“Lack of Supervision Noted in Deaths of Home-Schooled
By JANE GROSS
Published: January 12, 2008
Ten states and the District of Columbia, where Banita M. Jacks was charged on Thursday with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of her four daughters, have no regulations regarding home schooling, not even the requirement that families notify the authorities that they are educating their children at home.
The lack of supervision of the home-schooling process, some experts say, may have made it easier last year for Ms. Jacks to withdraw her children from school and the prying eyes of teachers, social workers and other professionals who otherwise might have detected signs of abuse and neglect of the girls.
Instead, the children, ages 5 to 17, slipped through the cracks in multiple systems, including social services, education and law enforcement. Their decomposed bodies were discovered earlier this week by United States marshals serving eviction papers on the troubled family.”
This story got me musing about whether this nation is becoming “feral” in the way domesticated animals that escape from human households are “feral,” meaning that they have gone wild, meaning that they have escaped human supervision and the uses of the culture which they were meant to serve. This particular case was pretty clearly due to mental illness on the part of the mother which would have been addressed if she hadn’t managed to slip out of the main civilizing influence in our culture -- now that the church is pushed away -- leaving the public school in that role.
Subcultures -- including church-based ones -- have managed to change the laws in most states so that they not only can keep their children at home but are not required to meet any standards, whether it’s making sure the kids can read and figure or acquainting them with the shared history of the nation. The justification for this is both that the mainstream culture is far too rank and violent for children, and that the mainstream culture keeps butting in. Shadowing and justifying these positions is the idea that people “own” their children. They “make” them so they have the right to “use” them. Of course, this is dressed in much nicer rhetoric about parental rights.
But it is certainly an echo of our understanding of domestic animals: I “own” them, they are for my own “uses” and therefore only my own “business.” Everyone else can butt out. And if an animal normally kept as domestic (pigs, goats, cats, dogs, horses) manages to escape ownership, then it is feral. It has NO use, it is unowned and therefore can be grabbed by anyone -- animals cannot belong to themselves. If they have no use, they are taking up valuable resources and should be eliminated.
We used to think of Indians that way -- no nation (ownership), no uses, no self-determination, therefore expendable. Luckily, Indians paid no attention to that. Because “feral” people or animals are not any of those things, their lives are simply patterned in some other way than the dominant culture, maybe good and maybe bad. Illegal immigrants, alcoholics, religious dissidents, non-English speakers, hogs gone wild, and urban dog packs all devise or evolve their own culture -- they’re still organized, just not to the purposes or liking of the authorities.
Feral cat populations, for instance, turn out to have their territories and pecking orders all marked out. If they are removed, sterilized, and returned, they go on with this quite regularized little mini-society. They don’t allow strange cats to move in and they may kill extra kittens. They remain an ecology. But on islands where cats are brought de nouveau, in order to control mice, they become exterminators of birds. And, WAIT! We WANTED those birds!!
Usually a community has a number of “cultures” in layers and interlocking puzzle pieces. Some, known and tolerated, do the dirty work -- like “wetbacks” hoeing row crops in California, or the criminal work like supplying illegal drugs. The criminal element relieves pressure from needs not met in polite society. I’ve often suggested that the “gang” culture on the reservation, which enforces its will with violence -- even death -- could be eliminated in a week if there were money for proper law enforcement. But it suits some people’s uses to keep the reservation a dangerous, disreputable place. (People selling alcohol and drugs, for instance, or simply hiding behind the confusion.) Almost every family has a feral hostage to the existing system.
In a strange way, the college-educated person who leaves either small white ag town or reservation resort town also is “feral” when he or she returns -- no longer obedient to the rules of the community and therefore a source of anxiety if not fear. They are regularly squeezed out of local ecologies. A gay or lesbian must come home to secrecy. During WWII it was the German-heritage people who had to hide their origins -- except for the Jews, who had to hide in Germany. Whether or not such things are despicable and unjust, they represent the loss of a lot of ideas and energy.
I’m a Sunday devotee of the short stories read aloud on “Selected Shorts” which this week included the title story of the book called,
“St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves: Stories” by Karen Russell. (Review at: http://www.powells.com/review/2006_09_09.html) It’s a fabulist version of the experience of having to give up one culture (it’s fabulist because the girls are portrayed as real wolves) and learn another, which is something we all have to go through even if it’s only moving from a child’s culture to that of an adult. “Missionizing,” converting, sophisticating, educating -- this story is a brilliant illustration of the grief and inevitability. It’s a bookend for that fabulist and beloved story about cheerleaders out West gone feral, living joyfully in the wild where their cheers can be heard faintly in the distance.
It strikes me that it’s this painful and often clumsily done change that causes so many people to have sympathy for a family culture like home-schooling. Or maybe it’s that our culture is doing such a poor job of using education to enable and lift people. Ironically, the example of what education COULD be often comes from youngsters home-schooled by properly prepared and energetic parents. Around here it is often the home-schooled child who comes out at the top of the national exams and the mainstream classroom domesticated kids who are left behind.
So are we becoming a feral nation? The mainstream countries of the globe seem to think so.