When Doodling Turns Deadly...

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Apparently, none of the adults at Mellon Middle School have ever heard of art therapy. Becca Johnson, a sixth grader, certainly has: "That's my way of saying I'm angry," she said Tuesday, after the 11-year-old was suspended from her suburban Pittsburgh school for doodling two hangman-style stick figures with arrows stuck through their heads. The names of a teacher and a substitute were scrawled beneath the drawings, and Becca's school contends the sketches represent "a terrorist threat."

It seems that Johnson, an honor student, was really ticked off about getting a D on her vocabulary test. So she made a couple of drawings on the back of the test, expressing her feelings. . . creatively, if you will. That's what she was told to do by her parents, who are understandably miffed about the whole incident. "We've always told her that you can't take your feelings out on your teacher," says Barbara Johnson, Becca's mom, "so write about it or draw it, as a catharsis."

And that would have been that if it hadn't been for one of Becca's classmates, who spotted the drawing and freaked out. Teachers were told, administrators were called in. Suddenly, the normal frustrations of a high-achieving student were hauled out and stuffed under a microscope. Meanwhile, of course, what really bears close examination is the paranoia that leads to this kind of overreaction.

I shudder to think what might have happened to me if anyone had seen some of the doodles I came up with during my time in school. Chemistry class: Doodle of chemistry teacher with little beakers coming out of his head like horns; exploding Bunsen burners in the background. French class: Doodle of French teacher with large baguette in her derriere. Calculus class: Trust me, you don't want to know.

The point is, I channeled my grouchiness over being bored, being worried about prom — heck, about being a teenager — into very bad, not particularly creative art. The drawings weren't very nice, certainly, but they weren't threatening. I never, ever would have dreamed of acting on any of them. (And besides, I didn't know enough about chemistry to successfully blow anything up.)

Granted, I was in school long before Columbine — and while things were not perfect back then, they were a lot simpler, in many ways. Teachers were more worried about students skipping classes than about any one of us whipping out a semi-automatic weapon and gunning down our classmates. Most of the time, just showing up was good enough, and whether you spent the interim time doodling was kind of beside the point.

And really, I don't think things are so different in the post-Columbine world. Kids haven't changed much in the last 10 years, even though the bad eggs seem to get their hands on guns more often. Middle and high school students are no more villainous now than they were back in the 1980s — and they have much better hair now, too.

I know that teachers and principals have a very tough job. And of course they should be on the lookout for signs of violent behavior. But let's keep our hysteria to a dull roar, shall we? Becca Johnson shouldn't be punished for doodling. If anything she should be rewarded for showcasing her pent-up annoyance in such a peaceful and non-destructive manner. Rather than suspend Becca, let's take a moment to give her a round of applause. And it sounds to me like she could also use an art class.