Don't judge a teen-ager by his garb, or his toys

May 02, 1999|By Susan Reimer

ON THE SAME afternoon that Colorado high-school kids were dying at the hands of classmates who were paint-ball freaks, my high-school kid called to say his new paint-ball gear had arrived via UPS. He was heading to the woods to try it out.

My heart froze. "Oh God, Joe. Do you have to?"

He had paid dearly with his hard-earned savings for a new laser scope and an extension for the barrel of his gun, and I knew without being there that he was probably dressed in his Army surplus cammo, boots and the sinister-looking black goggles and face mask that are regulation paint-ball safety equipment.

"Mom!" he howled. "Why not?"

It was like trying to talk a kid out of riding his new bike.

"I'll be careful, OK?" he said, and was off the phone before I could make my case.

It was revealed in the days that followed that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had practiced their deadly craft with paint-ball guns, re-enacting the killing sequences they found on their computer games.

They were good at it, a friend had told television reporters. They practiced with paint-ball guns and "they knew what would happen" when they used real guns, she said.

This has caused me to look at Joe's paint-ball gun from a new perspective, and it looks deadly as hell. It looks like the real thing. It looks like a killing tool.

Maybe a cop could tell the difference, even with a quick, long-distance glance. But clearly regular people cannot. When my nephew jogged through his neighborhood wearing cammo and carrying his paint-ball gun, the neighbors called the cops and a veritable SWAT team converged on the home of his startled mother.

"Don't worry, Mom," said Joe. "I've already decided that I'm gonna carry my paint-ball gun around in a garbage bag."

The point of this column is not that paint-ball guns look like the real thing and can cause frightening misunderstandings. It is not my point that paint-ball gaming is too much like real killing for impressionable young boys for whom the boundaries of real and imaginary are not yet fully formed. I am sure paint-ball is just paint-ball for Joe and his buddies.

My point, instead, is one Joe made when I tried to explain my concerns.

"Maybe people should stop crossing the street to avoid teen-age boys," Joe said. "Maybe little old ladies should stop grabbing their purses and holding them real tight whenever they see us in the mall.

"Maybe people should stop treating teen-age boys like they are something to be afraid of."

Any teen -- any adult -- resents assumptions made about him based on a quick survey of his personal appearance. And in fact, those stereotypes don't hold anymore.

Dark clothes, too much black eyeliner, piercing, tattoos, baggy jeans, dog-collar jewelry. These markers tell you no more about teens than brush cuts and baseball caps or twin sets and ponytails. These kids are all playing dress-up on the road to an adult identity.

For teens, clothing, jewelry and the "look" they adopt may be as much protective coloring as it is personal statement. And they are very good at locking adults out of their heads. It is very hard for adults to know if they are seeing a young thug walking toward them on the sidewalk, or a young Republican.

Kids are like paint-ball guns in this way. There is no easy way to tell if you are dealing with a child's toy or a deadly weapon.

You have to get to know them first.

Pub Date: 05/02/99

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