Eli Motycka on kids these days.
Devious Licks, a TikTok trend, is breaking schools. The trend depends on breaking your school literally: rip a soap dispenser off the wall (popular), forcibly uninstall a urinal divider from its brackets, or snag a stapler off the teacher’s desk. Special prizes for essential infrastructure like linoleum room signs and fire extinguishers. These Licks can be devious, diabolical, demonic, and despicable.
Administrators have responded by ratcheting up surveillance and policing, preparing for what they believe to be a year’s worth of chaos. One post shared in teachers’ Facebook groups without attribution is now being reported by local news as fact. It warns teachers to stick together and prepare for a year of month-to-month antics: October (“smack a staff member on the backside”), November (“kiss your friend’s girlfriend at school”), December (“deck the halls and show your b*** in school halls”), and on.
At a local public middle school in Nashville, where I live, faculty sent around a memo calling for an all-hands-on-deck implementation of its Devious Licks response plan. The plan’s key tenets—timestamp bathroom visits, incentivize students to snitch on each other, secure valuables (desirable Licks)—is itself an acceleration of behaviorist classroom management strategies that rely on hard metrics to monitor and evaluate students.
Behaviorist classroom management is inseparable from the charter school boom, which has allowed deep-pocketed funders, boosted by non-profits like Teach for America, to run large-scale disciplinary experiments on working class children of color and first-generation immigrants. Mainstream media made a big deal in 2019 of attention-monitoring headset tech in China, but US charters have normalized plenty of their own minute-by-minute metrics and discipline based in negative reinforcement. For students who grew up in these classrooms, Devious Licks might be a simple Fuck You.
“This generation does not give you respect unless you earn it,” Becca Blank told me. Blank is a social worker and translator at the same Nashville middle school and previously a TFAer in a Houston charter. A vast majority of public school teachers are white women communicating in the classroom across racial, class, and gender identities, increasingly competing with phones for attention and with social media for authority.
According to Blank, phones were already in classrooms early in the 2010s. No-phone and phone-reduction efforts are inconsistently applied across districts and schools, difficult to enforce, and largely ineffective. At her school, the principal gave every classroom a lockbox at the beginning of the year. Teachers were supposed to encouraged voluntary phone surrender. “There’s no time for that. And once one kids says no, everyone says no. There’s no point,” said Blank.
At the tail end of high school, my friends and I took great joy from participating in the trends of the day. We planked on public sidewalks. We coned so often that our local McDonald’s stopped selling vanilla ice cream cones through the drive-thru. But when the principal ended our normal midweek assembly with the Harlem Shake, immediately it ceased to be ours.
A trend can offer the existential meaning that comes with large-scale participation. It can build identity, especially within a generation. But Devious Licks is no Ice Bucket Challenge.
There is not an easy way to deal with a trend that is plainly destructive, but there are a few obvious lessons. Example is instruction; and reaction is content. — By Eli Motycka