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Starting Point

Asking violence to justify myth that it takes care of things


As the news from Littleton, Colo., broke, I was preparing a party for a dozen 14-year-olds on spring break. My older son was instant messaging me: “Keep an eye on them.”

He wanted me to keep his twin brother and sister safe. I know I can’t. The parents in Kosovo and the Bronx can’t either: Violence wins battles it should never even be allowed to have. We let it. And we cannot let it. We can withdraw permission from the myth that violence solves things. It doesn’t. It only destroys things.

Between tears and 16-year-old paternalizing of 14-year-olds, I picked up the smelly sneakers other mothers won’t be able to bear to even see. I folded the laundry, probably the same brands the parents of the dead teens were asked to describe to law enforcement officers so that their children could be properly identified.

More news on the radio. The commandos hated “jocks.” They didn’t want to be treated badly by anyone anymore. These kids in my fragile care were not all jocks but they were dropping the words “nerd” and “geek” with dangerous impunity.

They were also playing video games, playing records while making fun of my musical taste, singing, dancing and banging out “Heart and Soul” on the piano, badly, while E-mailing their absent friends, all at the same time. Some were just jumping up and down for no good reason. Janis Joplin was crooning about freedom being “nothing left to lose” just before outdoor flashlight tag began.

Then someone got out an $8 pouch of hair dye, alias peroxide. Some of the kids called their parents for permission. One parent said, no, don’t do it, and if you do, dye only the top ring. You’re getting a hair cut soon. Thus, Jeff now has a spiral. Officially the parents are opposed; unofficially, we know how helpless we are.

I had asked my daughter what she expected from me for the evening. “Just walk through every now and then, smiling, don’t talk and then leave.” I was thinking of posting a guard at the door, but apparently she wanted much less.

Between real and imagined dramas, I fought with my daughter about details, probably the same details a parent fought with a daughter about on the way out of the door this morning. No boy-girl sleepovers. Period. That’s the end.

“Do the kids know about Colorado?” I whispered during a soda replacement visit to the kitchen. She said, yes, of course. We’ve all known all afternoon. “Are people going to be upset, will they want to talk?” She gave me that now familiar look that says I am from Mars: “No, Mom, we are having a party. We don’t have to worry about that now.”

They worry by appointment. My older son works out an hour a day. I finally found out why. “So no one can take me on the street.” He lives in a part of the world that is as safe as Littleton used to be. But he knows about danger.

Like many of his peers, he wants to act in his own movie. He plays those violent games that I pay for and that bring military training into my household. I, a draft protester, now pay for the training he receives. Violence and strength solve problems, according to this 16-year-old’s world-view, for at least a few minutes at a time.

Then we have to go back to school, walk the corridors where the smell of gun smoke still lingers, an awful lot like the Old West. My son probably won’t use a Tech DC9 to express himself -- but then those parents didn’t think their kids would either. But he will salute the dominant myth: Violence is good. It takes care of things.

This morning there are bodies all over my house. Six girls. They giggled till after 2 a.m. when I quit protecting them from no real danger. These bodies will wake up. Others will not.

The end of sleepovers has come for a dozen or more kids. The end of parental battles. The end of sneaker debris. And someone is going to have to say why. Someone is going to have to ask violence to justify its perennial lure, nonviolently. Then maybe the kids will have a chance for safety, tag and dyed hair. Otherwise, they don’t.

Donna Schaper writes from Amherst, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999