The Kids Are Alright
The kid was home for the weekend. Someone asked him about Austin, and I heard him say, “Yeah, it’s really cool, but I’ll always love Dallas the best.”
I thought, “Really?”
I asked him about it. He was talking about the inner city, where he grew up. He feels like he knows every nook and cranny, every alley and vacant lot. “You know,” he said, “it’s from when we were little kids and we rode our bikes all over town.”
Yes, I do remember that. I still think of it as, “Phase Five, frightening your father to an early grave.”
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The next day he sat at the dining room table all afternoon and wrote what I thought was a really intriguing paper in which he argued that communism failed not because Lenin and Stalin departed from Marx but because they were faithful to Marx’s fundamentally flawed ideology. He did a great job of arguing both sides. This, after he spent half the summer living with a family of French-Moroccan communists.
He came home in love with their cooking and fascinated by the use of ululation in jazz. But not a Marxist.
Sound like I’m bragging? Yeah. I am. He’s a pretty interesting young man, if you ask his old man. I am bothering you about it, in part, because I just read Rod Dreher’s piece in the Points section of The Dallas Morning News, in which he talked about raising children in this same area where my son grew up:
“My wife and I live in a decent East Dallas neighborhood, and there’s a playground right around the corner,” Dreher writes. “But the day will never come when we let our kids go play there alone. In fact, the day will never come when we give them permission to play unsupervised on our front lawn.
“Why not? For one thing, there are halfway houses for sex offenders in the general area, unsavory relics from our gentrified neighborhood’s slum past. For another, stray dogs run loose. Sometimes we’ll see dodgy older teenagers from someplace else walking the streets. And most of the people in our neighborhood are strangers to us..."
Dreher also reports that the son of a neighbor watched an R-rated movie, thanks to the older brother of a boy his age in the neighborhood.
”This is not how I grew up in my small southern Louisiana town in the 1970s.”
Man, I bet your kid’s glad he isn’t back in that small town in Louisiana.
It’s not that I don’t understand the gut-wrenching fears of parenthood. I do. But conservatives like Dreher, with their cultural feet firmly planted in small-town and suburban pasts, never seem to understand how important it is not to convey those fears into the hearts of children.
Kids don’t listen to us. They watch us. They don’t learn from us so much as model us. Act afraid all the time, and your kid will be afraid all the time.
Of course there are dodgy teenagers in the neighborhood. All teenagers are dodgy. The ones you really have to watch are those who disguise themselves as not dodgy. Sooner rather than later, the kid needs to get out into the city and learn for himself how to deal with dodgy teenagers, strangers and, yes, sex offenders.
I remember the era when my son was part of a little army of three or four dozen boys between the ages of 10 and 12 -- some from our neighborhood, many from Lakewood -- who rode their dirt bikes all over East Dallas in a horde. Tell you what: Any sex offender who approached those lads was taking his or her life in his or her hands.
Yeah, because part of the deal is that city kids need to be a little bit tough and a lot street smart. All these East Dallas kids who are in college now come home and talk about their suburban schoolmates who are afraid to step outside the bubble of affluent almost all-white Middleurbia.
Fear of the neighborhood becomes fear of the world. The reason it’s wrong to hide the world from the kid is that the kid will not be able to hide from the world.
They will see R-rated movies and X-rated movies, whether you like it or not, because those things are part of the ambient culture. And yes, you do have to protect them until they are old enough to handle it.
For a while, all of life at our house was arrayed around one great goalpost: “When I’m old enough to do that, will I be old enough to watch The Terminator?” So at some point we decided he’d better watch the damned Terminator.
But not without a lot of talking and reinforcement of values. The sex, by the way, is the easy part. They get that right away. Something to do with the propagation of the species.
It’s the violence that’s hard to explain -- the suggestion of the movie that you should watch someone being physically or emotionally ripped limb from limb and feel no distress. There’s a puzzle for the parent.
Just know this: They will see the movies. The only question is whether they will know how to handle the movies.
I think Dreher is a really smart guy and a great writer, but in so much of what he purveys through The Dallas Morning News editorial pages I smell this small-town right-wing xenophobic fear of the other -- the dodgy teenager, the Muslim brother, the wetback
Rod, the blessing of the city is that your son has a really good chance to get to know a lot of dodgy teenagers, Muslim brothers and wetbacks, to learn how to handle it and maybe come to love his surroundings for the experience.
One time I found out the boys had gone off beyond where I thought they were. They had been riding around -- a couple dozen little white boys -- in an area between Fair Park and East Dallas where armies of homeless people and crack junkies live in abandoned houses and cook in trashcans on vacant lots. I was furious.
But apparently some of the crackheads had taken the trouble to tell the boys to “get the hell out of here.” Excellent, excellent advice. They were off their turf, and they needed to know the meaning of being off their turf. I assume they got home safely because they showed the requisite amount of respect by taking the advice. Swiftly.
It was a social transaction based in part on fear. But transaction based on fear is always better than isolation based on fear. It’s what we might call a beginning, where isolation is the end.
Don’t get me wrong. We did lots of worrying, and we did lots of protecting. He went to White Rock Montessori through middle school, where he was protected to good effect. We believe we can still see those values in him, and for that we are eternally grateful.
But then he went to Woodrow. He told me once the way to avoid getting stomped in the hall was knowing whose eyes not to meet. At Woodrow he was inspired by a great French teacher, Ms. Johnson, who made him want to become fluent. He told me recently that his Woodrow history teacher, Mr. Evett, “really prepared me for college.” And I know that his English teacher, Ms. Gower, taught him to think.
Speak French. Study. Think. Don’t get stomped. What else do you need to know?
They do grow up. And if you ask me, the inner city of Dallas is a great place for them to do it. My son promises me he has still some untold stories about the bicycle years, which he will tell me -- “when you’re old enough.” --Jim Schutze