THE FIRST time I heard it I shrugged it off, figuring it was just a bad choice of words from a distraught mother caught in the glare of lights from a TV news camera. Then it came again -- the father this time, quoted by a newspaper reporter -- and I realized there was nothing accidental about the description.
The word was "average." This is how his parents describe Travis Savoy, a 14-year-old Bladensburg High School freshman who stands accused of robbing a pizza deliveryman last week and then, after the money was handed over, shooting him to death.
Subsequently, he was charged with gunning down a 16-year-old former classmate inside the building where he lives in Prince George's County.
According to reports, Travis is also implicated in three previous armed robberies.
Yes, I know. The time is long past when we could be truly shocked by the viciousness of children. We have become inured to it, have even come, on some level, to expect it. We do this to shield ourselves, because to face such things with the fresh horror they deserve is to traumatize our own spirit.
So, I would not trouble you with these killings, except that I find myself struggling with that word, which sticks in my throat like a bone jammed sideways: average.
You don't want to beat up on parents who are, after all, grieving what amounts to the loss of their son. Don't want to condemn them for doing what anyone would in their place -- trying to put a face on a child the rest of us know only as a murder suspect.
"My son is not a piece of trash," the father told a reporter. "Travis is an average child, a boy who just turned 14 on New Year's Eve. He's no more than 5-foot-4, 125 pounds. He's just a regular kid . . ."
You don't want to begrudge him the right to say that, to defend his son as he sees fit. But still . . . "regular"? "Average?"
It's become almost a cliche at times like these, hasn't it? Indeed, similar things were said about some of the boys behind the spate of high-profile school shootings that bloodied 1998 and '97. Everyday kids, we were told. Nothing special. Average.
And you wonder: Does the average child really tick like a bomb? It's an idea your brain won't accept. You can't believe it, if only for your own peace of mind.
Certainly, there are kids -- older folks, too, for that matter -- whose lives turn left without a signal, who one day snap for no reason anyone could have foreseen. But just as surely, there are others who give signals, who do everything but write their distress in the sky -- and no one seems to see.
Travis' family tells us he was a good boy, just an everyday kid. But his neighbors and teachers are reported to consider him a bully and a habitual truant. He was known to hang out in the streets with dealers and thugs until late at night. This, from a boy of 14.
And you wonder how much of it his parents didn't see and how much they simply chose not to see, how much they swept aside as just an average kid going through phases. I don't know the answer to that question any more than you do.
But I do know this: In recent years, we've seen a surfeit of gun violence from school boys who kill with an impulsive abandon, a sociopathic cruelty, that is nothing less than chilling. And in the face of that, this word we keep hearing, the one Travis' parents used to defend him, seems worse than inadequate. Seems a cop-out, an act of willful delusion, and the foreclosure of a search for answers we desperately need. If this is average, God help us all.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Pub Date: 2/26/99