This essay appeared in
different form in The Seattle Weekly:
I was up on my roof last Sunday afternoon
smearing a black, tar-like substance around
in preparation for the rainy season. My two
boys, ages four and six, were out playing
in front of the house. Their usual game is
combination of G.I. Joe and Star Trek that
would make any Trekkie cringe in embarrassment.
The oldest, Tom, was stalking Klingons with
a curved stick meant to resemble a phaser
weapon set to stun, not kill. He is at the
age where his parents buy his shoes absurdly
oversized in anticipation of the next year's
growth, and he had on a new pair, red canvas
adorned with ridiculous caricatures from Tim
Burton's Dick Tracy. He'd picked them out
the day before in the half-off sale at a local
department store. Andrew followed his older
brother in dread anticipation of the conflict
to come. "Let's pwetend the fowce feowd
isn't woking," he said.
"No," came the reply,
"they have us trapped and we can only
escape by taking them prisoner." They
had marked off a small rectangle of dandelions
in Mr. Fenn Youngblood's side yard. Our neighbor
is eighty years old and doesn't seem to mind
these battles as long as they take place outside
the fence. Andrew much prefers G.I Joe to
Star Trek, so his clothes seemed to favor
camouflage over pastels.
Just then Ned, the neighborhood
third-grader, came zooming around the corner
followed by his younger brother and two friends.
They sported day-glo helmets and their bikes
were fast, with high-rise handlebars and
oversized tires. They raced up the street,
pausing to skid on gravel here and there,
almost losing control, then came back. They
repeated this several times, occasionally
raising their front wheels into the air as
they went by, then threw on their brakes at
the last second and came to rest in a row
just a few feet ouside of Tom and Andrew's
"Hey, that looks pretty
queer," said Ned, pointing at the sticks.
"This is my flame thwowo,"
"I bet," said one
of the others. Surely they didnt know
I was there. I was just a few feet aloft,
but may as well have been a million miles
away in the world of roof repair, the world
of parents. All day I had been thinking of
other things beside roofs. The Saturday paper
had reported four separate incidents of violence
around or near Seattle high schools that Friday.
My children were years away from that, I supposed,
but with the oldest
having just started first grade the month
before, and his spending over two hours each
day on the bus or waiting to get on the bus
or walking home from his drop-off point, my
cares seemed heavy indeed. Is there any reason
to think the world will be a better place
when he is sixteen than when he is six?
As I watched, an expression
on Tom's face caught my eye. He seemed to
look at the bike gladiators in wonder, eyes
large, yet curiously unafraid. "These
are my new shoes," he said. They were
looked more like Emmett Kelly than Captain
"What's that on them,
anyway?" rejoined Ned. "Dinosaurs?"
The others wearing helmets laughed.
This had come to be more than
the four-year old could handle. He started
to back away. Tom looked at his vanishing
brother and said, "What's the matter.
You scared?" As Andrew turned to run
back home, the four sat astride their bikes,
staring at the one left. His face reddened.
Then, just as suddenly, they were gone. For
me there would be no interfering in this play,
with its shadowy violence and intimation of
the loss of innocence.
I thought of a friend, a fellow
teacher, whose child had been mocked because
he brought a Go-Bot lunchpail to show and
tell. He was right on the verge of calling
the teacher, but never did, knowing as he
did that usually parents have no business
interfering in those battles. And I thought
of all sorts of things to tell my children,
things an adult might say when he desired
to turn humiliation back on its source: "Next
time ask Ned why, if
he's so smart, he had to stay back a grade.
Was second grade science so much fun that
he enjoyed taking it twice?" Hurting
others may come even more easily in the world
The last word surely belongs
to Andrew, who speculated with Wordworthian
innocence that those boys had been mean because
they were jealous and wished they had parents
as good as we were. Even though he phrased
it differently and without the rs, the
statement was as convincing an explanation
of the origin of evil as Ive been able
to come up with lately, and definitely worth
staying up on the roof for.