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48 JANUARY 2003
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from the soapbox

“These kids never had a chance to be productive” ... and a new take on technology

Karen vanderVen

Many, too many, moons ago I was an “Occupational Therapy Aide" at the New Jersey State Hospital in Trenton. There was a children's unit in this otherwise adult huge psychiatric facility, because there was nowhere else to send the state’s most disturbed young people. There was one opportunity the children had to leave their ward – to come down to the basement where I had my “OT shop" . This was actually decently furnished with carpentry tools and a wide array of craft and construction materials.

I was their entire “program". This was probably why these impulsive adolescent boys accepted my continued requirements for them to re-saw a crooked edge, to sand a piece of wood just a little more, to pull out and replace the hammered nail that bent over, to smooth out lumps of paint, to make sure the shellac covered the entire surface. Even this beat lying around upstairs doing nothing.

As the months went by, they developed some skills and their projects – the usual tie racks, bird houses, ashtrays, jewelry boxes, cutting boards – eft the shop complete and in quite presentable form. I was perturbed however, when I heard they were selling them to their unit attendants. “I hoped they would keep them or take them home", I commented to my supervisor who directed the “OT" department. “ Why"? snapped Miss Huebner, taking me aback. “If somebody wants to buy something they've made wouldn’t you think that’s good? These kids never had a chance to be productive!" As much as any of the wonderful advice I received from my supervisors and mentors in those days, I took this to heart.

While holiday time tends to encourage a person to recall old memories, this recollection was brought forth by today’s (December 19) issue of the New York Times. First I saw a squib about video games – a contemporary phenomenon and youth occupation that certainly makes us “activity freaks" – as Al Trieschman would have called us – uncomfortable. The writer pointed out that new medical findings that violent games lead to brain desensitization, and with heavy use, predispose to actual violence. So video games, when violent and overused, seem like one aspect of technology that is not healthy for our youth.

Then I came upon an article describing how Mississippi, among the poorest states in country, could not afford to place internet connected computers in many of its classrooms. So a special program was set up to teach computer engineering in various schools with a mission to build 6,000 computers and have an online computer in every classroom by the end of the year. Who would build these computers? High school students. There is a photograph of a huge room filled with computer skeletons and components; and industrious youth, males and females, bent over them with tiny tools in hand. Wow! I thought. What a marvelous idea. The schools get their computers, and the students acquire marketable skills. But they also got something not directly quantifiable – the sense of becoming knowledgeable and competent in a useful area of endeavor, of being a part of something larger than oneself, and the kind of real self esteem that comes only from having accomplished something and having that accomplishment reflected back from the external world.

The moral of this Soapbox column? Certainly why I continue to love activities – because they make us productive. And why I always importune my students to read the major newspapers – especially the New York Times – if they really want to know what’s going on in the world that pertains to children and youth. Finally, the value of old memories and teachings. Technology may indeed change and change us, but some things – the meaning of being productive if we know how to provide the opportunities – will always be so.

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