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Not so different after all

By Amy Lansburg / January 5, 2000



While researching an article on corporal punishment in schools, freelance writer Amy Lansburg was given the phone number of Gretchen Woodard, mother of Mitchell Johnson, one of two young boys convicted of murder in the 1998 Jonesboro, Ark., school shootings.

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Four girls and a teacher were killed, and 10 others were wounded.

The two women talked for an hour. Ms. Lansburg later wrote down her thoughts.

It was like a conversation with any other parent, really. We spoke of parenting philosophies, the need for parental involvement in education; we spoke of teenage crushes and music. At times, it seemed hard to focus on the fact that I was speaking to a mother whose teenage son had committed murder.

Mrs. Woodard told me that after the shooting she went through Mitchell's room. "He did listen to rap," she said, as if addressing the experts who had speculated on Mitchell's motivation, "but not over and over. I did find two rap CDs in his room...."

My thoughts went to my daughter's room, where there are at least 20 rap CDs. Two seemed pretty harmless to me.

She went on, "He'd be embarrassed for me to tell you this, but I actually found a barbershop quartet CD in his room when I cleaned it. He also had some Bob Seger and old stuff and some gospel CDs - the songs he liked to sing on Sundays."

My mind darted back to my daughter's CD collection - what is in there anyway? I know that I would not find barbershop or gospel music.

"Violence on TV...." she started. "We had only one TV that we watched as a family."

I thought of my home: TV in the master bedroom, TV in the family room, and, when it's not removed as punishment, TV in our 14-year-old's room.

"We've never had a Super Nintendo, or even a Nintendo game, so you can't blame violent games...." She drifted off. The question lingered in her voice as the unanswerable permeated the lines between our telephones.

Still there was no attempt to place blame. Mrs. Woodard didn't blame the school, TV, or the teachers who, when attuned, can sometimes provide us with insight into our kids' "outside-of-the-house" behavior.

I asked her if the move to Arkansas had been difficult for Mitchell, thinking of how rough it had been for our own daughter to move South from a large metropolitan area. She said, "No, Mitchell was always a social butterfly; he wasn't a loner, always had sleepovers and loved to visit. He wasn't slighted or picked on any more than other kids."

How easy it would have been for her to fall into the hyperbole we've all heard. Maybe she didn't hug Mitchell enough, or maybe it was the influence of Andrew Golden, his then 11-year-old accomplice. How many parents would have sought to paint their child as an innocent tagalong?

At points during our conversation, I did question my own response. Was I being snowed, sucked in, blinded to the tragedy of the victims and their families? It seemed that Mrs. Woodard has demonstrated parenting under the most difficult circumstances. She talked of Mitchell's past accomplishments and current prison report card proudly. Many of us would have wanted to hide our heads.

I wondered if I could be as strong.

Mitchell will be released from prison when he is 21. Mrs. Woodard visits him at every opportunity. Mitchell, I thought, is fortunate to have such a mother. She will help him prepare for life after he gets out. Yes, there are others who, because of Mitchell's actions, do not have the opportunity to start over. But I am grateful that he has a parent like Mrs. Woodard.

Every child deserves and needs a parent who loves him unconditionally. Every child. Even, or perhaps especially, one like Mitchell.

I've fortunately lived a life that's not been touched or corrupted by a violent, ugly crime. And I cannot imagine it.

But I do talk with other parents. Some are genuinely and modestly proud of their children. They speak of small accomplishments, of sleepovers, and silly moments. Others are preoccupied with their own lives.

These parents don't know what their child's latest test score is, or who won last week's football game.

Mrs. Woodard knew the small things in Mitchell's life.

"Give them a place to sit," my mother once said to me, referring to the neighborhood teenage boys who so often visit our house. I'd just bought a chair and a bench and was going to put them on the screened-in back porch.

Instead, I put the furniture on our front porch. It was there less than an hour when I looked out and found the seats all filled. They would have looked better in back, but served a far more important purpose out front.

After talking to Mrs. Woodard, I realize how vital that front porch is. How important it is that my husband sometimes puts down his briefcase and loosens his tie to shoot a few hoops with the boys, while our daughter oversees from the chair and chats on the telephone.

Mrs. Woodard told me twice, "I miss the joy that he brought to this house." I believe her. And I would guess that Mitchell misses it as well.

I've realized that, in many respects, Mitchell doesn't sound much different from my own 14-year old or her friends. And in more ways than not, Mrs. Woodard and I are similarly active in our children's lives.

For all the victims in this tragedy, for all the kids who watched TV broadcasts of the crime, for the neighborhood kids, and for kids everywhere, I hope we all can find a chair on the front porch.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society