When prudence crosses over to fear

  • Published in MyView

By Torrey Smith

Sometimes we do things with the best of intentions, only to find that our actions have misfired in some unanticipated way.

A couple weeks ago, I was surprised to hear that the supervisory union had developed a new policy about classroom volunteers, requiring them to get fingerprinted and pass a background check before volunteering in any classroom or attending a field trip with their child. This is part of a laudable effort to assure our children’s safety while at school.

My first reaction to hearing this news, however, was as if I had been slapped in the face. Like hundreds of other parents, grandparents and neighbors in our area, I have been helping out in the classrooms, on field trips, with special projects and on committees in a variety of capacities for more than a decade. Fingerprints and social security numbers sure don’t sound like thanks or appreciation.

My next thought was worry: It’s a hassle and cost to get this stuff done. That’s inconvenient for some and flat-out prohibitive for too many. I’m very uncomfortable with the implications. If for some reason you're not able to meet ends meet in terms of income or a car or flex time right now, sorry, you’re not welcome here.

And, yikes, does it feel oddly invasive. We’re not talking about disaggregated data here — this is personal and very much attached to your name and your child. Big Brother, Here Art Thou.

Nobody likes change, nobody likes to feel unappreciated. But even after untangling those initial responses, I realized that what was really bugging me was that I suddenly had to prove to some bureaucracy that I am not a criminal. Despite years of trying to raise good kids, to be helpful and supportive of our community, to be a problem-solver and collaborator, to build up the people around me …

And that’s when I saw the aspect of this policy that makes me most uncomfortable. This approach to safety begins not from a position of advocacy or collaboration, it begins from a position of fear. It assumes there is likely to be something defective, fraudulent, or depraved about people from the world outside the school. It unintentionally institutionalizes a notion of “Us” and “Them” — which we have seen is eroding our notions of civility and community locally, nationally and globally. 

It’s easy to see how an “Us” and “Them” approach has taken hold in our lives these days. In a time of data overload, geopolitical instability and mounting threats, it allows us to quickly assess a person and figure out how they fit into our lives, as well as if they are someone we need to pay attention to, or someone we can ignore. But this summative evaluation is based on only one or two of a person’s million facets and characteristics. Ultimately, indulging in an “Us” and “Them” sorting approach ends up isolating us from those who might offer other views and considerations, who might bring new opportunities or ideas. It disconnects us from the best part of our humanity. 

The new supervisory union policy is obviously not the cause of this trend towards fear and division. But it is a symptom of our society’s tendency to indulge our worries through increased defenses and distance, and it bears reconsideration. Starting close to home and moving outward, we must be vigilant about letting these policies creep in, or before we know it we will be surrounded by so many figurative and literal walls we can’t see over them to recall what life was like when we knew community to be an asset, not a liability. 

Our schools need to be understood as an extension of our communities, a garden where many different gardeners are all trying to support the work of growing children into healthy, happy and independent adults. We need to be working together — not out of fear, but with the aspiration for love and connection and, as corny as it sounds, the grace that happens when people bravely reach out to those around them and try to share of themselves. 

Smith lives in Duxbury.