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Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2001 / 22 Elul, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Sometimes all children need is shelter from the storm -- THE note from a childhood friend came unbidden by e-mail. I hadn't heard or seen her in decades.

She was responding to a column I had written. She didn't say where she read it, but it moved her to send me some words that, quite frankly, stunned me.

What those words meant to me, in the end, was that there may be a simpler answer than our current convoluted explanations of why children get into so much trouble, why lives go bad, why our culture is troubled by drugs, violence and people with no moral center. Listen to her story:

"When I was 5 years old and you were 7, I believe, we ran away from home together. To be more precise, I ran away from home and, because your sister, Mary , wasn't home to run away with me at the time, you agreed to hide me under your back porch.

"The reasons for my leaving home have become vague over the years, but I think I was in trouble for hitting my brother or I talked back to my dad or I disobeyed my mother. It could have been any or all of the above. I remember thinking, 'I'm a bad girl and nobody understands or loves me.' It was a toddler pity-pot day for me, I guess.

"While we were waiting for Mary to return home, you and I played with the baby kittens and various bugs and other critters under your porch. You were so kind to stay with me there in the darkness, and I poured my 5-year-old heart out to you about how terrible the world was and how unfair my parents were. I started to feel a little better. I decided that life wasn't all bad. I realized that you were a good friend even if you were older and -- for goodness sake -- a boy!

"I realized, too, that running away from home (or a difficult situation) was not a good way to solve a problem. As time progressed in that dark and somewhat scary enclosure, we both became ravenously hungry. You finally convinced me to go home, face the consequences of my action, eat supper and run away some other day when Mary was home.

"I'm pleased to tell you, Bill, that I have learned to face life's hardships and challenges with much more strength and greater dignity."

I read the note several times, trying to dredge up the scene. I finally admitted that I had only a vague recollection of the incident. And maybe that's part of the point. We simply cannot know how our actions will be remembered or what affect they will have. What may be a forgotten time for someone may, for a companion, be a life-changing moment.

But what we must remember is that the way we treat children can have a profound effect on who they are and how they grow up. I have no doubt that my little friend under our porch would have grown into a strong and moral woman had the two of us never met. But somewhere in her childhood, she needed to find safe havens. She required acceptance, love, peace, friendship. We all do. What stunned me was that she got some of that from me, apparently. I don't recall being that good.

Maybe the whirlwind of adolescent dysfunction we are reaping today begins with a simple lack of harbor, with no refuge from life's storms. Is there a place children can go to feel safe? Are there friends - peers and adults - who can shadow them under their wings, who can listen to them, who can anchor their listing ships?

I bet that one of my high school English teachers doesn't recall encouraging me to be a writer after he'd read what I now know was a simply juvenile and almost meaningless bit of verse by me. His encouragement kept me going.

I'm also pretty sure that my old second-grade teacher had no idea what a boost it was for me that she came by my house day after day to tutor me while I was home for weeks, sick with pneumonia. Somehow her presence let me know I was important. It made me want to learn. I can still see her coming in our front door, looking around the corner and smiling at me in bed.

And did my father and grandfather ever really grasp how consequential it was that they finally agreed to let me get out of grade school for a few days to drive to North Dakota with them to see some land Grandpa owned? They valued my company. They saw me as one of the men in the family.

Our task is to be aware of how formative our behavior toward children can be. We can offer them at least temporary asylum, and that alone may point them toward the north star of maturity.

Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved