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Your Turn, NH -- Tom Dunn: When a rite of passage goes online

June 01. 2014 9:58PM

THROUGH THE AGES, up until eight or nine years ago, teens, especially those who make it to the final semester of their senior year in high school, have taken risks. You can call it a rite of passage, senior fever or kids being kids.  Now, with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., you can also call it adult panic time.

My son is graduating in a few weeks with decent enough grades to get accepted into three different colleges. He has an interest in sports and theater that has left him well balanced (if that phrase still applies to seniors). He also became the unnamed subject of an emailed alert sent by the principal to every computer in the district at the start of last month.

The email was to alert people to a new threat to teens in our very rural district in New Hampshire. According to “numerous” posts on Facebook that the administration had become aware of, students from the school were doing the Polar Plunge. We’re a ways from the ocean, so this wasn’t a New Year’s Day type of group plunge. It was a jump from an old covered bridge into the meandering river that went through the center of town.

This same river had been frozen all winter, and when the ice started to drift down the river the kids, seniors in particular, had begun jumping — without “…any trained medical personnel in attendance.” What’s worse, as they prepared to jump they called out the names of five other seniors and challenged them to jump, “not caring if those other seniors knew how to swim or would have adverse reactions to the cold.”

When I finally caught my son for four or five uninterrupted minutes, I asked him about this. He admitted he knew about it and had, in fact, been called out by several friends. I expressed my concern, and he kind of rolled his eyes and said the new principal was too cool to do this on his own and must have gotten pressure from higher ups.

The next day I got an email just before I went to a meeting of one of the groups I’m a member of in our town. It was from my son. He was doing the plunge and calling out his buddies. I gritted my teeth, relieved he had included me in the post, but afraid to watch. There is a small marshy area in back of the school, and there was my son, shirtless, in the middle of the ankle-deep water, smearing greenish goo all over his head and chest. From the laughter on the post it sounded like half the senior class was watching.

I shared this with some of the distinguished and elderly natives of town who were at the meeting, some of whom had seen the principal’s alert.  This led into a wonderful discussion of how many students over the 300 years of our community’s existence had taken the plunge. No one could remember anyone ever getting hurt, although a retired official did remember with a chuckle two kids who had plunged too early in the season (it was after a particularly long winter like this one) and ended up on a piece of ice that floated over to the next town before they could get rescued.

The one thing they all agreed on was that up until just a few years ago adults and even most of the rest of the students didn’t know about that year’s jump. In the hundreds of years before social media, this was one of those activities that only the kids knew about. One woman smiled as she told about her class president working the names of all who had taken the plunge that year into his graduation speech. He turned their version of the plunge into a slightly stretched metaphor for spring, graduation and even life. The only reason she remembered the speech after all these years was because she had married the guy.

My son did admit that not every plunge was in ankle-deep water and that some kids were afraid of jumping into the river or just didn’t do it because it was too cold (he was in that group). But he also said, “Give us the benefit of the doubt, Dad. The principal and everyone have to just relax — we’re not stupid. And besides, in three more weeks they won’t be able to send anymore alerts out about our class.”

Tom Dunn lives in Henniker.

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