Remember, the children are watching

Published 11:02 pm Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The teens and young adults in the Youth Build Program probably haven’t had the best adult role models in their lives.

It stands to reason that some of them were likely raised in single-parent homes where anger management and respect may not have been core values.

These young people were beginning to file into the City Council Chambers Tuesday morning when things got heated between Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux Mathis and City Engineer David Gardner in the next room.

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The Youth Build participants — all high school dropouts — were coming to the Natchez Board of Aldermen meeting because Natchez Festival of Music organizers and at least a few aldermen don’t want the program in a city-owned building anymore. Discussion of the program was on the city’s meeting agenda for a bit later.

But a different show had already begun in the adjoining room, with the door wide open.

Mathis and Gardner were debating funding for drainage when anger management and respect flew out the window.

Mathis reportedly began talking about race, indirectly accusing Gardner of catering to the white population.

Things got hot and Mathis told Gardner she’d like to find a new city engineer. Gardner told Mathis to go ahead.

Gardner gathered his things and exited the meeting.

And Alderman Ricky Gray clapped.

Two years ago to the day, approximately 150 people filled the sanctuary at Ebenezer Baptist Church to discuss a rumor than Robert Lewis Middle School interim Principal Larry Hooper had been asked to resign.

The days before the meeting were filled with tension. Students at RLMS had rioted, throwing water balloons and running from the school one morning.

The church sanctuary crowd included many students — RLMS age and younger — that Saturday night.

The adults in the room had some public discussion about whether the children should stay or not, ultimately deciding to leave it up to individual parents. I don’t remember seeing any children exit.

What happened in the minutes, maybe hours, after that is unknown to me. I, the reporter covering the event for this newspaper, was asked to leave only moments after the children were allowed to stay.

I’d been invited to come by one of the organizers, but I wasn’t asked to leave with the same such courtesy.

Instead, the group publicly and loudly asked me to stand and exit.

A round of applause followed my departure.

Anger and humiliation over the way I’d been treated boiled inside of me as I walked to my car.

But soon, my only worry was for the children in the room and the lesson they had just learned.

It’s OK to be disrespectful to an adult, their clapping had said. It’s fine to be rude.

Ricky Gray said after Tuesday’s meeting that he wasn’t clapping at Gardner’s departure at all. He was reacting to a text message he’d received.

Mathis said she’d not intended for Gardner to be replaced. She was only asking for a second opinion.

But our reporters in the room didn’t know that, and neither did the Youth Build participants who could have easily heard the debacle. We have to remember that perception is everything.

What example are we setting for our children? They aren’t likely to understand the politics and adult ways behind screaming matches.

Does respect matter anymore?

Should we even be reading text messages during a city meeting?

Young eyes see. Young ears hear. And young people absorb every nasty lesson adults inadvertently teach them.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or