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Jewish World Review Sept. 3, 1999 /22 Elul, 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The answers? They are right in front of us --
THE BIG NEWS of the summer -- the stories that, come December, will make the Top 10 News Events of the Year lists -- got banner headlines and we-interrupt-this-broadcast bulletins when they first burst onto the scene.

But it is the smaller stories -- sometimes details buried in news reports, sometimes incidents that don't make the papers at all -- that really define us. It is those stories -- if we pause long enough to pay attention to them -- that warn us of how we must change if we have any chance to thrive as a people.

Three such stories from this summer:

In the Chicago Public Schools' summer sessions, many students -- only in the 3rd grade, and upset and fearful that they will be held back a year if they don't do well in summer classes -- were also afraid about something else:

That when school let out for the day, they would be hurt on the streets as they tried to get home.

As the Tribune's Ray Quintanilla reported in a moving story on this profoundly sad phenomenon, one 8-year-old girl asked her classmate, "How are you getting home?" And the classmate responded:

"My mom told me to look for her boyfriend driving a brown car. She didn't tell me his name. He didn't show up yesterday, so I walked by myself."

Another 3rd grader in summer school said that she had been walked home one day by a neighbor of her family -- who was attacked a few blocks from the school, and was left with with a bloody face and clothing.

And these 8-year-olds are expected to study and learn and try to be promoted while their stomachs are churning about what may happen when they leave the school building.

In wealthier areas, there are trouble signs of a different sort. The Tribune reported that seniors from Lake Forest High School will no longer be permitted to hold their graduation at Ravinia, because of "damage to property and lack of respect toward Ravinia employees and regulations by students and parents alike."

Perhaps the most telling incident in the report was this one:

A Ravinia employee, trying to maintain order at the Lake Forest graduation, allegedly was told by the parent of a Lake Forest student that "he earned in an hour what the employee was paid for a week's work."

Which, in one sentence, tells you volumes about what is so wrong in this world we all share. The parent evidently thought he could do whatever he wanted; after all, his pay dwarfed that of the Ravinia worker. And you ask yourself how the children of a person who would say such a thing can be expected to grow into decent citizens.

Then there was this, which never made the paper, but was observed by a Tribune staff member.

At the Belmont elevated station, a man and a woman were waiting with their children for the train to arrive. One child was a toddler in a stroller; the other was a boy of about 5 or 6, "who looked so cute in his big round glasses."

This was on one of those days this summer when the temperatures were so hot that citizens were being advised to stay indoors if they had air conditioning. Those days it sometimes felt difficult even to breathe.

The boy with the glasses was sick in the heat. He was vomiting; he couldn't help himself.

And he was being loudly scolded, in front of all the people on the platform, by his mother. "She was talking to him in a way that made it sound like he was (going to be) in trouble," the Tribune staff member said. The child was ill, and the sicker he got, the more he was yelled at.

"The little boy was still vomiting as the train pulled up," the person who saw it said. The child was so upset -- and in front of strangers, he was being blamed for being sick. "My heart broke," the staff member said. "His parents should have been rubbing his back or trying to make him feel better." They were the ones who had brought him out into the heat -- and he was being publicly humiliated and threatened with punishment for the crime of not being able to stop himself from being sick.

When 1999 ends, you won't see any of those stories listed as the ones that really mattered this year. But when you do see the top-10-stories lists, you might want to think about these three, too. Where are we heading? How might we start to make ourselves better? Some of the answers are right there. Right in front of us. clean.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, Tribune Media Services