Troubled youths require more than flights of fancy

Glenn McNatt

November 06, 1990|By Glenn McNatt

THERE IS a scene in Richard Wright's famous novel, "Native Son," in which the protagonist, a poor black boy named Bigger Thomas, happens to look up at the sky just as an airplane is passing over the Southside Chicago neighborhood where he and his family live. For an instant, Bigger idly imagines himself at the plane's controls -- a thought that conjures up a sudden, vivid sensation offreedom and power.

Then the plane passes and Bigger and his friends return to the matter at hand, a liquor store robbery in the planning.

In the great sweep of the novel, the scene is but a momentary pause in Bigger's headlong rush toward self-destruction, a freeze-frame in which all the unrealized possibilities of his tragic young life are crystallized in a single striking image. How well Wright understood the link between the frustration and anger of ghetto life -- a frustration that too often erupts in violence -- and the dream of mastery and control universally symbolized by the freedom of a bird in flight.

I thought of Wright's character last week while talking with a group of Westinghouse employees who volunteer their time to serve as mentors to troubled youngsters in the "Maryland's Tomorrow" program, an effort inspired in part by the tireless energies of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. (I will report more fully on that conversation in an upcoming column).

What piqued my interest was a remark by one of the volunteers, Senior Technical Writer Henry Davison, that Maryland probably could solve most of the problems it now faces in such areas as school drop-outs, teen drug use and adolescent pregnancy if only there were some sort of program aimed at teaching disadvantaged youngsters to fly.

Flying, Davison pointed out, involves mastery of a wide variety of competencies, from science and mathematics to language, law and history. If self-esteem can be taught at all, involvement in aviation can teach it. You can't show a student how to fly without also imparting basic values of self-discipline, hard work and perseverance. Young people exhibit a natural enthusiasm for the task, a self-motivating desire to learn that can completely turn around the indifferent attitude they bring to schoolwork.

The problem, of course, is that flying is expensive. Davis, a certified flight instructor in both fixed wing airplanes and helicopters, readily admitted that the price tag on such a program likely would be prohibitive. "I wouldn't want to even speculate on how much a program like that would cost," he said.

Neither would I, yet I still believe something like Davison's idea ought to be seriously considered. Yes, I know: Both state and local governments are strapped for cash these days; yes, there is a tax revolt brewing that has lawmakers scrambling to demonstrate fiscal responsibility; and yes, this is no time for pie-in-the sky projects at a time when the both the local and national economies may be headed toward recession.

But consider this: What is the price we pay for not reaching out to those thousands of kids who will drop out or experiment with drugs or get pregnant or commit crimes over the coming decade -- kids who might have turned their lives around if someone had offered them the chance to fly? How much more do we ultimately pay for failing to catch the thousands of potential Bigger Thomases before it is too late?

Yes, it would be expensive to create a flight training program for troubled youngsters across the state. But it's also expensive letting those youngsters grow up with their troubles left unattended.

We are currently spending roughly $30,000 to keep one inmate in a state prison cell for one year -- more than the cost of sending that same youngster to Harvard. We spend roughly $1,000 to maintain prisoner at the City Jail for one month. It costs money to hold people in the precinct lock-up overnight.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. What about the thousands spent on bringing those cases to trial? What bout the millions lost due to the crimes commited by the people who are eventually brought to trial and locked up at state expense? What about the hundreds of millions in lost revenues from all the people who are locked up and therefore not working or owning homes and thus not remitting the income and property taxes that pay for police and prosecutors and prison cells?

When you consider all that waste of talent and potential, measured solely in terms of the dollar amount spent on our current criminal justice system, can you still honestly say it wouldn't be cheaper just to teach poor kids to fly?

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