Mom strokes a tuft of Chris' strawberry-blond hair as she chats about her job as an assistant to occupational therapists. Chris, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, listens studiously as his mother talks.
But as the adults prattle on, he grows bored. He starts muttering in her ear and twisting his face into strange, exaggerated expressions.
Finally, with a look of feigned disapproval, Jan Beamon interrupts her conversation and acknowledges the prankster, her son. "Oh, he's just mocking me," she says. She pretends to swat him on the head.
It's all kind of cute. But nothing about the Beamons' predicament these days is particularly funny. Chris isn't just any old kid, after all; he's the boy from Ponder, Texas -- the one whom a local judge put in juvenile detention for up to 10 working days after he submitted a disturbing Halloween horror story to his high school English teacher. The one whose tale has been told worldwide, making a laughingstock of his rural hometown. And the one who is now exiled to his mom's lonely little version of a homeschool while his peers enjoy the camaraderie of seventh grade.
Chris Beamon's real-life story illustrates what can happen when a small town's parochial sensibilities collide with the practical reality of a post-Columbine, "zero-tolerance" policy on violence. In this case, common sense -- and a kid from the wrong side of the tracks -- didn't stand a chance.
While Beamon's Dallas lawyer threatens a lawsuit against "everyone, including the cows that come home" and journalists as far away as Germany and China have checked in to report on and frequently poke fun at the events in Ponder, most of the adults who played a role in putting a 13-year-old boy in jail because of his homework have begun ducking for cover.
Looking at the events leading up to Chris Beamon's detention, it's easy to see why.
"A story starter that will make your kids jump out of their skin!"
So began the instructions for a homework assignment given to Chris and his classmates by their English teacher at Ponder High School, Amanda Henry.
The kids had been asked to complete a Goosebumps-like story titled "Things that go bump in the night." Chris would turn in a muddled and messy first-person tale about shooting three classmates and his teacher and snorting Freon. "...[A]bout 20 kids started cracking up & it pissed me off so I shot Matt, Jake, & and Ben started laughing so hard that I acssedently [sic] shot Mrs. Henry," Beamon wrote.
The story, which Beamon read aloud in Henry's language arts class on October 27, frightened some of his classmates -- including the real boys mentioned in the story.
The students complained to their parents. The parents called school officials. Then the officials called the Denton County sheriff's office.
Things developed rapidly from there.
A day after Beamon read his story in class, a deputy sheriff hauled him off to the Denton County juvenile detention center. The following day, juvenile court Judge Darlene Whitten ordered that he be detained for up to 10 working days for engaging in delinquint conduct. At any time, the judge now notes, Beamon's lawyer could have requested that the case be reviewed.
Dazed by the series of events, Jan Beamon spent three days spinning her wheels, trying frantically to get her boy released. Her court-appointed lawyer started preparing an appeal, but no one else would help. Meanwhile, in kiddie jail, Chris Beamon ate bad food and missed his mom. He read his Bible. He cried.
On her son's fourth day of incarceration, Jan Beamon called a media-savvy Dallas lawyer named Bill Short, the husband of a former boss. A real estate lawyer who was thrilled to have a case with some Constitutional bite -- "This is what I went to law school to do," he says -- Short called TV reporters.
The news vans trooped up to Denton. The reporters worked themselves into a tizzy, raising the obvious issues about Beamon's First Amendment rights and the seeming disproportion between punishment and crime. The following day, Denton County District Attorney Bruce Isaacks dropped the charges against Beamon. Denton County Judge David Garcia ordered the boy released. (Judge Whitten was out of town.)
It was way too late for Ponder to save face. The onetime farming community, with a population of 500, seemed to get smaller and sillier by the media moment. Jan Beamon would appear on NBC's Today show, and editorialists nationwide had a field day at the local officials' expense. "The Denton County district attorney has generously decided not to press charges," wrote Mike Rosen of the Denver Rocky Mountain News. "Press charges for what? For writing a stupid, scary story? For having bad judgment? Having bad judgment is part of being a kid."