Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Pit of My Youth

To paraphrase the title of Erma Bombeck's 1978 book:

If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, How Did We Get Stuck with the Pit...

When I was thirteen years old and a 7th grader at Willis Jepson Junior High back in 1978, my path home from school took me past a short set of concrete steps walled in on three sides by a resident's privacy fence. The three or four stairs led up to a gate allowing access to a backyard. I never saw anyone come and go through the gate. Instead, the alcove of secluded stairs was appropriated as a hangout for a group of junior high kids (7th - 9th grade at my school) known as the "stoners".

The alcove was a couple of blocks away from school, close enough for a convenient gathering spot but out of eyesight of the faculty and administration Just about any time of day from a half hour before school until an hour or so after, you would find an assembly ranging in size from one or two kids to a dozen, shrouded in a cloud of smoke. They dressed alike in dark colors and flannel, and had words in their vocabulary that were as ugly to me then as they are now.

I always gave the "stoner steps" a wide berth and avoided any form of eye contact. I had no desire to engage this clique (OK, more of a "gang" than "clique"). My goal was to pass by twice daily without incident. Their world held no intrigue or appeal for me. I realize now they were drawn together by the common need of most teenagers - the need to belong to a group and have friends with shared interests. It just happens that their interests as far as I could tell were cutting class and smoking.

Site of the old "stoner steps". The alcove has been fenced
over - perhaps to discourage gatherings - but a gate remains.

The ring leader of the Jepson stoners during my 7th grade year was a 9th grader by the name of Trudy Outlaw (I kid you not). Trudy was in appearance a taller, female version of say Shaun White with none of the charm or appeal of the "Flying Tomato". Maybe Danny Bonaduce is a better comparison. She was one of the most truly frightening people I knew or have known since. She was typically perched at the head of the steps, but if you encountered her on foot, she was easily a lanky 5'10" towering over her cowering victims with that flaming red hair and a perpetual sneer.

As I said, my goal each morning and afternoon was to pass by as unnoticed as possible. My best friend, Jackie, was usually by my side as we walked the gauntlet. Unlike me, however, Jackie did not shy away from confrontation. The strength of our long friendship was grounded in her daring and adventurous spirit countered by my more mild-mannered and cautious nature. This was ever our dynamic, and it generally served us both well.

As the school year advanced, Jackie became increasingly bold and began to let her distaste for the "stoners" show. She quit veering out into the street and walked the sidewalk directly in front of the "stoner steps". She would make a show of her disapproval with a smirk, or derisive laugh, or exaggerated coughing from the smoke. Typically, the inhabitants of the "stoner steps" were too engaged in their own extracurricular activities to take notice of a couple of do-gooder 7th graders, but I lived in fear of the day Jackie would attract their attention and wrath.

Well, the day finally came when that fear was realized. It was inevitable, of course, and frankly what my friend was going for all along. While I was happy to pass by in anonymity, Jackie was not content to make concessions to "stoner turf" and to enjoy safe passage only at their pleasure. She wanted it known that she would not be intimidated and that their variety of cool was anything but.

The encounter played out something like this:
Jackie (passing by the steps with a sideways glance to the stoner crew):
"Ughh, my clothes are going to smell like smoke again."
Trudy (rising from her perch as my terror rose right along with her):
"Did you say something?"
Jackie (exaggeratedly coughing):
"No, I couldn't talk from all the smoke."
Trudy (now directly in front of Jackie blocking her path staring down at her menacingly - me trying to stay at my friend's side and resist the urge to run for my life):
"You @#$$@#%@!^#@&"
Those choice few words from Trudy were the end of any dialogue. Jackie gave Trudy an unimpressed look and then attempted to follow my lead and move on by. Trudy would have none of it, though. Before Jackie stepped away, Trudy reached back and forcefully slapped Jackie across the face. I believe it's charmingly referred to these days as being "bitch slapped".

I think we all guessed what Trudy was capable of, but the slap was utterly unexpected - a violent flash of uncontrolled anger. Everyone stood there in shocked silence with their mouths agape - even the stoner crowd - as the audible smack of the hand to face contact echoed against the fence and pavement. Everyone, that is, except Jackie. I don't think she even flinched as the blow landed - keeping unbroken eye contact with Trudy. She gazed back at Trudy with a hint of the defiant smirk still on her face, cheek turning as red as Trudy's hair, as if to say, "That's great, but I don't play that game."

While Jackie had not shown the sense to avoid this encounter and was playing a game of her own, she did have the sense to turn the other cheek. After a moment in which I was not at all sure what would happen next, Trudy stepped aside and returned to her seat at the top of the nook looking a little stunned herself but trying to laugh it off. Although Ms. Outlaw had won the physical encounter, Jackie had won the psychological one.

I don't know, maybe it wasn't as dramatic as all that in reality, but that's how it was seared into my memory. My brash and fearless friend stared down the scariest person in our world and stood her ground to let it be known that she would not be intimidated. While I truly believe that the best course of action is to avoid such situations, I couldn't help but be impressed with the balls my friend showed that day (courage is not the right word as it implies a nobler cause).

Every generation of teenagers has their own version of this crowd of kids. In the case of Broadneck High and Cape St. Claire, it's "the pit". Much about "the pit" resembles the place I once knew as the "stoner steps". It's a place where kids gather and share their rough and tough personas, smoke illicitly obtained cigarettes, and generally act disrespectfully to anyone who engages them, of any age. They don't seem to have anywhere better to be or anyone to tell them that their behavior is unacceptable and doing them no favors.

The hanging out part is understandable. It's fun to see and be seen - to enjoy the freedom from the school day once the bell rings. It's the poor behavior and disrespect - for property, home owners, traffic, and passers by - that elevate this gathering to a level of nuisance exceeding what I knew as a kid. In the case of this past Friday - to a level of violence and serious injury.

Like my fellow Capers, I was acutely distressed at the news last Friday afternoon of a teenager that had to be medevaced to shock trauma following an altercation with another teenager at "the pit". A problem that has been tolerated too long came to an inevitable consequence. Upon hearing the initial reports, I was concerned first for my own high schooler and then for the young people involved, for the Capers who have to negotiate the corner of Southview and Chestnut Tree each day, for the families who live at that corner, and for the reputation of our school and community. Thankfully, the injuries sustained in the fight did not prove life-threatening, but damage has still been done on many levels for all involved.

Our fine community association, the CSCIA, has responded by setting up a meeting at the clubhouse on Monday, February 6th, at 7 PM to discuss the situation and a plan of action. Representatives from the Anne Arundel Police Department will attend, and Dr. Smith, the Principal of Broadneck High School, has also been invited. This is a valuable opportunity to address this problem in some kind of meaningful way. For the time being, a police presence has been assigned to the trouble area. I don't know if that's a practical long-term solution or even what we really want, but the status quo is not acceptable.

The fact that there will always be Trudy Outlaws and pit dwellers in our world does not make it OK for us to cop out with a "kids will be kids" mantra. We all deserve better - the kids and the community. I wish I could wave a magic parenting wand since somebody's clearly not getting the basic requirements of the job done - not that it's easy and I'm surely making my own mistakes. I'll get yelled at now for blaming parents for bad behavior. I'm really not sure, though, who else is responsible for a kid that glares at me and refuses to move out of the middle of the road so my car can pass...

I don't know what ultimately became of Trudy Outlaw. I do know that she never made it to my high school. She was sent to the place that all "troubled" youth in my hometown ended up short of juvie - an alternative high school called Country High. Who knows, maybe they set her straight, and she's a happily married mother of cute little redheads who are good students and follow the rules. I sincerely hope so. I'm dubious, though - new generations of stoners and pit dwellers have to come from somewhere.

Please take the opportunity to talk to your kids about respect - for one another, for adults, for their teachers, for authority, and for their community - and then demonstrate what it means to earn respect so they know what it looks and feels like. Also, if you are able, come to the meeting on Monday ready to participate in a constructive discussion about solutions. It's in the best interest of all of us to find a way to keep the peace and make our neighborhood safer.

What are your thoughts on solutions to this pit of a problem? After-school police patrols? Later school day? Availability of more after-school activities/programs? Let me know what you think.

---Cape Blogger www.tips-fb.com