A troubling story: Ricky Sargent, a football and track coach in Hempstead, Texas, was fired a few weeks ago for leaving two seniors behind at a restaurant for about an hour, at night, after they misbehaved and refused to get back on the team bus.
According to local press reports, the young men were acting up on their way back from a meet, and as a punishment, they were told they wouldn’t be allowed off the bus to eat. But eventually, they did get off — and then refused to get back on. The adults with the team at the time called Coach Sargent, who OK’d the decision to leave the troublemakers behind, saying he’d come by to sit with them himself until their parents came to pick them up.
Which he did.
And for which he was fired.
Now, clearly, this was a breach of conduct on the coach’s part. But it certainly sounds as if it was also a breach on the part of the young men, whom, as they’re seniors, I can’t bring myself to call “kids.” If they are 17, they’re old enough to drive. If they are 18, they are old enough to go to war. But they’re not old enough to wait for an hour at a restaurant for their parents to come pick them up?
I fear that the reason the coach got the boot was not just that his behavior was legally dicey but that, as a culture, we have come to believe that anytime minors are not directly supervised by adults, they are in mortal peril. But they’re not. We are living in some of the safest times in human history. And in this case, the students were at a restaurant, with a coach quickly by their side and parents heading over to get them.
What could conceivably happen to these young men? Please, let’s not jump to the stock hysterical answer: “Anything!” Stop for a second and describe that “anything.” Were they going to run into the street and get run over? No. Get abducted — two high-school seniors together? No. Were they going to have a slightly uncomfortable hour? I sort of hope so.
It’s impossible not to bemoan the death of common sense these days. But this marks the death of a couple of other things, too. It’s the death of any faith that our kids can be safe on their own. It’s also the death of a certain kind of faith in our kids — faith that they can roll with some punches and even learn from cold water splashed in their face. I’m not one for an eye for an eye, but letting young people experience real consequences for their behavior — even slightly improvised, imperfect consequences — does not strike me as evil. It strikes me as wanting our kids to do better and believing that they can.
What did the young men learn when their coach was fired? Maybe that they can get away with their antics. Maybe that they were injured and aggrieved — a victim outlook they can nurse forever. But just maybe they learned that their behavior lost them a coach who did nothing worse than think that, when forced to handle themselves in an unfamiliar situation, they’d rise to the occasion.
That’s the kind of coach I’d want for my sons.
Miraculously, after a few weeks of cooling off, the school board voted to reinstate Sargent. The coach is back. It could be because he has a winning record. But I hope it’s at least in part because he has a winning way of looking at young men and the world and believing in them both.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant
Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the- Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.”