I Can Write My Name!
With a loud, forceful crash, a contingent of officers from the Wichita Police Department and the Sedgwick County (Kan.) Sheriff's Office kicked the door in and yelled, "Police! Everybody down!'' I was the eighth or ninth person of our search-warrant party to enter the cluttered living room of this known crack house. It was 11 P.M. Throughout the evening, the police had observed drug buys at the address and waited for the right time to enter and begin their search for the valuable, but deadly, crack cocaine being produced by the tenants of this dark and trash-strewn home.
As I entered, I could hear the screaming of young voices coming from the upstairs bedroom. As soon as the police announced that all rooms had been secured, I made my way up the stairs and entered a small bedroom with mattresses stacked on the floor. Clothing was tossed about the room--some dirty, some clean. The smell of urine was everywhere. A fluorescent light kept going on and off, adding a surreal cast to what was clearly a nightmare for the young children I saw staring at me in fear and bewilderment. The four small faces looked lost in the scene being played out in their home.
The police had seen it a hundred times before. I, too, had seen it several times, but never before had I been struck by the paradox of what I was about to encounter. In the rooms below, the police began their meticulous search of the premises. They questioned the adolescents and adults who allegedly had been using or dealing the drugs. Meanwhile, upstairs, I watched as one lone officer began assuring the children that all would be O.K. This armed officer, who moments before had come storming into the house, was now engaging the children in light and silly conversation. Soon their fears were calmed by the assuring voice of the SCAT (Special Community Action Team) officer. As with most children, tears were easily turned to laughter by the attentive hand and their despair became, for a time at least, curiosity about the officer and the other strange observer in the room.
They asked me questions and then I asked them what schools they attended. The oldest was a 3rd grader, the youngest was 3. The school-age children were proud of their schools and wanted very much to impress me and the young officer with their accomplishments. While I listened to these, I could hear the officers downstairs informing the occupants that they had just found hundreds of dollars of crack cocaine in the basement. There was no denial or protest--they knew they had been "busted.''
As I turned my attention back to the children to see if they could possibly hear or understand the conversation below, I felt a pull on my pants leg. It was a familiar pull. I had felt it a hundred times before from my own children. I looked down to see this 5-year-old boldly declare in the midst of the chaos and noise, "I can write my name! Do you want to see it?''
Frankly, I was so angry at the actions of this child's parents that I was in no mood to observe an exercise in penmanship. But the young officer, being much wiser than this aging educator, seized the opportunity to keep this child and her siblings occupied. "Yes,'' he said, "I want to see it.'' The youngster responded that she had paper but no pen or pencil. The officer quickly reached into his shirt pocket and handed her his gold Cross pen. (Why not a pencil, I was thinking. He gave her his best pen!)
Immediately she set about the task of writing, stopping only once to show us that she could also write the number four. She wrote the number upside down, but with a twist of the paper, it became the number four. Within moments she produced her name and, together, we celebrated her accomplishment.
Moments later, I made my way back down the stairs and entered other rooms of the crack house. There I saw symbols of family togetherness and efforts to do the right thing: G.E.D.-exam books, correspondence-course materials, and letters from friends and acquaintances. There were also family albums with pictures of aunts and uncles. In many ways, it all seemed so normal.
But throughout the house there were also the cigarette lighters, the glass tubes for processing the cocaine, and the tiny sacks containing the small rocks of crack. As I observed the collection of evidence and stared into the faces of the adults who had made the crack and who were willing to sell it, I wanted to scream, "Upstairs there is a child who is celebrating the writing of her name. Does anybody know? Does anybody care?''
A child can write her name. Thousands of children arrive at that milestone daily. In the scheme of life, it is only a small thing; why should I be so upset? It is because the tragedy of our society today is that nobody notices the small steps or the small victories. Our community's preoccupation with drugs and violence leaves the children as casualties. They pull at our pants leg with words of hope and we ignore them and damn them to repeat the tragedies of their parents' lives.
What will happen to this child and what hope will she have if we continue to act as if she does not matter? She does matter. And in the dark scene of a crack house I heard in her insistent voice the declaration, "I will write my name and somewhere, sometime, you will notice it.''
It will be up to us to determine if we notice that name boldly inscribed on a high school and college diploma or written below the mug-shot pictures found in the books of law-enforcement agencies. As a community, we had best be about the task of placing that name on the diploma or it will haunt us throughout our lives.
For some reason, that 5-year-old's persistence that I see her write her name is hope for me. It is a hope that we dare not ignore. Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House and an advocate of children, wrote in 1879: "[I]nfancy is the Messiah sent again and again into the arms of man to rescue him from this fallen and despondent condition; childhood comes in the fresh young radiance of hope. The thoughts of the child first beginning to think and to exist are overtold of what may be, and thus counteract the social spasm overfull of what is; they deluge the world with hope and wonder infinite in measure.''
That child that night taught me a lesson. Recent national surveys and local observations would suggest that we are losing these children. Our nation's crime wave has diverted our attention from the need to create meaningful play, work, and education. This child and thousands of her peers demand our resources, our attention, and our time. Fighting the war that creates their despair and hopelessness requires will and persistence. The conditions that cause their suffering cannot easily be fixed. We will be tempted to look for solutions that are highly visible and easily measured. If we yield to that temptation, we will have created an illusion that portends a disaster.
We need to begin now asking policymakers, volunteers, community social-service agencies, churches, and our neighbors to feel the pull of the pants leg and respond in a measured and thorough manner. Our children's survival and our future will depend on the type of response we offer.
I want to work where I can hear the children boldly proclaim, "I can write my name.'' And I want to help create a community in which that name is recognized for its goodness and promise--not its despair and hopelessness. I urge others to join me.
James E. Copple is the executive director of Project Freedom, a
communitywide coalition fighting the use and abuse of illegal drugs and
alcohol in Sedgwick County, Kan.