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The Importance of Making Good Choices: The Recent Cases of Paula Dean and Aaron Hernandez –originally posted on June 26, 2013

“It all comes down to the choices you make!”  Over the past 40 years in education, I have made that statement or ones like it thousandsDesktop2 of times to students and to my own children as elementary principal, teacher, and parent.  I have said it to them in the classroom, in my office, in the cafeteria, out on the playground, and on the soccer field.  And I have had a great deal of company in saying that.  So many teachers, guidance counselors, paraprofessionals, school nurses, and parents have their own versions:  “Take your time and make the right choice”   or   ”Be careful not to make a bad choice” or “Life is all about choices.”  Sometimes I tell children (as my wife has always said that SHE was told) “When you have a choice to make, pretend that your dad (or mom) is perched right there on your shoulder” and think “What would my dad or mom want me to do?”  or finally “What is the RIGHT thing to do?”

These thoughts are especially relevant  and close to my heart this week as the news reverberates with reports on the cases of two very different media stars–one a darling of television’s Food Network–Paula Dean, and the other a New England sports hero–Aaron Hernandez.

In Mrs. Dean’s case, what has her food empire in hot water are the reports of her using the “n-word,” making racist and anti-semitic jokes, and singing the praises of a hypothetical plantation-style wedding with Blacks dressed up in tuxes and waiting on Whites.  Thus far, these reports have resulted in her having her contract with the Food Network terminated after eleven years.  She also lost her very lucrative contract as spokesperson for Smithfield Farms.  All of this from not thinking carefully BEFORE repeating a racist joke—from making a poor choice in what stories to tell or what words to use to describe a group of people.  It apparently doesn’t matter that many of these offenses may be years old.  Many people may believe that she continues to feel and/or speak this way.  Many more may wonder if there are still additional people to come out of the closet who can report on offensive language she has used more recently.  Choices have consequences.

The second case continues to unfold in the headlines today as the police have arrested Mr. Hernandez–star tight end for my own beloved New England Patriots who recently honored him with a five-year 40 million (yes, you read that correctly) 40 MILLION dollar contract.  As I gaze past my computer towards the television news at this very moment, I see that Aaron Hernandez has now been charged with first degree murder and five weapons charges.  Whether he is guilty or innocent of such charges, one does not have to wonder how many opportunities he had that evening to make a choice–either a good choice or a bad choice.  It seems that he must have made some incredibly poor choices that night–choices that have resulted in his being released from the Patriots and much more seriously, being charged with murder.

Unfortunately, these are just the two most recent cases of famous people making the worst possible choices—choices that impact their lives in the most negative and destructive of ways.  Dan Levy of Bleacher Report points out that just in the NFL,  ”Just this year there have been more than 30 players arrested for myriad offenses, ranging from driving under the influence to assault to carrying a loaded gun in an airport.”

The following is a very partial list of just some of the hundreds of famous athletes convicted of crimes in the past few decades: Ray Lewis, Plaxico Burress, Dexter Manley, Art Schlichter, Donte Stallworth, Rae Carruth, Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, Ryan Leaf, Mercury Morris, Bam Morris, Lawrence Phillips, O.J. Simpson, Michael Vick, Marion Jones, Steve Riddick, Barry Bonds, Lenny Dykstra, Dwight Gooden, Denny McLain, Pete Rose, Daryl Strawberry, Ugueth Urbina, Allen Iverson, Charles E. Smith, Sly Williams, Trevor Berbick, Riddick Bowe, Esteban de Jesus, Mike Tyson, Tonya Harding, Craig MacTavish, Boris Becker, Roscoe Tanner, Oscar Pistorius (Wikipedia).  Most of these you recognize from American sports leagues, but there are many other names from countries and sports all around the world which are listed on this wikipedia site: Please feel free to check out crimes committed by athletes in soccer (world football), bodybuilding, Canadian football, cricket, cycling, darts, diving, figure skating, Greco-Roman wrestling, competition fishing, horse racing, rugby, motorsports, sailing, skateboarding, snooker, surfing, swimming, and martial arts.

Outside the sports arena, the list of celebrities who have had problems (some minor and some major) with the law goes on and on: Chris Brown, Kanye West, Roman Polanski, Joyce DeWitt, Phil Spector, T.I., Sam Shepard, Coolio, Katt Williams, Coutney Love, Amy Winehouse, Lil Wayne, Charlie Sheen, Britney Spears, Mel Gibson, Tobey Maguire, Soulja Boy, Andy Dick, Rick Springfield, and Big Boi (thanks to Wonderwall) R. Kelly, Kim Delaney, Yasmine Bleeth, Carmen Electra, Dennis Rodman, Barron Hilton, Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Capriati, Daniel Baldwin, Mickey Rourke, Steve-O, Lil Kim, Ozzy Osbourne, Fifty Cent, Vanilla Ice, Axl Rose, Christian Slater, Marilyn Manson, Lindsay Lohan, Eminem, Hugh Grant, Kiefer Sutherland, Paris Hilton, Kobe Bryant (thanks to AllWomenStalk???)

Politicians making bad choices ( in the past decade) which resulted in charges or convictions or resignations included the following:  Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, Elliot Spitzer, Tom DeLay, Jim McDermott, Jim Traficant, Dan Rostenkowski, Buz Lukens, , Ronald Blackley, Scooter Libby, Jesse Jackson, Claude Allen, Jack Abramoff.  Of course, Bill Clinton’s choices in the way he conducted his personal life–while not resulting in a conviction or resignation–greatly tarnished his presidency and impacted society and families in inumerable ways.

What is my point here?  It is a simple one–or rather, simple to state, but much harder to put into practice.  As parents, teachers, guidance counselors, principals, clergymen….we need to continue to help children—from the time they are very young through adulthood–we need to continue to help them to slow down, to think, to consider the available choices, to weigh the pros and cons and possible consequences, and to make good choices–the best possible choice in every possible circumstance.  We need to consider hypothetical circumstances in which one might find himself or herself.  We need to dialogue about choices available.  We need to role-play.  If a student DOES make a bad choice, we need to make sure that the students recognizes the choice the child had available to him or her, the choice which the child made, and the possible choices which would have led to a much better result.  The problem?  Good schools—like those here in our Athol-Royalston District and in many other districts in our state– are already practicing all of these strategies.  So what is to be done?  Do we just throw up our hands and assert that children, teenagers, and adults will continue to make poor choices?  Hardly!  Giving up is not an option–can never be an option.   We need to dedicate more time to teaching both children and adults good decision-making skills.

How can we do that, however, when schools are already jam-packed with time on reading, language arts, math, science, social studies–as well as art, music, health, physical education, and other subjects?  How can we do that when we need to continue to stress academics and time on learning so that we can compete with school systems in other countries, in addition to being  competitive in the global market.   How can we do this in the same 180 days of school we have had for decades?

One solution is to extend the amount of time we spend in the classroom.   I have long been an advocate of significantly increasing the time that students spend in school to accommodate both the needs of students and the needs of a more complex and competitive world.  Either increase the school day by an hour a day, or increase the number of days in the school year.  Increasing the school day by one hour a day–every day Monday through Friday– adds 180 hours –the equivalent of  30 extra six-hour days to the school year.  On the other hand, school systems could simply begin to increase the school year by adding additional days every year to the academic year.  Next year would have 182 days, the year after 184, 2015-16 would have 186 days, 2016-2017 would have 188 days and so on–until we eventually reached 200 days per year.  It is important to note that currently China has 260 days of school per year, Japan-243, Germany-240, Zimbabwee-225, Austrailia-220, South Korea-220, Israel-216, Russia-211, Netherlands-200, Scotland-200, Thailand-200, Hong Kong-195, England-192, Hungary-192,  Switzerland-191, and  Finland, New Zealand, and Nigeria all with 195.  Of course, increasing the school day and/or school year definitely would require additional funding for salaries commensurate with the added teaching time, but that is another subject for another blog entry.

A very important final point, however:  all the names mentioned above–all those convicted of bad behavior at least and serious crimes at most–are famous individuals.  Of even more importance is the undeniable fact that every day, every month, every year there are people in our own communities–young people and adults–who make bad choices (all-too-often horrible and disastrous choices–with irrevocable consequences) and who end up in real trouble with the law-or even worse.  Sometimes these choices end in serious injury or even death.  Sometimes we see their names in the police news or the court news or the obituary page, and sometimes we may not.  They are–all too often–our neighbors, our friends–sometimes even our family members or relatives.   For their sakes and for the sake of our children and our society, we need to find a way to ultimately help children, teenagers, and adults to make better choices.  It is the smart thing to do, and–more importantly–it is the RIGHT thing to do!

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