Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Shot Through The Heart

On Monday’s ABC World News, Diane Sawyer linked Columbine and Chardon High School in the same sentence. My heart hit the floor.

I already knew about the shooting of five students at Chardon High. Within moments of the tragedy, my son and middle daughter began sending text messages and posting on Facebook. But the horror didn’t strike home until the familiar streets and faces reached the national broadcast and thus entered the history books.

My late parents moved to Chardon the same year I began college at John Carroll University. My three younger sisters graduated from Chardon High. St. Mary’s Church, which sits across the street from the school complex and is now the site of constant vigils, is a “family church.” St. Mary’s—like Chardon itself—features in my novels. It’s the church where two of my sisters married and funeral services were held for both of my parents.

Three of my siblings still live in Chardon. My nephew is a senior at Chardon High.

If you don’t know much about Geauga County, ignore the descriptions given by national media. The county seat—Chardon—isn’t a Cleveland suburb. This rural, once prosperous exurb sits between Cleveland and the Pennsylvania state line far to the east. Farmers in Geauga boil maple syrup every spring and the county hosts a large Amish population. The Wall Street Meltdown hit folks hard. When a young mother was discovered living in her car with her three children, the women of a local PTA quietly raised donations and rooted through their closets to get her back on her feet. The churches are full every Sunday and folks visit the many orchards each autumn to pick apples with their kids.

Ohio’s unofficial motto, The Heart of It All, sums up the county well.

If you’ve read my novel, Treasure Me, you might recognize Chardon Square. My fictional Liberty, Ohio is based on Chardon for the simple reason that Geauga’s county seat reminds me of everything I consider great about Americans. People manage to scrape by with dignity and grace. Neighbors care about neighbors. Children ride bicycles down streets lined with maple trees that look like they’ve been lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting. Whenever I ran into Judge Timothy Grendell at the local gym, he’d happily chat about the needs of the county’s youth as we jogged on treadmills. Like so many of the locals, he is a big-hearted Ohioan who combines an incisive mind with horse sense.

When people talk about American grit and dignity and character, they’re talking about the folks of Chardon.

But there’s another side to Chardon—to America, actually—and we all know it well.

During the 1990s I received my State of Ohio foster-adopt certification. I became privy to a disheartening stack of case studies dealing with local children who’d been abused and neglected. Three young children were found living in a barn—they’d never seen a bathtub or enjoyed a hot meal, for that matter. A foster father unable to handle a 9-year-old girl who’d been sexually abused bound her to a chair with duck tape. She sat thus fettered for several hours before a social worker discovered her. Today, children continue to be dumped into the foster care system while parents deal with substance abuse or mental health issues.

Luckier kids never make it into the system. They have relatives who try to step up to the plate and take a swing at parenting a broken child. I suspect this is the story behind Chardon High shooter T.J. Lane, a troubled 17-year-old boy living with his grandfather. According to news reports T.J. stole a gun from his uncle and subsequently injured two students and murdered three others. Reports state that his father has been arrested in the past for violent crimes against women, including T.J.’s mother.

This is not the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting. It certainly isn’t befitting the spirit of America.

I refuse to finish this essay with empty platitudes about how we should all pray for the families and students of Chardon, Ohio. Of course we should. But we must do more. We live in a country littered with broken homes and lost children. You can reach out to a child. Now. Today. You can make a difference.

Join Big Brothers-Big Sisters or form a Boy Scout troop. Call your local school and offer to tutor several hours a week. Visit a local House of Worship and become active in its Life-Teen organization. Provide respite for overworked foster parents who need a babysitter once a month.

As Americans, we must recognize that our children are our country’s most precious resource. Find a lost and lonely T.J. Lane when he’s 9 or 10-years-old and give a little of yourself. You’ll give him someone to admire.

Become a role model by getting involved.

In my March release, The Tree of Everlasting Knowledge, I set the story’s theme early on with this sentence:

Sociopaths weren’t born into the world; they were beaten into existence.

Together, we can stop the abuse that ends with a boy stealing a handgun and extinguishing the hope contained in three young lives. We can, and we must.

19 comments:

  1. Wonderful post Christine. Like you I have seen both the good and the evil that is present in our society. Too many of us choose to ignore the bad, to deny it exists. Thanks for writing this. I'll post it in several places.

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  2. Thanks so much for this honest, platitude free post. The horrors that children endure in our backyards are undeniable and horrific, made all the more so by the fact that so many people prefer to turn a blind eye.

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  3. Many thanks for re-posting, Ben. We all need to work together to reach young people like T.J. before a tragedy happens. Small steps can reap giant rewards if we all pitch in.

    Johanna, I would've been among the blind were it not for the coursework undertaken to become an adoptive mother. I had no idea how many abused and neglected children lived in my area--and live throughout the U.S. We all need to reach out to help the children.

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  4. Christine,
    Simply, this is a beautiful and heartbreaking post. Thank you for your insights, your heart and your call to action. xoxo

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    1. Tess, thank you again for starting the prayer chain on FB. It meant so much to people in Chardon. xo

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  5. My heart broke reading your post. So beautifully said.

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  6. Tess and Airicka, many thanks for reading along. This was, by far, the most difficult post I've ever written.

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  7. “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
    ― Nelson Mandela

    Thanks for this post, Christine.

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    1. Laura, I've never before heard Mandela's quote. Many thanks for sharing. I pray we'll all begin to work together to heal the country's broken children.

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  8. This is so very touching. Thank you for writing this - it can't have been easy to do so!

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    1. Galit, no easy, no. But if the essay spurs even one person to action, it was well worth it. Many thanks for reading along.

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  9. As a teacher of many years, your words ring so true to me. But none ring more true than your call to action. Thank you for writing this. It cannot have been easy to do, but I would have expected nothing less from a woman who leads by example. Thank you for sharing your unique perspective with us.

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  10. Martha, I had no idea you were a teacher! If anyone leads by example, it's the dedicated teachers who serve our youth every day. Thank you for your commitment.

    Many thanks for reading along.

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  11. Just now getting to read this post, but I want to applaud you ...if we stand for nothing, we fall for anything.

    I am in my 25th year of teaching high school. At the beginning of this school year, three students were arrested for planning a "Columbine-like" attack on the first day of school. We're a small (under 1,000) school in a suburb, a mostly prosperous one. It was chilling to think that students with whom I've walked the halls could plan shooting all of us like goldfish in a small pond.

    I think part of the problem today is that some families, from the outside, are clean and bright-faced...but they're a hot mess behind the scenes. A student I taught last year asked me to be her mentor for her Senior Project. In doing so, she started to open up about her family life. To look at her, one would never expect what she lives with daily.

    Thank you for sharing your heart. I hope readers take it to heart.

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    1. Christa, I can't thank you enough for posting a teacher's perspective on my blog. I was fortunate enough to raise my four kids while working from home, which afforded me the time to get involved and remain active in school events as they grew up.

      What I discovered during those years of PTO meetings, Girl Scouts and church programs was disheartening. Many children grew up with the flimsiest parental guidance. The hotbed of adolescence? Too many kids stumbled through those years plugged into technology (much of it violent) with nary a sensible adult in sight.

      We all need to recognize that the American family is falling apart. As a country, we need to reach out to working parents and recognize that parenting must become a national project. Yes, we all must find time for our own children--especially during the tumultuous teenage years--but we also must reach out to kids who have no one to turn to.

      Christa, if you'd ever like to post on my blog about how parents and other adults can make a difference, please send mail to christinenolfi@gmail.com

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  12. Your love for your community is heart warming and understandable. Praying for all of you. Hugs, Wendy

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