What's next for the kids in Mount Morris?

March 14, 2000|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- They were welcomed back with teddy bears and trauma counselors. What a set of back-to-school supplies for the return of the first-graders at Buell Elementary School. Good morning students, have an Eberhard No. 2 pencil, a teddy bear and a trauma counselor. Can you spell murder?

In the wake of a school shooting of a 6-year-old by a 6-year-old, the families of Mount Morris Township, Mich., now drift back to whatever passes for normal. One parent reports that her son brought home a crayon drawing; another circulates a petition for metal detectors.

We are left to piece together the rest of the story -- the chaotic home, if you can call it home -- of the alleged young shooter.

A room without a bed, a house of drugs, a loaded pistol, not a parent in sight.

From jail the father says, "The only thing I feel responsible for is not being there in his life like I'm supposed to be like a father, every day." Only? That's all? A great aunt reports that she considered the boy's mother, who has a record of drug abuse, "a very good mother." Can you spell good?

Following this story, I want to sentence every handgun manufacturer to live with their children in a neighborhood with loaded guns under blankets.

But I also want to shake these parents until something inside clicks awake.

On my night table there's a book I've been reading, titled with all the immodest modesty, all the ironic honesty that Dave Eggers could muster: "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." It has ratcheted its way to a wholly unexpected place on the best-seller list because it's fierce and funny. But mostly because it's a piercingly honest, dry-eyed and wrenching look at child-raising.

Mr. Eggers writes about parenting as if he were having one long panic attack. He writes from the inside about the kind of parenting-against-the-odds that makes so many of us furious at the dropouts, the quitters, the parents whose failures might walk up to our kids on the playground. Bang, bang, you're dead.

When Dave Eggers was just 21 he became, as he describes it more than once, a single mother. His parents died within five weeks of each other from cancer. "What were we going to do, break up the family and send Toph to a salt mine?" One orphan, Dave, began to take care of another, 8-year-old Toph.

Mr. Eggers left the world of college students and entered the world of the "put-upon, purposeful, stressful, spartan, down-time-less, limiting, exhausting, a world of young knees needing stitching and young lunches needing packing and young minds needing help with elaborate projects about east Africa ..."

Running late, coexisting on Apple Jacks and tacos in an environment that gives "messy" new meaning, trying to be a person and a parent at the same time, he's an exuberant, manic, terrified version of any parent whose imagination runs to cataclysm when their child is five minutes late. A parent who dedicates himself "to being the only thing standing in the way of for-him-otherwise-certain oblivion."

But there is a moment in this adrenaline rush of a memoir when Mr. Eggers confronts a mother talking in casual, hip tones about how she lets her son "fire up" marijuana at home. This imperfect, accidental brother-parent finds himself "too stunned to speak." He thinks, "She should be jailed and I should raise her children. Maybe I'm the only one qualified to raise all these kids. ..."

His sudden, absolute ferocity, is what links Mr. Eggers' memoir to the Michigan reality. It's the automatic anger of anyone however imperfect, who knows what it takes to raise "all these kids." It's the rage that one parent, doing the best he can, turns on another for a small infraction of responsibility. Or for a huge one. It's the rage that parents who struggle to protect their children turn on gunmakers who make a mockery of that struggle. A rage born out of Mr. Eggers' knowledge: "To not have Toph would be to not have a life."

We heard that ferocity after Columbine. We heard it after Michigan. But then it fades into the background noise, adding another layer of fear.

Among the widening gaps in this country there is the gulf between those who raise their children and those who leave them in a flophouse with a loaded gun. There's a gap between those who shelter children and those who arm them.

In Mount Morris Township, the survivors in that first grade are back in class. They've been given teddy bears and trauma counselors. Do we imagine that's enough?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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