Open letter to students of Palo Verde High School

In the fall of 1963, I entered the first grade. Suburban Phoenix. I had a “Bonanza” lunch pail and thermos with green Kool-Aid. “Bonanza” was a popular TV Western when I was a kid.

I walked to school. Every day. Five houses down, I would rendezvous with my friend, Doug, a second-grader. I could have walked with my sister, age 8, but back then I thought girls in general, and my sister in particular, were yucky.

I walked to school. About nine-tenths of a mile.

You gettin’ me here? An unsupervised 6- and 7-year-old walking almost a mile, complete with three street crossings, only the last of which had a crossing guard. My mother’s only stipulation was that I couldn’t cross this one vacant lot my friends preferred. She wasn’t worried about Stranger Danger; she was worried about broken glass.

I walked to school until the third grade, when we moved to rural Peoria, Ariz. Now we lived 3.5 miles from school. There were buses, sure. But I rode my bike. A gold Stingray with a “banana” seat. Only one gear. No helmet. Shared the road with cars going 50 to 60 mph on Cactus Road, then 83rd Avenue. I was 8 years old.

I survived. Here I am typing at the keyboard.

Today I’m 50. My youngest son is 6, and will enter the first grade this fall. And I wouldn’t let him walk so much as half a block out of my sight, let alone a mile.

Why? What changed? I’m afraid, that’s what changed. I’m more afraid than my parents were afraid. Or maybe that’s not true. Maybe what’s true is that I act out of fear more than they acted out of fear.

On Feb. 15, I got home from work early. Pulled up the Internet. There, in a nice blue box, was the headline: “Ninth-grade Palo Verde student shot and killed.” Underneath it said the victim was walking home from school. The news was about an hour old.

My cell phone was three rooms away, down the hallway, across the living room and past the kitchen. Turned out to be the longest walk of my life. See, I have a son. Ninth grade. Palo Verde student. Walks to and from school every day.

My son answered his phone. He didn’t have any bullets in him. At least not today.

But somebody’s son was dead, and I knew the difference between that boy and my boy was the difference between pingpong balls swirling in the lottery. Which is to say no difference at all. And my heart breaks for that family, and for you students, and for my son and for myself, because only the worst kind of fool would find solace in the idea that this happened to someone else.

It happened to all of us.

Students, I ask two things of you. First, please be patient with us parents for a while. Because, on a good day, whenever we’re awake, we’re always afraid about you. No one has a more irrational imagination than a parent. If there’s a bad thing to think, we’ll think it. And these are not good days.

So, for a time, please, let us pretend there is a way to guarantee your safety, a fail-safe strategy to protect you from evil. Let us pretend our pingpong ball is different. Let us be like the U.S. government putting those two 19-year-olds with M-16s at McCarran International Airport in the weeks following 9/11. It was silly. But we felt better.

Next, I want you to say “yes” to caution and paying attention, because evil and stupidity are both real, and especially dangerous when combined in the same person. But I want you to say “no” to fear. I didn’t say don’t be afraid. I said say no to fear. The sidewalk where Chris Privett fell belongs to you, not to bullies and buttheads and murderers. That neighborhood, that school, your youth — all those things belong to you. No one else.

Reclaim that sidewalk for the freedom and joy that are your birthright. Gather in mass. Hold hands, preferably with a student you don’t know. Make a parade. Live with courage. Show the adults how it’s done. Yes, evil is real. But so is hope. So is love.

I’m afraid, too. But if my boy wants to walk to and from school, I’m going to let him. Because I don’t want to give evil the satisfaction.

Fear won’t honor Chris. But life will.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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