No Hugging Allowed

March 19, 2010

Two years ago, I was waiting in the hallway of a small Portland high school. I was there to interview students and a teacher for a story. As kids milled about in the din between classes, many hugged each other. Some embraces looked like reunions between dear friends who hadn’t seen each other for years. The hugging was so frequent and enthusiastic that I later mentioned it to my wife and a few others.

Drawing conclusions from a distance and without asking questions makes my other observations — or suspicions — suspect. Still, sincerity seemed lacking. At times the hugs appeared to be a new, more intimate way of saying hello. Some encounters struck me as intentionally over the top, contrived to attract attention.

But who am I to interpret the actions, much less motives, of a generation as alien to me as I am to its inhabitants? Maybe kids today enjoy an intensity of personal connection that makes my high school friendships of forty years ago look superficial. And maybe subtlety — the volumes that can be communicated with a brief locking of eyes or sly smile — died a death so quiet that the media never noticed.

I was reminded of the hugging today by a front-page Oregonian story about a Portland middle school banning the practice because it had become disruptive. As the story explains, other schools around the country have imposed bans. Oregonian readers were left to speculate why hugging has become so common and what students think about the ban. If any were interviewed, they weren’t quoted. (A Facebook page on the subject offers many opinions but little insight.)

The big unanswered question is this: if students are caught hugging, will they be told the infraction goes on their permanent record?