In the inner city the issue is mortality

Forum Extra

August 06, 1993|By Larry Wissow

WILLIAM K. Kilpatrick (Other Voices, July 23) told the story of a 15-year-old who bragged about committing a murder. What disturbed Mr. Kilpatrick even more than the crime was the nonchalant reaction of the murderer's classmates. He faulted the nation's schools for "turning out moral illiterates," but he missed a much more important point: The issue for inner-city teens is mortality, not morality.

The classmate Mr. Kilpatrick quoted summed it up nicely: "What's the big bleepin deal?" she asked. "People die all the time. So what?"

Adolescence is usually a time of omnipotence and immortality. Teens typically see death as something that happens only to the elderly or those who do hopelessly stupid things such as drinking and driving too fast. Occasionally a contemporary is struck down by a fatal illness, but these tragedies are rare and not likely to be seen as personal threats. Our inner cities, however, are rewriting the textbooks on adolescent psychological development. Inner-city children know death much more intimately than most adults -- and certainly much more than their suburban, middle-class counterparts.

Awareness of death and mortality is something with which we all wrestle, in different ways at different stages of life. We counter the certainty of death by having hopes and plans for the little bit of immortality we are offered -- our achievements, our friends, the children who will love and remember us. Our main defense is to act as if life goes on forever, a strategy that works until death finds a way to remind us of its presence. At that point we are likely to question suddenly the value of what we have been doing with life, and to wonder why we bother with much of what we do if death will come anyway, perhaps soon.

Poor, black teens in Baltimore and other cities face death on a daily basis. They have a life expectancy shorter than Bangladeshis; they die at a rate higher than any age group except men over 85. Inner-city children are intimately familiar with death and violence. A survey of District of Columbia fifth and sixth graders found that 23 percent had seen a dead body and 30 percent had witnessed a stabbing or shooting.

How do we expect teens to act when they are challenged daily by the specter of their own mortality? Trivializing death is one way of mastering the fear. There is a limit to the mourning, the terror, the vulnerability that one can tolerate. Like soldiers on a battlefield, they come to rationalize the high probability of imminent extinction. Soldiers, at least, have the solace of dying a hero's death.

Mr. Kilpatrick's teens are the victims of a failed morality, but it is not the fault of schools teaching "decision-making" instead of "character values." The morality with which they grapple is one that rationalizes underfinanced schools, deplorable housing and the ready availability of drugs and deadly weapons as the merely unfortunate byproducts of a "just" society. We tell these teens what we think their lives are worth, and then we expect them to be heroic about it.

If we want teens to respect life, we have to take on the long and difficult job of convincing them that life is worth living. But to deliver that message, we will have to work much harder than we do now to learn their language, to let them teach us about how the world looks from their eyes. Rather than impose our "character values" on them, we should be studying and celebrating those inner-city youths who do make it through school, who find meaning in life, who resist the fatalism of so many of their peers. Life is only cheap when there is nothing to live for.

In the slums of Rio or Beirut the children who survive are those whose families or teachers can help them make sense of the chaos and see a way out of the suffering.

Larry Wissow is associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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