Tag Archives: Parents

Goodbye Hadiya: An Ode to the Lights in our Lives

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Your daughter dreams big.  Why shouldn’t she?  She looks at the future as a wide open sea of possibility, a canvas to be filled with color or left full of open spaces as she sees fit.  She trusts that the future will come and take whatever shape she gives it, so she can live in the present where she belongs—with her friends, their jokes, their music and clothes.  The wonderful things they do together.

Special things happen to your daughter, they make her heart race with excitement, yours swell with pride.  You try not to gush—not to our friends or neighbors, not to the woman behind you at the checkout whose name you can’t remember but whose kids are the same age yours are—but sometimes you can’t help it.  Because, as much as your girl lives in the present, you see her in the full circle of her days: the infant you held, the toddler you chased, even the striking, accomplished woman you know she’ll be.

Sometimes, when you watch her with her friends, or listen to her as she tells you about her day, you find your eyes welling up because it’s going so fast, so magically, beautifully, painfully fast.  You don’t know how it will all turn out, but what an exciting ride—wonders around every corner.

But then, a phone call comes, the phone call you’d never expect, bearing impossible news.  Your girl has been shot.  Yes that’s right.  Your beauty, your sunshine, your light.

And hours later she’s gone.

As she huddled with her friends under a canopy to escape a downpour, you’re told, a man with a gun came running out of nowhere, fired on the group, then jumped into a car and was sped from the scene.  “I’ve been shot,” your daughter said to a friend, who tried to catch her as she fell.  Those were among her last words.

You get the phone call soon after.  You don’t think about statistics; you don’t consider which factors increase or decrease gun violence; you don’t blame the NRA or some negligent mental health professional.  Instead, you stand there in horror as your heart breaks in two.

Hadiya Pendledon, aged 15.  Majorette, Volleyball player, Honor Student, Daughter.

Hadiya Pendledon, aged 15. Majorette, Volleyball player, Honor Student, Daughter.

So … no—it wasn’t your daughter, or mine for that matter.  The fifteen year old murder victim was Hadiya Pendleton, a majorette at the exclusive King College Prep, who had just performed in Washington DC at the presidential inauguration.  She was an honors student and volleyball player who thought of becoming a lawyer, a pharmacist, or possibly going into politics.  Dimples framed her warm, bright smile; her pretty brown eyes glowed optimism.  On NPR, I heard her father say these words: “They took the light from my life.”  I don’t think there is a parent in the world who can’t identify with him.

Since December 14th  in Newtown CT,  when Adam Lanza took twenty-six lights from the lives of their loved ones, about 1,500 people have been killed in gun violence.

It seems so senseless and it is.  The piece I have the hardest time making sense of, is the argument that arming more private citizens would prevent this sort of attack.  We can look at each crime, take apart the pieces and assess: was the perpetrator insane? (was he in therapy and can we then blame his therapist?) did he acquire the weapon/weapons legally (or did he swipe it from his mother who had acquired all her guns through legal means), but nothing will change the fact that these gunmen were, are murderers.  Murderers who—regardless of their clinical mental state—had no business wielding firearms of any sort.  Any law that makes it harder for a murderer to commit murder with a gun is all right by me.  Even if it means that I will have to work much harder to get a gun myself, should I want to protect my children from an intruder—or four or five intruders—as fantasized by Gayle Trotter.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) advocates arming educators to prevent such violence.  “I wish to God [Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung] had an M-4 in her office locked up so when she heard gunfire she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands.”   I understand that sentiment; I am sure if I’d been there, I would have wished for this to happen.  But realistically, how good is the average private citizen’s aim—even with “extensive firearm training?  All I know is that police officers (and last I checked, the police receive pretty rigorous training) fire their weapons accurately in time of crisis only 34% of the time.  For private citizens, it’s less than that.

In the movie theater in Aurora, CO, would a private citizen have been able to disarm madman James Homes who opened fire?  (Keep in mind, Homes was wearing protective gear, began shooting in a noisy, darkened theater, after releasing a canister of gas.).  Would the hypothetical armed teacher in Newtown have gotten Lanza (who also wore a bullet proof vest)   on the first try?  Or would she have missed, angered him and exacerbated things. ( Just remember, Lanza had two semi-automatic handguns and an AR-15.)  Statistics generally show that gun violence tends to beget gun violence.  Even guns kept in homes for self protection are far more likely to kill the gun owner or a family member, to go off accidentally or to be used by domestic abusers than in self defense.

Though Hadiya Pendleton’s immediate neighborhood was safe, with little gun violence, she lived in a city which, despite having tough gun laws, is virtually overrun by them.   Chicago’s gun violence has been climbing even while New York’s has fallen.  Hadiya was the 40th person killed by a gun in Chicago this year  Is it that the restrictions are too tough and therefore prevent civilian would-be-stoppers of violent criminals?  Or, is it that there are already so many guns in circulation (many attained outside the city) that anyone inclined to violence can get one without much effort, no matter the laws in place?  I imagine it’s not difficult for law abiding private citizens to get their hands on guns in these circumstances either, though I just can’t see how any armed bystander might have been fast enough to save Hadiya.

In any case, I join the rest of the country in mourning for her, just as I have for the children and adults slain in Newtown and all those lives lost between.

Raising Scout: Why a Little Old-Time Danger is Good for Kids

When my friends and my husband lament the regimented life-style of kids today—the lessons, the arranged play-dates—reminiscing about the freedom of their 1970s rural or suburban childhoods, where “we ran outside, found our friends and played until our mothers yelled at us to come home for dinner,” I just nod, half wishing I’d grown up like that, half glad I didn’t.

Other people’s stories of childhood, the freedom, the excitement that took place beneath the radar of parents, always seem to involve trees, long shadows, mysterious sounds in the dark woods, and secrets whispered about nearby graveyards.  I listen to my sister-in-law’s harrowing tales of dodging snakes in the deep Wisconsin woods, my neighbor’s yarns about impromptu games of street-tag and rescuing her little brother time and time again from the town bully—for me, these stories carry the full mystique of  Harper Lee’s Scout and Gem Finch, braving the Macon County twilight, crouched in the brush outside Boo Radley’s home.  At the heart of all these stories is danger, risk, requiring the grit, the pluck, to make it home alive without adult intervention.  It’s what I loved about To Kill A Mockingbird (racial politics aside), what I love about all stories of children left to their own devices.

Those devices (call them life-skills or street-smarts) are part of growing up for all kids; they need to be developed and honed to achieve true adulthood.  Childhood pluck becomes adult self-reliance, self-efficacy: the idea that I can accomplish this, or, better yet: I have what it takes to get myself out of this mess.   Mastering danger as a kid can lead to adult confidence.  It’s why too much safety—helicopter parenting in a too-sterile environment—can lead to an anxious child.

I grew up in New York City—far from snakes, where trees and their shadows were confined mostly to fenced in parks—the only child of older parents who’d waited a long time to have me and weren’t taking any chances with my safety.  Our apartment complex on West 100th Street—the dividing line of Manhattan’s Upper West Side—had terraces and tennis courts (where the Mayor himself came to hit); a nice laundry room, pretty playgrounds, gardens and a parking lot.  But right across the street were housing projects, where you could always hear loud voices at night, glass breaking, police cars pulling up.  I could hear the sirens from my bedroom window on the seventeenth floor; I knew there was danger: crime, fights, drugs.  There were also children down there, many left largely to their own devices, roaming their own not-so-pretty playground.  No matter how late I got into my nightgown, teeth brushed, book waiting on my pillow, if I looked out of the window, the children from across the street were always still out.  To me they seemed to have it good.  How lucky, I thought, not to have a bed time.

For me, there was a time for everything: lessons each day after school—ballet, gymnastics, and piano—playdates each Friday, more gymnastics on Saturdays, family bike-riding outings on Sundays and dinner at seven each night with both parents.  When nothing was scheduled, I went to my room and played on my own, drew, or—more often than not—worked on the “book” I was writing (I started it in second grade and finished in fifth).  I had a big imagination that kept me company; I was never lonely.  Just sheltered.

Of course there were moments without supervision.  I rode the bus to and from school alone, and made the most of it.  Unbeknownst to my parents, I’d get off the bus several stops after I got on and wait for my friends who were coming from the East Side on the crosstown bus.  Then we’d all get on a later bus together, treating less-than-appreciative commuters to our noisy grade-school banter and antics.

Friday playdates weren’t always supervised either.  By the time my friends and I were in third grade, everyone’s parents let us walk around our various neighborhoods without an adult.  We could go to a playground, or to a grocery store for bubblegum and high bouncing balls, as long as we made sure to walk on the nicer side of the street and avoid anyone who seemed drunk or crazy. (Not always easy in New York City in the ’70s.)

The city wasn’t safe in those days, but child abduction wasn’t on anyone’s radar.   Instead we worried about “maniacs,” treacherously armed vagrants who got lots of press by holing up at various subway stations, taking mostly unsuccessful swipes at riders, but evading the cops with relative ease.[i]  We kids could all identify the best-known maniacs: for example, Plastic Bag Lady (she wore one over her face), who presided over the traffic island on 96th and Broadway; Hatchet Man, who was stationed at the 72nd IRT line.

Muggings were a big concern too.  Everyone knew someone who’d been mugged.  Kids got mugged for their bus-passes and candy cash all the time.  Getting mugged didn’t depend on the neighborhood you were in.  You could get mugged anywhere.  A big topic of conversation among us kids was what to do if muggers caught up with you.  Give them everything, people said, especially if they have knives.  Some parents packed extra money in kids’ backpacks just in case.  Word was, if you had too little cash on you, it could anger the mugger, and you might really get hurt.  The best thing to do, said one of my friends (whose brother had been mugged walking home from his private school on 91st Street) was—anytime you saw anyone suspicious coming at you—just run as fast as you could go and hide in a store, anywhere you could.

My friend, Laura and I used to play this game on our way from school (on 63rd and Central Park West) to her home on 71st Street.  We’d link arms and walk, one of us looking to the right, the other looking to the left; if either of us saw someone unsavory-looking, we would give the watchword: Creep!  And both would run for our lives.

Though our criteria for a creep was pretty broad—it could be a man or woman, of any age or race—our prototype was an aged, white man with a matted, soot-encrusted beard and missing teeth, who had actually approached us one day, offering candy in a dirty, brown paper bag.  We’d screamed and run that day, concluding, once we were safely in Laura’s lobby, that the candy was poisonous, designed to knock us out so he could drag us off to his lair and chop us up into bite-sized pieces.

Laura and I did a lot of screaming and running for our lives, as we made our way along one of the most expensive stretches of real estate in the city.   It was thrilling.  Like Scout, Gem and Dill, running away from Boo Radley’s home in To Kill A Mockingbird.

My own children play Hunger Games with the other kids on our block, running wild through all the connected backyards, forming alliances and hunting one another down, armed with weapons they’ve fashioned out of K’nex.  I (along with the other moms on the block) am wary of this game, based on a bestseller about kids who survive by doing one another in, but I won’t intervene unless asked to.  Growing children have an innate need for such thrills.  They’ll find them anyway, anywhere they can.  Best served with a heaping dose of imagination.

[i] Not being flippant here, just describing my view as a child of the seventies’ mass-deinstitutionalization of severely mentally ill patients.  One devastating result was an explosion in the mentally ill homeless population.