Look Everyone, I'm a Distraction!

Look Everyone, I'm a Distraction!

One of the dumbest things I ever heard when I was a kid was the phrase "distract the other students from their education." I tended to hear it frequently, since I was the distraction, but I heard it in relation to other things too, especially in high school.

We couldn't wear t-shirts with bad words, or insinuations of bad words, because it would distract the other students from their education. We couldn't chew gum because of "the distractions." And we couldn't carry — not play with, just carry — a toy, because it would distract our classmates who apparently had the attention span of a hyperactive chipmunk.

Anytime a teacher or administrator said "distract the other students, I always heard "we don't want you to do this, because we don't want you to have fun or enjoy school. Ever." Just when I found something that brought the slightest sparkle of relief into my day, I could pretty much count on a teacher to squash that tiny ray of hope like a size 12 army boot on a helpless bug.

I thought I had left all that behind as the educational system grew more progressive and enlightened. I thought teachers had developed some new way to keep the kids' attention for more than 10 seconds, before they were distracted by naughty t-shirts, gum chewing, or the thought that someone else had a paddle ball in their locker.

But I'm wrong. Not only are educators regurgitating the same old rules and Thou Shalt Nots from my youth, but this kind of thinking has spread like a fungus to the British educational system.

That's because almost half of the students at the City of Ely Community College in Cambridgeshire, southeastern England, were assigned to five hours of detention to read a booklet on good behavior. (Apparently, a community college in England is different from a community college here in the US. Over there, it serves students up through Grade 12; here, it's a higher education system that teaches post-high school students.)

So what egregious sins did these little hellions — over 600 of the 1,295 students — commit on their unsuspecting classmates, distracting them to near comatose levels?

They chewed gum, ate between classes, ran in the hallways, wore too much makeup, wore earphones, used cell phones, and wore mismatched socks.

Mismatched socks?

Seriously, mismatched socks can be distracting?

Driver: "Well, officer, I ran into the other car because someone was walking down the street with mismatched socks. I was so distracted that I forgot to apply the brakes or even look where I was going."

Police officer: "That's completely understandable, sir. *on radio* All units, be on the lookout for a miscreant in mismatched socks, last seen heading south on Oakwood. Subject is considered dangerous."

The personal identity-eliminating, soul-crushing policy was introduced by Catherine Jenkinson-Dix, the school's principal. She told the Cambridge News, "Low-level issues, such as using mobile phones, affect staff’s ability to teach the pupils and also affect those pupils who are trying to learn. If we can eradicate these, all students will be able to receive the best possible education."

I'll agree that students who use cell phones or wear earphones, especially in class, can be a distraction. I've been a mentor at a local high school, and have had to deal with students who listen to their iPods or text on their cell phones. It can be distracting, both for the students and for the teachers.

But, even though I am not a professional educator, I have never been distracted by a student wearing two different-colored socks. I think I can manage the cognitive dissonance that comes with seeing another human being wear things that don't match. My youngest daughter loves mismatching her socks, and I have never once been distracted, flustered, or discombobulated by them.

Jenkinson-Dix said these jack-booted rules were thrust upon the students for a good reason: "(T)his is fundamental in preparing pupils for their future careers, where they certainly would not get away with being rude, dressing inappropriately and chewing gum."

I don't know if Jenkinson-Dix is the kind of educator we all dreaded in school: either an alien sent to suck out students' brains, or a witch who just wanted to eat children. Either way, she may be a little far-reaching in her new rules.

Loosen up, live a little, and try to remember what it was like to be a kid. You'd be surprised at the happiness that a pair of socks or a piece of gum can bring you.

If not, your students may try to find a little happiness at the end of a thumbtack. In your chair.

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on Amazon.com, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.

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