a role model, says Olivia Boyd of Chicago, and she has one in mind. "There are crazy things Chelsea Clinton may want to do, but she's not going to because she knows what's expected of her. She's doing better with expectations than her father." Olivia is 13.
Maybe this is our last, best hope: that the Washington game of catch-them-with-their-pants- down is so wretchedly dark and low that the high road by comparison comes to seem a bright and shining path. Or that scandal has become so common that it's passe to kids.
It would be lovely to think Marlena Fontes, 9, of Shutesbury gives us the truest picture of fourth-grade life when she says, "The only thing girls in my class like to talk about is ponies."
--With reporting by Wendy Cole/Chicago and Margot Hornblower/ Los Angeles