Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Hidden Dangers of "Yes"

For the sixth straight year, Penn State students have persisted in participating in what they call “State Patty’s Day,” an event organized on social media outlets, the sole purpose of which is to provide an excuse for people to wander aimlessly around town for 36 hours straight in a drunken stupor so profound that they appear too brainless and purposeless to even qualify as extras on The Walking Dead.  No, I take that back.  It does appear to have one other purpose: to ensure that photographs of people wandering the streets half-dressed and with fewer functioning brain cells than a pureed carrot can survive in perpetuity on the internet for not only future employers, but future grandchildren, to find.

No, I’m not a fan of this event.  And no, it’s not a “holiday.” Stop calling it that.

Funny thing is, I don’t think many of my students are fans anymore, either.  Last year in a very long, very candid conversation with my graduating seniors, I heard many of them say over and over that the majority of the people who were drunk all day, wandering out into traffic, driving the wrong way on one way streets, and generally causing mayhem, were not PSU students but people from out of town.  The arrest records and emergency response reports bear this out.  My response to them was that not one hotel was booked up that weekend (yes, I really did check), so these people who were coming from out of town were staying somewhere.  That “somewhere” was with people who go to school here.  Over and over again people told me stories of coming home to find 6-7 guests in their apartments, some people they didn’t know.  I suggested that they were the ones with the keys; they could always say no.  My students looked at me in horror.  “Well, that would be kinda rude, wouldn’t it?” one normally very bright young woman asked me.  Rude?  Someone you don’t know is crashing in your apartment without your consent, after coming here uninvited and spending the whole weekend drunk and disorderly?  I think “No, you can’t sleep in the apartment I pay rent for” is the only reasonable, sane response.

This year, in the midst of my yearly pathetic attempt to convince them why participating in this insanity is a bad idea (particularly this year), I heard more than one student complain that out of town guests had invited themselves for the weekend.  My students felt compelled not only to allow these people in their apartments, but to make accommodations for them (being home at a certain time to let them in, making bedding available, and even granting specific food requests).  The comments I heard were all variations on the same theme: “This is just a hassle. I wish it would go away.”  I was dumbfounded.  I suggested to one young woman that she could just tell these people that it’s a VERY bad time for this and they should not expect to come and stay with her.  Then she was dumbfounded.  “I don’t want to be rude and say no.”

That’s when it struck me.  My students were very uncomfortable saying know, even to unreasonable requests from acquaintances, because they didn’t know how to say no.  They had no model for it because they had heard it so seldom themselves.

No one likes to say no.  It’s human nature to want to please other people and accommodate requests, but those of us who did not grow up in the “everyone plays, everyone wins” era at least have some model for saying and hearing no.  We’ve been told no by parents, teachers, coaches, and directors and survived it.  We’ve learned to understand that “no” isn’t fatal and doesn’t have to be mean.  By always telling our kids “yes,” we’ve robbed them of that model.  By always giving them what they want, whether it’s the lead in the play, a place on the team, or a car, we’ve taught them not only that hearing “no” is bad, but that saying “no” is worse.  If no one has ever told them no, it must be really, really terrible.  If their parents and teachers avoided it, they probably should, too.

I’m not suggesting that being able to say no to their friends would prevent any of the bad behavior that goes on here during this annual event, but it might allow them to let it die the natural death it should have fallen to years ago. Then again, if they had heard "no" more often earlier in life, the whole spectacle of walking around drunk, throwing trash and urinating in people's yards, and stumbling out into traffic, and then demanding shelter from people you hardly know might have struck them from the start as the bad idea it truly is.

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