Column: Children Have Value in the Here and Now

Nine-year-old Cooper Stock died on Friday evening, Jan. 10, shortly after being struck by a taxi while crossing the street with his father near his Manhattan apartment. Cooper was a third-grade student at the Calhoun School, where I serve as head of school.

The death of any child is an unimaginable tragedy. I won’t dwell on Cooper’s parents’ unspeakable pain or describe the ways in which their friends and family have held them and tried to absorb their pain, only to have it erupt again and again. You may know how such tragedy feels. You, too, may have come face-to-face with the unfathomable reality of cruel and random death. It drains one hollow.

Cooper’s death makes me angry, but not only for obvious reasons. What makes me angry is what’s happened­ — what we’ve allowed to happen — to too many other children in America.

I wrote several years ago: “Jean De La Bruyere, a 17th century French moralist and philosopher, once wrote, ‘Children have neither a past nor a future. Thus they enjoy the present — which seldom happens to us.’ In both the most and least privileged corners of American, children are too often deprived of the present. At each end of the economic spectrum we are pressing children harder and harder in the service of a rigorous education. It is not mere semantic coincidence that the word ‘rigor’ is most often paired with the word ‘mortis.’ ”

Since then, America has doubled down on its obsession to prepare children to serve some future economic use. Schools are increasingly characterized by longer days, summer remediation and high-stakes tests. Just last week, the justifiably besieged New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie veered off the George Washington Bridge scandal to declare his intent to force longer school days and a longer school year on New Jersey’s children. He, like so many others, chooses to dump the abject failures of American education onto the slim shoulders of our children.

The aggressive imposition of high-stakes education, longer days and longer years isn’t ruining childhood for only poor kids. In affluent neighborhoods, stressful tests and needlessly long hours of homework are prescribed in order to ensure placement in a prestigious college. Children in the South Bronx are dressed up in uniforms, marched from class to class and talked about as though they are factory seconds in need of repair before being sold to the highest multi-national bidder. Meanwhile, children in affluent communities like Hanover and Norwich are treated like precious gemstones to be polished hard on the grindstone of their parents’ ambition.

The wonderful author Jonathan Kozol once wrote this about Mariposa, a 6-year-old friend he made while living in and writing about the South Bronx: “Mariposa is not simply 37 pounds of raw material that wants a certain processing and finishing before she can be shipped to market and considered to have value. She is of value now, and if she dies of a disease or accident when she is 12 years old, the sixth year of her life will not as a result be robbed of meaning.”

There is no silver lining in the cloud over Cooper’s death. But at least I know that this little boy’s life had meaning. Cooper was a rabid New York Knicks fan and had an encyclopedic knowledge of sports statistics and trivia. He had many friends, including a very close relationship with a 10th- grade Calhoun basketball star. He loved classic rock ’n’ roll. His life, every day, was full, rich and meaningful. He wasn’t viewed as raw material to be processed for future utility or someone else’s ambition.

At least he had that. All children should have that.

Steve Nelson’s column appears here every other week. He is head of the Calhoun School, a private school in New York City.