As a journalist, I was trained to question authority. Actually, I came by questioning authority pretty instinctively and for me, the training was more about when to use commas. I still struggle with those little buggers, but I remember the rule is this: "Use a comma when you want the reader to pause and take a breath."
I'd like to suggest we apply the comma rule to a situation in my children's school right now. Three Malibu Middle School teachers were diagnosed with thyroid cancer in a six-month period and 21 teachers sent a letter to the school district asking it to investigate whether those cancers and other health concerns -- migraines and skin rashes -- were caused by environmental conditions at the campus. The school district responded by doing precisely that -- hiring an environmental testing firm and, at the request of some parents, removed students and teachers from one Middle School building. My 7th grade son had three of his classes switched to other buildings.
For parents still uneasy, the district has arranged a temporary independent study program until the testing is done.
The district superintendent held a town-hall style meeting where hundreds of parents and almost as many news reporters and TV crews showed up. But hey, this is Malibu and when Malibu sneezes, the media records it.
Pretty much to a person, the parents at the meeting shared their fears and worries. I wouldn't call it an angry mob mentality or anything close, and I actually found it pretty informative. At one point, a parent asked for a show of hands of those with children who experience migraines and dozens of hands shot up. Safe to say, there was certainly no shortage of people questioning authority there.
But I did have a disconnect: There also wasn't a single comma present. One after one, parents demanded answers to questions that can't yet be answered. The testing is underway and only time will tell if my lack of panic is spot on or misguided.
There are some truths, however, that I do know: Nobody -- least of all our kids -- benefits when the tone of the discussion becomes hysterical. And I fear it has.
We all strive to be the best parents possible. And when confronted with information that is so unsettling and discomforting as this is involving our children, many people feel they must take action -- any kind of action. Waiting, well waiting is hard.
I think that as grownups, we have to acknowledge that some problems take time to diagnose and additional time to solve. I choose to wait to see what the test results show and then see what I think needs to be done as a response. There is no additional danger today or tomorrow in my kids' school unless -- to steal a great line from a friend -- you count getting run over by a news van or breathing aerosol from their hairspray fumes.
And I suspect that that sentence, along with the rest of us, would benefit from a few commas.
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