McCallie Blog

Tom Sawyer’s “Old Scratch”

Posted by Billy Faires on September 10, 2010

What would life be like for Tom Sawyer in the 21st Century?

The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum diagnoses Tom Sawyer with a number of modern psychological difficulties, including Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Conduct Disorder (CD), and cites scenes and descriptions from Mark Twain's book for support.

Her point is not to condemn our modern labels, but rather to acknowledge the change in understanding and approach to education and how we view boys.

"A certain kind of boy has always had trouble paying attention in school," she writes. "A certain kind of boy has always picked fights with friends, gone smoking in the woods and floated down the river on rafts."

"The very qualities that made (Tom Sawyer) so tiresome -- curiosity, hyperactivity, recklessness -- are precisely the ones that get him the girl, win him the treasure and make him a hero..." -- Anne Applebaum

While the adolescent male's rash and rebellious tendencies haven't much changed since the time of Samuel Clemens, societal resopnse to them decidedly has. Whereas Aunt Polly merely accused Tom of being saddled with "Old Scratch" and threw up her hands, modern parenting looks to medical professionals, because diagnosis and medication is the best and seemingly only bet:

In 19th-century Missouri, there were still many opportunities for impulsive kids who were bored and fidgety in school: The very qualities that made him so tiresome -- curiosity, hyperactivity, recklessness -- are precisely the ones that get him the girl, win him the treasure and make him a hero...

Nothing like that is available to children who don't fit in today. Instead of striking out into the wilderness like Huck Finn, they get sent to psychologists and prescribed medication -- if they are lucky enough to have parents who can afford that sort of thing. Every effort will rightly be made to help them pay attention, listen to the teacher, stop picking fights in the playground. Nowadays, there aren't any other options.

ADHD and these other "Tom Sawyer ailments" affect boys in far greater numbers than girls. While not exclusively so, this is a Boy Problem.

It only stands to reason that a school focused specifically on boys, that has decade after decade constantly attended to the specific problems and often-specific challenges boys face -- energy, risk-taking, delayed maturation, ADHD, just for examples -- would be a dramatically better learning environment for them.

Topics: anne applebaum, boys, washington post, education, learning difficulties, Posts from the Ridge