Parental `control towers' can ward off teen crashes

January 13, 2002|By Mark W. Merrill

TAMPA, Fla. - When I arrived at work on Monday, I saw firsthand what can happen when a child feels as if his life is more than he can bear.

I work in the downtown Tampa office building hit by the Cessna airplane flown by 15-year-old Charles Bishop.

Since the crash, witnesses and reporters have made comparisons to Sept. 11. Concern has been raised over Charles' ability to fly into restricted air space over MacDill Air Force Base and the ease with which he stole the airplane in the first place.

While considering these issues is natural in our terrorist-sensitive times, and it's clear that Charles wrongly put other lives at risk, it should still be remembered that at the heart of this tragedy was a teen-ager who would rather die than live. There are thousands of other teens who feel like he did.

Charles Bishop did not have an ideal life.

His parents divorced before he was a year old.

His father eventually dropped out of the picture altogether as Charles and his mother went from state to state, nine moves in his 15 years.

He went to four different middle schools and had recently entered the even more socially challenging world of high school.

His teachers say he was bright and involved. But his classmates - the peers he would most likely look to for friendship - describe him as a loner, a kid who ate lunch by himself. One student told a newspaper reporter that it was like Charles "didn't even exist."

But no matter how he appeared on the outside, when he climbed into that plane he was an emotional time bomb waiting to explode.

So where were the affection and affirmation that could have steered him on a different course? Who was in the control tower of this child's life?

We already know that his dad wasn't there to give him the love and guidance he needed. And even if his mom did the best she could, at some point the communication between them must have broken down.

What's especially frightening about this young man's profile is that there are other children out there ready to file a similar flight plan. One study found that 60 percent of teen-agers have considered suicide. Many of them are living in homes where they are disconnected - physically or emotionally - from one parent or both. The very adults who should be most involved with these children have let other pressures and other priorities push their children's needs to the background.

Charles' story especially moves me because I receive letters almost every day from parents across the country who realize they have let their children slip away and desperately want to know how to reconnect. But there are too many other parents who don't even notice that their kids are sinking deeper and deeper into despair.

I realize that most of these children will never hijack a plane and throttle it into a building, but we shouldn't assume that a similar tragedy couldn't happen in our family. If we are not giving our children the emotional support they need, it can.

A child needs to know that there is at least one person who puts him first. A parent who loves him enough to listen to him, keep tabs on him and offer a helping hand when the pressures of adolescence get to be too much.

Charles Bishop died ignoring the pleas and instructions of Coast Guard personnel and tower operators who tried to guide him to safety. How sad that he couldn't find that guidance earlier in his life, someone to turn to for direction. Someone who could give him the sense of peace and purpose that comes from knowing you are being watched and cared for by someone who loves you.

Mark W. Merrill is the president of Family First in Tampa, Fla. Readers may write to him at Family First, P.O. Box 2882, Tampa, Fla. 33601. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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