When my phone rang the other day in the middle of the afternoon, I was alarmed. For a parent like me, a message from school can only mean one thing: my child is sick. But the news was even worse.
"Your son has been suspended," the principal told me. My son had stolen a substitute teacher's sunglasses, she explained; there were witnesses to the crime.
I pleaded for mercy. "We will pay for the sunglasses, we would accept another punishment, but please, please, don't keep him out of school."
The decision, she said, was already made. My son seemed deeply wounded by the accusations. Was it plausible that he had stolen a pair of sunglasses that even the principal admitted were not in his possession? My son's father and I had entrusted him with all sorts of responsibilities and never found him lacking.
So his father and I stayed home from work the next morning, showed up at the principal's office and refused to leave until we had been heard.
Two hours later, we received the litany of charges against our child, charges so lacking in substance that any court in the land would have thrown them out in a matter of minutes.
It seemed the sunglasses had fallen from the teacher's desk. Our son had picked them up when a lens had popped out. At the instigation of the other children, the teacher had called the office.
Subsequent events were unclear. What happened to the sunglasses? No one knew. Did the other children hide them in mischief and accuse our son? It was possible.
The principal handed us the suspension notice. Written all over it were sections of the education code. A box titled "stole private property" was checked.
We pointed out that according to the principal's own version of events, the most our son could be blamed for was damaging private property, a charge not even listed on the sheet.
"He lied. He denied taking them," the principal fired back. "Can you blame him?" We exclaimed in unison. "He was terrified." We explained that the glasses had accidentally broken and our son had panicked. "When the CEO of Enron lies, he is offered First Amendment protection," my son's father, a reserved Englishman, said with rare vehemence. "But when a child denies his guilt, he doesn't get Miranda rights?"
The principal explained that she wanted to make an example of our son for the benefit of the substitute teacher, whom she was hoping to impress. Therefore, she had given the substitute the option of reporting the "theft" to the police.
It was clear that in the principal's world, our children existed to serve the teachers, and not vice versa. We asked for a hearing to establish the facts. We begged to speak to the substitute, but were told no one knew how to contact him.
An internal investigation had already been conducted, we were told. The notice was proof that our son had been judged, condemned and read his sentence.
When I arrived at work that afternoon, a colleague with children said, "School is the only place where the due process of the law doesn't apply. If administrators decide to make an example of your child, they can unilaterally do whatever they want. Even in the military, suspects have more rights."
I marveled at his perceptiveness, since I had told him only that I had a meeting at school.
The incident is behind us now, but questions remain.
Why do our textbooks tell our children that a person is innocent until proven guilty? That a person accused of a crime has the right to a defense? At school, in real situations, they learn the opposite.
Do our schools criminalize children unnecessarily? Does that lead some to such distrust of the world and loss of self-esteem that suspicion of misbehavior and even crime become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
I came away with a new lesson from my son's suspension: In the world of schools, children may get harsh instruction in life. A vulnerable individual -- in this case a child -- may become a pawn in the games of those who are more powerful. The child could learn he's presumed guilty, with little chance to prove he is innocent.
PNS contributor Sarita Sarvate (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a physicist and a writer for India Currents and other publications.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, I sent my children to school as usual. I hadn't realized yet that this was the day their world was to change forever.
But when my son came home from school that afternoon, he said, "Mom, I told everyone at school that I am an Indian, not a Pakistani."
In that moment, the tragedy of the terrorist attacks hit me in my guts.
For here was my son, who had always identified with white culture because of his white father, now worried about being identified with terrorists because of his dark skin.
At dinnertime a couple of days after the hijackings, my older son asked, "We have to go to war, mom? Because it is the right thing to do?"
For my sons, war is synonymous with G.I. Joes and computer-simulated explosions. War means wearing cool fatigues, carrying canteens, and making cute poses with guns.
That night, I talked to my children about the Vietnam War, about how young men had fled to Canada and Australia to escape it. I told them that this war could last five, six years, well into their adult lives.
"I don't want you to be drafted, ever," I told them. "No mother wants her sons to be killed."
Tears began to roll down my sons' cheeks.
I will always remember that moment as the one in which my children lost their innocence.
The terrorist attacks are the first large-scale disaster my children have ever witnessed. They do not remember the day of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake because they were far too young; my younger son was born that day. They were also too young to know anything about the Oakland fires or the Gulf War.
If the United States goes into a full-fledged war, it will be the first military conflict my children will witness. And though, like most American wars, this one will be fought on foreign soil, with no imminent danger of the bombing of San Francisco or Oakland, no air raid sirens and underground shelters, and no rationing or nightly blackouts, my children will realize that wars are fought, not on screens, but in real life. They will watch on television as body bags are carried into helicopters, and they will know that death can happen to healthy young men.
I do not yet want to tell my children what war is really like, because, unlike most people born in this country, I have lived in a land where wars have been fought. I remember when India was at war with Pakistan, and college students stood on street corners with buckets of black paint to cover the tops of automobile headlights. I remember having to eat wheat that the Americans fed to the cows. I remember my father telling us that we were safe in Nagpur, because Pakistani bombers didn't have the range to fly across the length of India.
But most of all, I remember being afraid, despite my father's assurances.
Now, my children sense that their world has changed in an instant.
Until now, their conversations about current events have centered on the NASDAQ, a hundred ways to save energy, and George Bush's slips with the English language.
Now, my children want to know how much money I've lost in the stock market -- and I'm afraid to tell them. Now, we discuss U.S. policy in the Middle East, the recent history of Afghanistan, and the roots of terrorism.
Now, they are talking about the Indian man who became the first victim of a hate crime after the terrorist attacks, and wondering if the absence of a turban will save them.
With every plea not to discriminate against students with darker skins, broadcast on the school's PA system, my children are becoming more and more aware of their inferior status in this society.
And what we don't talk about is just as significant as what we do. We don't talk about the possibility that this so-called war might invite more terrorist attacks with more novel methods. We don't discuss the possibility that next time, we might be the ones at ground zero.
My younger son's eyes fill with tears at every mention of the attacks. Unlike us adults, who have been numbed by media images, my children have not yet become desensitized to mass killings.
Until now, they have been enamored of cities and skyscrapers. On the popular computer game SimCity, they have built many imaginary towns with famous landmarks. The World Trade Center is the centerpiece in quite a few of them.
Now, they can't bear to look at them.
My children are still trying to grasp the fact that the hijackers were driven to such a level of desperation and dehumanization that they were willing to commit suicide in order to make a point.
And they are wondering if one day someone will hate them just as much.
Sarita Sarvate is a nuclear physicist and writer for India Currents and other publications.