When not everything was ok

“If it scares you that your kids’ school is neither secured nor defended, why do you keep sending your kids to that school?”

posted to my personal Facebook page Wednesday evening

On Wednesday afternoon Deb and I left The Ranch to run a couple of errands. Listening to a local talk-radio station, we heard callers react to the Uvalde massacre the day before. They offered heartfelt condolences, speculated respectfully on what went wrong and mused about what (if anything) could be done.

They sounded the kind of people who surrounded me in my youth, not sophisticated but smart and straightforward. It was a refreshing contrast to some of the cranky cruelty I’d been hearing from the Left, like this grenade thrown by Caryn Elaine Johnson:

“I swear to God, if I see another Republican senator talk about their heart being broken, I’m gonna go punch somebody.”

You may have to look up “Caryn Elaine Johnson,” by the way, if you don’t already know her stage name. I promise the result won’t surprise you.

As we drove around, Deb and I got to talking about the why of it all. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, while she came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, and as kids neither us had to deal with horrors like Buffalo and Uvalde — not in our own communities and truly not in the wider world.

What changed?

Asking ourselves that question got us closer to the heart of the matter. We dispensed with convenient answers, ranging from the serious (video games, breakdown of the nuclear family) to the absurd (cell-phone radiation, hormones in meat, GMOs, soy). That led to an even better question.

What did we have that today’s kids don’t have?

That released a cascade of examples from both of us, not unlike the “we had” list I posted here the same day. Eventually we narrowed it down to two solid answers.

We had certainty. And we had stigmas.

I expect that to rattle a few readers, especially our second answer. Stick around and I’ll try to explain.

The ideals that defined us in the ’60s and ’70s were very much binary — black-white, pass-fail. Boys were boys and girls were girls. Guys did guy stuff and played with trucks, while girls did girl things and played with dolls. (Tomboys and sissies, we were assured, were “going through a phase.”) We knew where to go in the toy store, where to shop for clothes and which bathroom to use. Masculinity was an aspiration, not a toxin, and we valued femininity over feminism.

Adults had authority and cops had badges. We knew right from wrong and good from evil.

In school, As were better than Cs. In sports, winning was better than losing — no “participant trophies” were awarded. In all pursuits, strength was better than weakness and we held courage in higher regard than fear.

Success beat failure any day. Work and self-sufficiency were superior to laziness and dependence.

Sober was better than drunk, and stoned was worse. Having money to spend was better than not, and having a job was better than not. Crime deserved punishment. Tattoos were for sailors and piercings were for gypsies. A two-parent family was better than a single-parent household. We got praise for overcoming adversity and no sympathy for wallowing in it.

Saying the Pledge was what we did. Marching in protests was something we didn’t do.

I could go on, but you get the idea. In all of these things and more, we knew the difference because we were taught the difference. We were given the gift of certainty.

It was a culture in which not everything was ok — that is, not all behavior or every circumstance was acceptable. We learned to discriminate. And because of that, our lives had order.

What followed naturally were pride and shame — pride in abiding by productive norms, shame in violating them. The shame carried a stigma — usually self-imposed, not a scarlet letter.

Nobody wanted to be the class weakling. We didn’t brag about losing a race or a ball game. Being on welfare or collecting unemployment weren’t talked about, only rarely confessed. Word got around about delinquents, sloths, drunks and folks who talked down the country. Because we recognized authority, we feared consequences (and the accompanying stigma).

And so on.

Now I want to be clear about a couple of things. First, we were taught that people who were different, people who weren’t necessarily a perfect match for our norms, still could have value. Not every kid could be an A student or a star athlete.

Second, acknowledging that misfortune is part of life, we didn’t shun people who fell on hard times. Folks whose trouble was of their own making and who refused to change their path, however, didn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

So what does any of this have to do with school shootings?

Certainty was our “safe space.” Stigmas were our deterrent. We had our misfits and our outcasts, sure, and some rebels — but even the most disaffected among us had constants they could rely on and faced consequences for straying from normative behavior.

Thanks to certainty and stigmas, we had clarity.

Rules were established. Parents were in charge. Other adults in our community — principals, teachers, coaches, cops, pastors — carried out parents’ wishes and weren’t bashful about enforcing norms (sometimes with a wooden paddle or a literal kick in the ass). They were tough on all of us and it worked.

What I’ve described is heresy by today’s “standards.” That’s not the way we treat our children anymore, now, is it?

Yeah, well, shame on me.

All I know is what I see. In order to thrive, kids need guardrails and kids need structure — they always have and they always will. American culture systematically has dismantled both, crippling the maturity, productivity and mental health of an entire generation.

We don’t have to wait to learn the price of our mistake. We’re paying it right now.

One year ago today we learned that the cooling unit in Ernie’s refrigerator would need to be replaced. (We didn’t know that it was only the first sign of a gut-punch that’d rock our life on the road.) We had to extend our stay in The Ozarks, which we didn’t mind a bit.

We drove up US Route 65 again, visiting the Bass Pro Shops Shooting Academy across the Missouri border, shopping a quirky roadside store and stopping for lunch at a charming café.

Take care of yourselves, Patriots. Stay calm. Stay sharp. Stay free.

#WiseUp #LibertyOrDeath

#LetsGoBrandon #FJB