J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

children's squabble turned into political incident

Last Wednesday, 14 June, the anti-marriage political group MassResistance issued a press release claiming that the first-grade son of one of its members had been mobbed on a school playground for political reasons. According to the Lexington Minuteman article:

A press release was issued by MassResistance...alleging J**** P*****, the first-grade son of David and Tonia P*****, was assaulted on the playground at the Estabrook Elementary School on May 17, the two-year anniversary of gay marriage in Massachusetts. . . . Brian Camenker, of MassResistance, alleged J**** P***** was approached during recess, taken to a corner of the play area and assaulted by eight to 10 students.
(I'm using the eighteenth-century convention of substituting asterisks for letters in a name in order to preserve a bit of the child's privacy.)

Several things seemed off about this story from the start:
  • Nearly a month passed between the fight and the press release, hardly the hallmark of parents seeking to shield their child from serious danger.
  • In that time the P***** family didn't consult with school authorities, medical authorities, or the police. Instead, they went to their lawyer and then the news media.
  • Camenker would have us believe that first-graders keep track of the anniversary of the Goodridge court case and plan "premeditated" playground fights around it. Camenker and I have lived in the same city for years, and he simply doesn't realize that most people don't spend as much time thinking about homosexuality as he does. Especially first-graders.

In today's Boston Globe the superintendent of schools in Lexington shared a very different description of the 17 May squabble:
School officials, citing interviews with the children involved, said the fight actually started over where students would sit in the cafeteria and then spilled onto the playground. The student, the 7-year-old son of David P*****, who filed a federal lawsuit in April over the teaching of homosexuality in school, was punched several times during the May 17 fight.

"These were two first-graders having a child squabble on a playground," said Superintendent Paul Ash. "Some adults are exploiting these children for political purposes."
...
According to school officials' investigation, one child hit P*****'s son two to four times during recess, and the boy fell to his knees as about five students watched. A teacher's aide intervened. The child who hit P*****'s son was sent to the assistant principal's office, where he wrote an apology and was denied recess for two days. P*****'s son and the boy have since had a play date, Ash said.

Notably, P***** was interviewed by the Globe and didn't quibble with any of the officials' factual statements—not that his son had fought one child instead of "eight to ten," not that the other child has written an apology, not the play date in the last month. So I think Ash's judgment that "Some adults are exploiting these children" is valid. It's a pity that one of those adults seems to be J****'s own parent.

This incident put me in mind of another fight between seven-year-olds that made the newspapers with a heavy political overlay. The following passage is from the "Journal of the Times," a series of Whig dispatches to colonial newspapers outside Boston in 1768-69, the first period when British army regiments were stationed in the town. Those dispatches painted the army and royal authorities in the worst possible light; some historians assume that the writer(s?) made up events, but I think they simply provided one-sided accounts and incendiary commentary. This event seems to have taken place on 22 May 1769:
The next day, when the 14th regiment mustered in King-Street at roll-call, a fray happened between two little boys about seven years old, which as usual, gathered a crowd of people; several persons going through the streets were oblig’d, in order to avoid the crowd, to pass near the right wing of the regiment; for which daring intrusion, four persons were successively struck down by a drummer.—The battle of the boys naturally produced a larger one between some of the inhabitants, when a constable interposed, to preserve the peace;—one of the soldiers gave the word to hustle the constable, immediately upon which, his hat and wig were struck off, and he was toss’d about from one to another, though he repeatedly cried, he was a King’s officer in the execution of his duty; some of the inhabitants being near, he called to them for their assistance, and many of them readily went to his assistance; upon which the battle became general, and the constable, and his assistants were much abus’d by the soldiers. Some of the officers of the regiment were present, none of whom offered to interpose, till Col. Dalrymple came into the street, and being told what had happened, he quickly dispers’d the soldiers. . . . It is said one of his Majesty’s Council perceiving the first reforming magistrate in the street when the quarrel began, went to him, and motioned his taking proper measures to quell it; but the reformer only shruged his shoulders, and went off.
"King-Street" is modern State Street. "Constable" might mean the Constable of the Watch who supervised the town watchmen ("his assistants"?) for that part of the town. But this incident seems to have occurred in the daytime, and watches patrolled at night. The Constable's cry that "he was a King’s officer" implies that he was one of the town's elected Constables, who usually delivered writs, and the "assistants" were simply men who came to help him.

"Col. Dalrymple" was Lt.-Col. William Dalrymple, commander of the 14th regiment. The "first reforming magistrate" probably means James Murray, a Scottish-born Justice of the Peace who fervently supported the royal government. There were too many Whig members of "his Majesty’s Council" to identify which one suggested that the magistrate intervene, then told his story for the "Journal of the Times."

One of the details I find most interesting about this report is that the writer felt it "usual" for a fight between seven-year-olds to draw a crowd, and "natural" that the boys' tussle would produce a fight among older inhabitants. At least we don't do that anymore. Nowadays, it seems, we go straight to the newspapers.

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