Come on, kids, show some respect

It's known in Louisiana as the Aretha Franklin law: all it asks for is a little respect. Yes, starting next month, schoolkids aged from four to 11 will literally be breaking the law in Louisiana if they do not always defer politely to their teachers or other school employees as "ma'am" or "sir". What is now known as the "Respect Law" - its real, much-less-dramatic name is Measure SB1098 - came into effect last month but will receive its first test on 7 September, when the kids go back to school. A spokesman for the unusually idiotic Republican in charge there, Governor Mike Foster, explained enthusiastically that Louisiana is trying to show the world that schools can teach what parents fail to inculcate in their kids at home: good manners.

His new law has no chance of success. For a start, the law does not specify what the punishment will be for miscreants: that is left up to the individual school. Other states, such as Arkansas and Georgia, have tried to make mandatory "character education" that teaches "honesty, fairness and respect for others" but have failed miserably. Optimistically, Louisiana none the less plans to add a new school year's intake until 2006 - when pupils up to the age of 18 or even 19 will be required to address their teachers with such exquisite politeness.

But the second reason why the law will fall speedily into disuse has far more to do with the human psyche and how it so often fails to conform to expectations - in this case among both pupils and teachers.

Back in what seem the dark days, at the late (lamented? I'm not sure) Luton Grammar School, we were expected to address teachers as "sir" (there weren't any women then). There was a particularly troublesome boy in my class called Houghton, who managed, without fail, to get under the skin of a flustered young maths teacher called Mr Dupont. The way in which Houghton most enraged Mr Dupont was to refer to him with a ridiculously fake, militaristic, loud "sir!" every time he had to respond to any question. I still recall one exchange word for word:

"Houghton, stop calling me 'sir' like that."

"Sir!"

"Houghton, I'm giving you a detention for that."

"Sir!"

"Houghton, that's two detentions."

"Sir!"

"A Saturday detention, too, now, Houghton!"

"Sir!"

"Houghton, go to the headmaster's study!"

"Sir!"

By this stage, naturally, the class was in uproar. Houghton knew full well that he was making a fool of the teacher and was being anarchically cheered on by the rest of the class as a result. Poor Mr Dupont had lost control; what made it all the worse for him was that it must already have been dawning on him that the headmaster could not possibly punish Houghton for calling a teacher "sir", even if it was said with the insolence so obvious to both Mr Dupont and the rest of us. I foresee numerous such entertaining battles looming in Louisiana classrooms from next month.

Less amusing, though, is the fascistic tinge of the new law. A strange characteristic I've detected in America is that when something bad happens, the country moves into panic mode and over-reacts (prohibition and McCarthyism being just two historical examples). It's a typical American response to a social problem, too, to try to find remedies along the judicial or legal path. The "Respect Law" is just one of many semi-hysterical answers to the many "what on earth is happening to our youth?" questions that followed last April's school shootings in Colorado.

Schools throughout the country have now introduced entirely unnecessary gun checks on harmless schoolkids, like the magnetometers you pass through at airports. Others are now taking hair samples to test pupils for drugs. In New Jersey, the female Republican governor has decreed that a teenage girl can't have an abortion without her parents being told. In supposedly liberal Massachusetts, state law now requires educational establishments to inform parents if their children under 21 are spotted - wait for it - drinking.

Like prohibition, naturally, all such laws will prove counterproductive - encouraging kids to drink, take drugs, be disrespectful, even to carry guns. In her new book Respect, a Southern black woman Harvard professor named Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot points out that the knee-jerk assumption that respect is "obedience . . . submission to some higher authority that has more status, knowledge and skills" is downright wrong. Real respect, she says, "is a much more complex experience of empathy, trust and connection [that] grows in relationship and has to be nourished every day". The tragedy is that, in a sense, twits such as Governor Foster are right: such qualities can only be nurtured by those adults closest to kids, but certainly not by schoolteachers who often don't even know their pupils' names.

I don't know what ever happened to Houghton - possibly he's still in Luton and now a responsible dad, heavily disciplining his own kids. But I'm sure he and Mr Dupont would now be in agreement over one thing: that respect is something that, by definition, is legally unenforceable. Mr Dupont lost the respect he so desperately wanted from his class of 13-year-olds precisely because he clearly needed it so much; Houghton, for the same reason, mercilessly exploited that Achilles heel and drove poor Mr Dupont halfway round the bend.

Sorry, Louisiana, but that's just the way it is.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Gordon Brown, the great feminist