Sunday, March 18, 2001

We've got to be there for The Kid Down the Hall

        We have a routine in the afternoons when I'm home. The Kid Down The Hall arrives from school. I can hear the thuds of his feet from my office upstairs.

        Boys who are nearly 15 are physically incapable of doing anything quietly. It is not an age of grace.

        He walks in, drops his backpack from his shoulder five and a half feet up, a sign that he is here and ready to converse. I pretend to be working, then pretend to be surprised he's in the room. It's 2:55. Every day.

        “Hey,” I say.

        “Hey,” he says.

        “What's new?”


        “Good day?”


        “Do anything interesting?”


        I ask him about homework and grades and girls. It is not philosophical discourse. He grunts some answers and thuds from the room.

        It means nothing. And everything.

        When the 15-year-old Andy Williams was charged with murdering two of his classmates, he stood alone in the courtroom, but for the lawyer he'd just met. His father wasn't there. No relatives were present. His mother, divorced from his dad, was at home in South Carolina. “Lost,” was the descriptive word she applied to her son.

        I see children killing children — Paducah and Columbine and Santee — and I wonder if their parents talked to them. Took an interest in them. Observed them.

        There is a randomness to the reasons given for these tragedies, an across-the-board blame that suggests no one really knows: Guns. Television. Music. Bullies. Parents.

        But here's something certain: All these killers, they felt alone.

        The worst thing for a kid in high school is not humiliation or taunting or being dateless at Homecoming. The worst is feeling alone. Peer pressure tells them to conform, to hang with a crowd, to be popular. To belong.

        They need to know that if they can't go anywhere else for that, they can always come home, where belonging is unconditional.

        I didn't see that at Columbine, where the parents of Harris and Klebold were so involved in other things, they didn't notice their sons making bombs in the garage.

        I didn't see it with Andy Williams, whose father, as of Tuesday, had spent exactly 30 minutes with him since the killings.

        I don't dote on my kid. I don't indulge him, or tell him he's great when he's not. If anything, I believe others first when they blame him for something.

        I don't smother him. He's at the age when he needs his own world. But I do notice him.

        I tell him I like him, because he knows the love is unconditional.

        He's not a perfect kid, which is fine. I'm not a perfect dad. We meet somewhere in the dull, normal middle. We work at it.

        Sometimes, The Kid Down The Hall will let loose some deep, dark secret I know really isn't meant for my ears. It's a privilege, knowing he trusts me enough to share it.

        Mostly, though, our conversation is rote: How was your day? Any homework? Mundane things. But god, they seem important now.

        You can put metal detectors in school doorways, you can ban backpacks and make see-through gym bags. You can haul in counselors and experts. You can do all that, and maybe it makes the breathing easier when your kid gets on the bus or in the car on school mornings.

        But talking is good, too. Talking and being there.

       Contact Paul Daugherty at 768-8454; fax: 768-8330.


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