11 Dec “When World Intervenes in kids’ lives,” Blank Slate column by Andrew Malekoff, Dec. 7, 2018
The recent death of our 41st President George H.W. Bush brought forth a memory from my earlier years at North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center. For decades I worked as a frontline clinician in the Guidance Center’s outpatient mental health program. My specialty was working with adolescents in groups.
One of the lessons I learned over the years is the importance of paying attention to what is happening in the world that might impact on kids’ day to day lives. On Jan. 16, 1991, 18 hours after the deadline for Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces to leave Kuwait, my boys’ group arrived for their weekly meeting.
The boys, ranging in age from 12 to 14 years old, were too young to have experienced the Vietnam War, yet were old enough to have been exposed to growing threats of war and terrorism. War was on their minds. They talked of cruise missiles, B-52’s, stealth bombers. They were like Nintendo warriors, I thought to myself.
One of the group members Tony said, “I’m afraid we’ll be bombed, we might be hit, I can see World War III coming. What if there’s a nuclear war?”
As the discussion progressed, the boys agreed that little protection existed against terrorism.
The group railed about how “everything is falling apart.” They seemed to have little faith in adults’ and authorities’ ability to protect them.
Rick, who could’ve easily passed for 17, said, “You guys will probably think I’m a wimp, but I’m scared s***less.”
When I asked the others in the group if they thought Rick was a wimp, they said “no” and revealed that they, too, were scared. I told them that war is scary and that it takes a lot of courage to be supportive.
When the meeting ended, the boys started walking out at a few minutes past seven. I flicked on the radio in time to hear President Bush’s press secretary Marlin Fitzwater announce: “The liberation of Kuwait has begun.” Moments later the boys burst through the door yelling, “They started dropping bombs!”
Rick, who bragged about an anticipated “hot date,” said he was going home to hide in his basement. Kenny’s eyes filled with tears. “My mom’s not here yet,” he said. “I’m scared. Can I stay with you ‘til she gets here?”
I motioned for him to sit down. An airplane passed overhead, and the tears began rolling down his cheeks. He said, “Every time I hear a plane, I’m afraid it will drop a bomb. I was afraid of the dark when I was little.”
My reassurances were interrupted by the buzz of the telephone and the message of the arrival of his mom, his former foster mother who adopted Kenny, providing him with the stability, consistent care and nurturing that he had been lacking in his early years.
Without hesitation Kenny, about half my size, gave me a bear hug and, burying his head into my midsection said, “Thanks Andy, I hope to see you next week.” I reaassured him that he would. As I escorted him down the winding staircase with my arm around his shoulder I could feel him trembling. Or was it me?
When I was in the seventh grade the news of President Kennedy’s assassination came to us through the classroom intercom. Twenty-eight years later, the news of the war with Iraq arrived again through a disembodied voice, this time through a radio. At 12-years-old the news was followed by no human interaction, only blank stares and a gasp punctuated silence.
We were dismissed and I returned home to an inescapable eeriness that I remember sharply to this day. And now the world stage was again intersecting with a gathering of seventh graders. As I look back to the boys’ group I felt privileged to have been in a place that provided more than blank stares and silence.