Elian in perspective

For weeks, it has seemed like there is one and only one child in our country, Elian Gonzalez.

And while I think the epic battle over the six-year-old is wrenching, I keep thinking about other children I know. Children in my own community, living in a state of emergency. Children who don't know how to resolve problems, who begin with a taunt, and quickly resort to their fists or a gun. At least 17 young people have been killed in my city since last fall.

A week ago Monday, a 16-year-old shot into a crowd of teenagers he was arguing with at the National Zoo. He left six wounded and another in critical condition. The alleged shooter faces life in prison.

I wish Americans would learn the names of these children, too. I wish the country had such strong opinions about their parents and relatives. I wish these kids had neighbors who guarded them, senators who acted as their advocates, psychologists who visited them and debated their welfare.

Let me introduce you to some of them. Walter is a soft-spoken 12-year-old who has seen a man murdered in front of his house and who rarely leaves his house without a knife in his pocket.

Then there's Rosie, who at 14 is breast-feeding her four-month-old son. Her boyfriend is a 21-year-old gang member. He got angry the other day and grabbed the baby and disappeared for 24 hours. Rosie called the police, got her son back and a restraining order, but after a few days, reconciled with the boy's father. Not surprising, since she grew up seeing her mother do pretty much the same thing.

And then there's Jos, who's 13 and cannot read. He is so disruptive in school that he is on suspension as much as he's in class. When a counselor is reached on the phone, she explains that Jos is causing trouble because he can't read and predicts he'll drop out of school soon. She says it matter-of-factly, no panic in her voice, no solutions posed. And then she asks, "Why bother with him, he doesn't want to learn?"

So, in the past few months, I've found a reading tutor for Jos, signed Walter up for a summer conflict-mediation class, and I'm looking for a charter school for Rosie that will let her come to classes with her baby.

I feel the circumstances of these children, and countless others, are more dire than those of Elian Gonzalez. Why then are we having a national catharsis over this one boy? The headlines should be about these other children and the chaos of their lives and schools, about the difficulty of intervention.

But try and turn a person's attention to these children, and a dull look surfaces. Would a big network reporter compete to sit down with one of these kids? I don't think so. If they did though, they would learn a lot about childhood in our country, about the family becoming fragmented by low-paying jobs, substance abuse, and prison. They'd hear about boys and girls seeking comfort in the family of gangs. They would get a sense of what happens when a mother is cleaning offices at night instead of making sure her son is home.

They could begin to analyze which community solutions work and which don't. They could help determine how to weave a safety net under these children.

But, it's not a hot story, just a slow, simmering one.

So, I suggest that for every time we report on Elian Gonzalez, we should spotlight another child in crisis. A kid in my neighborhood, in your neighborhood. I think we would learn much more about ourselves and our future.

* Katie Davis, a writer and contributor to National Public Radio, runs a youth group called the Urban Rangers.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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