A vignette: Through the eyes of children
Fatima, aged six, sank her teeth into my upper arm. “Let go,” I said sharply, trying to stay calm, “that hurts.” She peered up at me, back black buttons bright and challenging. She bit down again, this time much harder. “Fatima,” I said slowly and deliberately, “if you don’t let go, I will never let you brush my hair again.” The threat worked; Fatima slowly let go. She spent a minute looking with pride at the teeth marks and small drops of blood on my arm and then quickly snatched a brush from inside my purse, plunked her frail six-year-old body on my lap, and started to stroke my hair with care and tenderness.
We had only known one another for an hour, but I already knew that Fatima loved brushing and braiding my hair. My first thought was that long, straight, Caucasian hair was different and therefore interesting to this small black child. But I soon realized that her fascination with this activity had much more to do with her desperate need for any form of physical intimacy. Biting, braiding, pinching and cuddling all helped fill the void in a way that games and storytelling didn’t. Besides which, with her short attention span, she found it impossible to concentrate on Candyland for longer than three minutes — playing board games was a painful business.
Ernie, the large genial black man who ran the services in the Prince George Hotel ballroom for the Children’s Aid Society, filled me in on the family background before I left the hotel that day.
Fatima had four siblings, two older, two younger. Between them, these children had three fathers, none of them currently on the scene. According to Ernie, their mother, Regina, was “totally out of it.” She spent most of her waking hours feeding her crack habit. She “weighed at most 95 pounds and jangled all over.” The children rarely made it to school as their mother had a hard time getting them down to the hotel lobby early enough to catch the school bus. Instead, they spent their days drifting around the hallways of the hotel. The oldest, Tyrone, a boy of 10, already spent much of his time on the streets.
The Prince George Hotel where Fatima lived, was, in 1988, a welfare hotel occupied by some 800 homeless families. Located on Madison Avenue at 28th Street in New York City, amid quiet residential streets, publishing houses and coffee-shops, it was a maelstrom of noise and action in a genteel part of town. Mothers stood around, joking and bickering with one another, and children were everywhere. Circling the edges were a few men, some of them sharply dressed. They seemed to be sizing up the women, hoping to strike a deal for either drugs or sex.
Every Tuesday in the summer of 1981 edged through this crowd, on the way to my duties in the ballroom. I was one of several volunteers from my church. Each of us spent three to six hours a week helping these homeless hotel children with their schoolwork, playing ‘educational’ games, or just giving individual kids some special attention.
I always dreaded entering the hotel. The guards were invariably hostile, pushing you about with rough hands as they searched you, keeping you waiting for as long as 20 minutes as they checked identification. In addition, the entrance of the Prince George Hotel was a menacing place. Violence was pervasive. Small ugly incidents were constantly erupting on the steps or in the lobby and hallways.
I remember one such ugly incident. It was a beautiful summer’s day in early June. Because of the warm weather the hotel steps were particularly crowded, and I stood in line waiting my turn to go through the revolving door. “Shut your f- - - mouth,” one mother bellowed a few feet to my right. I jumped nervously, wondering if she was yelling at me. But she grabbed a three-year-old boy and started slapping his face, quite viciously, I thought. The boy thought otherwise. “It don’t hurt, Mom,” he crowed between each slap, goading her on. “You goddam brat,” screamed his mother and set to work with a series of more powerful blows. I winced as blood started to leak from the boy’s mouth and, taking advantage of a gap in the crowd (people had moved to the side to get a better view of the stand-off between mother and son), quickly scuttled into the hotel to fetch a guard — who, after surveying the scene, shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
A kid with a bloody face was small potatoes by Prince George standards. Just that month there had been two homicides and five drugrelated knifings that I knew of. All of these welfare hotels in midtown were immensely violent. In one particularly tragic case at the Martinique Hotel, a 10-month-old baby girl was found dead in a hotel room. When she died Tamara weighed less than seven pounds. The proximate causes of death were premature birth, poor nutrition and an intestinal infection. The underlying reasons for her needless death ranged from poverty and homelessness to parental neglect. A few weeks after the baby’s death, her big brother, eight-year-old Brian, dictated a poem to a volunteer worker at the hotel:
When our baby die we start to
sit by the window. We just
sit an’ sit, all wrapped up
quiet in old shirts an’ watch
the pigeons. That pigeon she fly so
fast, move so fast. She move nice.
A real pretty flyer.
She open her mouth and take in
the wind. We just spread out crumbs,
me and my brother. And we wait.
Sit and wait.
There under the windowsill.
She don’t even see us till we slam
down the window. And she break.
She look with one eye.
She don’t die right away.
We dip her in, over and over,
in the water pot we boils on
the hot plate.
We wanna see how it be to die
slow like our baby die.
I showed this poem to one of the social workers at the Prince George. Her reaction was bitter: “We are breeding expensive killers in these homeless hotels, and no one seems to care.” An understandable response given the current costs of child neglect in New York City.
A recent study estimated that in the United States the costs to the taxpayer of one ‘throwaway child’ — a child like Brian who, at age eight, has already dropped out of school—is about US$300,000. That is the cost of one unproductive life, spent in and out of the welfare system, in and out of the penal system. The pain in Brian’s life does not even come cheaply.
It is all too easy to dismiss the stories of Fatima and Brian as far-out tales from the front lines of Manhattan society. When we pick up the newspaper and read distressing articles about homeless or battered children, we sigh and feel badly for a moment or two, we then turn the page and look for some news that is more upbeat or mainstream. For, in rich nations, it is very tempting to handle bad news about children as strictly someone else’s problem. Babies sometimes die, but generally these are poor, black babies. Families can become homeless, but the worst cases are somewhere else. Doesn’t everyone know that New York City is a zoo? We see these as nasty, even painful, problems, but they don’t belong to us. We try to convince ourselves: As long as we’re not poor or black, as long as we don’t live in the ghetto or the third world, our children are safe.
We are, of course, dead wrong.
Few families can escape the neglect that threatens to overwhelm children in the contemporary world. In the United Kingdom and the United States, more than a quarter of all babies are now born to single mothers, and many of these women find it impossible to provide shelter or safety for their children. In these countries a third of all children are forced to deal with the fallout from their parents’ divorce, and almost half of these youngsters lose contact with their fathers, with predictable and often serious emotional consequences.
Kevin White is a case in point.
For our first chat, in June 1992, Kevin and I arranged to meet for coffee at Ann’s Pantry, a small cafe in his home town of Ware. Just 40 miles north of London in the county of Hertfordshire, Ware is a placid, prosperous suburb surrounded by open wheat fields and gently rolling hills. At least on the surface, this green and pleasant land seems a world away from the violence and misery of New York City.
Kevin White looked quite incongruous among the elderly female shoppers chatting about a Women’s Institute meeting as they fingered their pearls and patted their hairdos. It was 11 o’clock on a Friday morning, and most young people were at school or work, but Kevin had not been to school for a couple of weeks. June had been a bad month. Two ugly incidents — a bitter confrontation with an English teacher, a bloody fight with a much younger boy—had caused Kevin to drop out of sight for a while. He was not at all sure that he would ever go back to his secondary school.
In the summer of 1992, Kevin was just 15 but looked considerabl; older. Clad almost entirely in black, he had clearly given considerable thought to his outfit for our rendezvous at Ann’s Pantry. A carefully ironed black turtle-neck and an expensive leather jacket were set off by black studded army boots and Ray-Ban aviator sun-glasses. But behind his shades this ‘wannabe’ warrior seemed quite nervous. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, and he cracked his finger joints as he struggled to find the words to tell me what had gone wrong with his life. Food seemed to help. Two hours into our conversation Kevin had consumed 12 orders of hot buttered toast. He said he found it soothing. He was, after all, just a kid.
Up until four years ago, Kevin had led a fairly normal life. He and his older brother and sister lived with their parents in a three-bedroom house on the outskirts of town. His Dad worked as a security guard, and his Mum had gone back to work when he was six, making circuit boards at a nearby electronics plant. Kevin sees this middle part of his childhood — between the age of 6 and 11 — as a golden period. “With both of them working we was (sic) beginning to get somewhere,” he says wistfully. “We had money for summer holidays and we put in this new bathroom.”
Two days before Christmas 1988, Kevin’s father left his mother for another woman—a wealthy older woman, who at one time had employed his Dad. Kevin can’t stand the new woman in his Dad’s life. “She’s a real snob, keeps on at me about my table manners and is always butting into conversations correcting the way I talk,” he said, flushed with anger and hurt. Kevin learned to avoid his “stepmum” and has only been to his Dad’s home twice in the last year.
Kevin’s mother fell to pieces after his Dad left. “She used to come home from work and lock herself in the bathroom with a bottle of gin and pretty much cry herself through the evening,” said Kevin, his face blank, his voice expressionless. “My older brother and sister moved out, and I was left to deal with her. I couldn’t stand all of her crying, it made me mad. I yelled at her a lot, shoved her around a bit. It was bad.” Kevin’s voice was bleak, he cracked his finger joints with renewed vigour.
Just over a year ago, Kevin’s mother finally pulled herself together and found a boyfriend.
“What is he like?” I asked. “Do you like him?”
Instead of answering, Kevin took off his aviator sun-glasses and wordlessly pointed to a fresh scar that ran, jagged and ugly, half an inch above his right eye.
“How did you get that?” I asked. A chill ran down my spine. I knew the answer.
“He laid into me last weekend and tried to rip my eyelid off,” said Kevin nonchalantly, trying to look cool and uncaring. “You see he earns a living as a mercenary and is pretty violent.”
“How did he get into that line of work?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Kevin, “My Mum told me that he used to be in the army.”
Kevin said the man was paid the equivalent of US$500 a day to fight in the Middle East. More recently, he was getting US$ 100 a day to take part in the war in former Yugoslavia, but came home because he thought the money wasn’t enough.
“Says he can make more money driving a lorry,” recalled Kevin.
“How long has he been living with you and your mother?”
Kevin cracked his finger joints some more before replying. “About a year,” he sighed. “You know he just moved in too quick. I met him once, and before I knew it he was living in our house ordering my Mum around, using up all her attention. She is forever cooking special meals for him, ironing his uniforms, polishing his stupid military gear. She hardly knows I exist any more. And this bloke really doesn’t like kids, he’s got two of his own and hasn’t bothered to see either of them in five years. Anyway, I soon figured I should look for my own girlfriend and that’s how I ended up with Sam. She’s great, and I spend most of my time with her now. I’m over at her house most evenings and weekends. Her Mom works shifts and Sam has the place to herself. Means we get up to all kinds of stuff; you know, sex, porno videos, that kind of thing.” Kevin winked at me, an unpleasant, leering grimace.
I decided to change the subject. “How much homework do you do, Kevin?”
“Homework!” Kevin laughed loudly, as though the notion of doing homework was a great joke. “I don’t do homework.”
“Why not, Kevin?” “I just don’t have time.” “Hang on a second, what do you mean, you don’t have time?” I said disbelievingly.
“Well, I get home from school about 4.30, then I eat my tea and get showered and changed—Sam’s very particular—then I head off to Sam’s and don’t get home until about midnight.”
“What do you do at Sam’s?”
“Watch TV, fool around.”
“How much TV?”
“Not much. Only four hours most nights.”
“But, Kevin, you can’t tell me you have no time for homework when you watch TV four hours every evening.”
Kevin reluctantly saw my point. “I suppose I could, but there are so many distractions at Sam’s house, and it isn’t as though anyone else is doing homework.”
“What do your teachers do when you don’t turn in homework?”
“They give me detention, which I don’t go to. Then they give me another detention for not going to detention, and I don’t go again,” Kevin grinned, delighted with himself. “Then they send a note home to my parents, and my Mum reads it and laughs. I mean there’s no way teachers can make you do work at home unless your parents get in on the act. My Dad used to belt me if I got into trouble in school, but these days he’s not on the scene.”
Kevin has given little thought to his future. Mostly he wants to move in with Sam. “We’re getting engaged when I turn 16 — in fact we are kind of engaged already — then in two years we’ll get married,” said Kevin proudly.
His ideas on the earning-a-living front are much more hazy. He used to think he would go into teaching — he always liked the idea of helping little kids — but that dream has receded as he became alienated from school. He now talks of doing something with motor bikes. Maybe he could become a rally driver, or get into the garage business. - Working on high-performance bikes could be a turn-on.
The subject of bikes brought real animation to Kevin’s face. He leaned forward eagerly: “Motor bikes are really my thing. There’s nothing that beats tearing down some country road at 130 miles an hour, squealing around corners, brushing the ground with your knee.” His eyes shone with excitement.
“Do you have your own bike?” I asked.
Kevin looked regretful. “There’s no way I can afford the kind of bike I want, it would cost about three grand to buy and insure. Besides, I’m not old enough to ride yet — at least not legally. But I have this friend who — for a consideration — lets me ‘borrow’ his bike and his licence, and I’ve outridden the police a couple of times —just this last Sunday, riding down the A10, I lost them in the fog. I must have been doing 120.”
“In the fog?” I was appalled at the notion of this disturbed 15-yearold, in the fog, loose on a high-performance bike, jeopardizing his own and everyone else’s safety. There were grounds for my anxiety. Two of Kevin’s schoolmates had recently been killed on motor bikes, and one of these accidents involved an elderly pedestrian who subsequently died.
The fact is youngsters like Fatima, Brian and Kevin are unlikely to become productive law-abiding citizens. Deprivation and rejection — whether in mid-town Manhattan or the English home counties — yield a harvest of failure and violence. If we take good care of our children they will add to the productive capability of an economy; if we fail to look after our children they will drag a nation down. To quote the words of late US President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Ignorance, ill health, personality disorders — these are destructions often contracted in childhood; afflictions that will cripple the man and damage the nation.”