I was a football widow this weekend. It was pretty cold where we live, so when I ran out of ideas for things to do with the kids, I found myself doing the inevitable: popping in a DVD.
The film of choice was Happy Feet, and if you haven't seen it and there are small people listening you can turn down the volume for the next 10 seconds while I tell you the plot.
It's about an emperor penguin named Mumbles. Emperor penguins are supposed to find their mates and do whatever else they need to do by singing. But Mumbles can't sing, he can dance — fabulous, freestyle tap dance, to be specific — a penguin Savion Glover, which of course makes him an outcast. But like many, if not most, kids movies, the very thing that makes him an outcast is the very thing that the disapproving, rejecting tribe needs most to survive or thrive.
And so it is that Mumbles' magical tapping feet, set to a hip-hop beat, of course, persuade the greedy humans to stop overfishing the penguins' feeding area, so the penguins, which are slowly starving, can survive.
(And there was a nice black-brown "we are the world" thing going on with some Latino penguins. But I don't have time to explain all that.)
Can I just tell you? What's troubling about it, if indeed a kiddie movie about penguins can be said to be troubling, is the suggestion that the penguins weren't saved from starvation and extinction because they had intrinsic worth — in other words, they weren't saved because they deserve to be saved because they happen to exist — but rather, they deserved to be saved because they were entertaining.
Now, maybe I had too much time on my hands, but this made me think about a number of troubling aspects in the way we think about vulnerable people in this country, most of all kids — kids in general, in my mind, and especially poor or troubled kids.
It has become a cliche, but no less true because it's a cliche, that many kids in this country are disposable. How else do we justify continuing to maintain schools that don't work, a so-called justice system that doesn't rehabilitate anybody and an attitude about mental health that makes sense only if you ignore a century of research about the way the mind, and especially the juvenile mind, works?
You can say what you want about former President Bush, but at the very least one has to admit that the No Child Left Behind Act was intended to force school districts to stop ignoring the kids who were being failed by a school by tying the fate of the school to the fate of the least successful kids. And you can slam people like Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins for questioning the kind of win-at-all-costs prosecution tactics with which so many prosecutors make a name for themselves, but you can't deny that the lock-'em-up-throw-away-the-key-approach may have made some people happy, but few people safer.
And the fact that entrenched interests reflexively fight any suggestion about changing the status quo for kids, especially kids who aren't making it — whether it's offered by the left or the right — tells me that we don't really care about kids.
We care about the cute ones, the smart ones, the little Dakota Fannings and Tiger Woodses, the little Olympic gymnasts, the little perfect SAT scorers, the precocious Oprahs-in-training ... But the rest, well, maybe next lifetime, kid.
Is it any wonder kids stand in line for hours to be humiliated at American Idol auditions or follow the idiocy of the television drama The O.C. like their lives depend on it? Come to think of it, maybe it does.
It's a winner-take-all culture, where Wall Street titans think they can take taxpayer money and parcel it out among themselves. Why wouldn't they? They deserve it.
They can do the tap dance. Now what are the rest of us supposed to do?