A group of inner-city teen-agers is talking about Polly Klaas,the 12-year-old girl kidnapped two months ago in Petaluma, Calif., whose strangled body was found recently in an abandoned sawmill. The national media have called her "America's child." But this group of inner-city teens is astounded by the reaction her death has caused.
What the teen-agers find awesome is the way Polly's rural hometown organized itself to find her and the national grief that followed the discovery of her body. People who didn't know her were gripped by anxiety and grief of the kind normally reserved for the closest of relatives or friends. More than 1,000 people attended her memorial service, including the governor. Reporters wept.
For many inner-city teen-agers,violence is an everyday occurrence. Everyone can cite the case of a young person who disappeared while on a routine errand, was abandoned by a family member or snuffed out on the streets. None of those events arouses a neighborhood or even makes the news.
Like all adolescents, the teen-agers have personalized the intense publicity focused on Polly Klaas as a statement about themselves and their own world.
Polly Klaas' death seemed to resonate a communal assurance that her life mattered. They found it remarkable that people who didn't know Polly would care so much about her. Asked what the word community means, they shrug. (Most of them say they have never had a conversation with a teacher outside the classroom.)
"Community? Isn't that like an extended family?" offers an 18-year-old Filipina who emancipated herself at 16. "A neighborhood where people work together," suggests a 17-year-old who lives in a housing project where you duck when you hear car tires screech.
Fiercely independent, most of these kids say that survival means realizing "you are your family." One young woman, on her own since 15, tapes hairs across the door jamb of her apartment when she goes out to make sure no one has intruded.
In the absence of any larger communal assurance, these kids must convince themselves that there is a point to their lives. Not all succeed. High school students in Oakland, Calif., recently surveyed by Berkeley anthropologist John Ogbu about where they expected to find themselves in five years, described the future as four possibilities: McDonald's; the army; jail; dead.
The respondents clearly see themselves navigating alone in a world shaped by forces beyond their control. Not one of their scenarios requires thinking ahead, planning for the future.
The dean of a high school in Los Angeles, himself a gang leader in the same school 25 years earlier, says the biggest difference between then and now is that the kids no longer trust anyone. "Listen to how they greet each other in the hallways," he says. "They can't even communicate. Try putting your arm around them in the hall and they flinch."
And yet what most of these kids yearn for is the human touch. A street kid who ran away from home three years ago describes heaven as a dining room table with his friends around it. In the end, he internalizes the absence of community as a reflection on himself. When he watches parents driving their children to school in the morning, he turns away. "It makes me feel ashamed," he confides.
Amid the public outcry over violence, these kids interpret the Polly Klaas case as a drawing of lines. At one extreme is the last safe sanctuary in America, the white middle-class town where neighbors treat one another like kith and kin. At the other extreme is an underclass of drifters, transients, criminals cut loose from society.
The kids see themselves trapped in the gray area in between, more than ever excluded from the communal assurance Polly Klaas received yet afraid of winding up in the underclass where no one matters.
Sandy Close is executive editor of Pacific News Service, for which she wrote this commentary.