Slow down you crazy child
Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while
Vienna waits for you
-Billy Joel, “Vienna”
Like most kids, I was in a hurry to grow up. Being a grown-up meant getting to do whatever we wanted, right? There were secrets to being an adult and we wanted in on them, pronto! We didn’t want to hear that we weren’t ready for every adult situation. We certainly didn’t want to listen to someone else’s experience or warnings. We were positive that we were prepared.
Some of us waited, while some of us went ahead and did what we could get away with behind our parents' backs. I suspect most of us are guilty of the latter. Still, we had been told don’t do this, it’s a bad idea so our perfidy was not without reservation. Whether we admitted it to our peers or not, sometimes we came to the conclusion that Mom & Dad were right. We weren’t as grown up as we thought. Our decision-making skills were not yet fully developed.
The act of disobeying our parents didn’t make us bad people. It made us kids. That’s what children do, they test boundaries. They question limits. They challenge assertions, all part and parcel of that decision-making process. Our parents did us a great service telling us not to, whether we followed their directions or not. Getting caught meant facing the consequences of your actions.
There is a young man in Michigan who will soon face justice as a murderer, allegedly with the assistance of his parents, who put the gun in his hands and cared not at all about the danger. Lives were extinguished and survivors are scarred emotionally as well as physically. All of us are diminished slightly where human life has no value.
This boy was failed by the very people who should have had his best interests at heart. We are not talking about a rite of passage, for a teen to go deer hunting with an uncle or target shooting with Mom. We are talking about criminal acts, acts that began with adults buying a child a gun in violation of every law on the books. Unfortunately, long before he was armed he had already been introduced to a flawed value system. That is where I see the greatest failure.
I am reminded of an afternoon when I was eleven years old. It was summertime and my parents had sent my brother and me to spend a couple of weeks with our grandparents and cousins in Kentucky. We were a very religious family and I often sang for the church congregation with my brother. One Sunday, unbeknownst to me, after the morning worship service, about a dozen of us left the church and traveled to the city jail where a service was held for those behind bars. I remember it being dark in the cells. I remember some of the men disappearing into the shadows in back so they could not be easily seen. The general din subsided as we filed in wearing our Sunday best. I kept my back to the wall in the narrow hallway. I was scared.
There were still dozens of men who stood or sat as the preacher told them about the way of salvation and a forgiving God who is a redeemer. When he finished, he introduced my brother and I, telling the inmates that we were going to sing a song. Grandma volunteered us for such duties often, though never under those circumstances. I don’t remember what we sang.
I tried to find something to concentrate on as I mechanically recited lyrics. The bars were multi-colored from being scratched and re-painted so many times. A gray-haired inmate sat on a bench behind a metal table watching and listening intently. When I looked into his eyes, he looked down at the metal table. I did too.
The table was just like the bars, coated with layers and layers of paint scarred by decades of graffiti. At the corner of the table, the one closest to me, someone had scratched “FUCK” into the paint. Of course, my nine year-old brother and I knew that it was a bad word. The gray-haired inmate noticed that I had noticed. He deftly grabbed some playing cards that sat in front of him and placed the deck on top of the offending word.
Soon the song and the visit was over. Yet 46 years later I still remember that moment, that small kindness. Here was a man who was likely guilty of making some poor decisions of his own, yet he cared enough about other human beings, two children he would never see again, to let them be children a little longer. To this day, even in my fiction, you won’t find any F-bombs.
500 miles north of that Kentucky jail, a fifteen year-old sits in a cell. He won’t be attending the prom next year. He won’t get the chance to re-invent himself in college and become the person he would have otherwise. His parents cashed in his ticket to adulthood and now he’ll ride into his future in a paddy wagon. He became a vilified monster with their assistance. He may be years into a long sentence before he truly realizes what he has done.
Blame the school, law enforcement or society in general, but each of those institutions are made up of parents making decisions for their children every day. Our poisoned world will not recover as long as we have parents lacking the basic decency of that long-ago Kentucky inmate.