TROUBLE IN PARADISE
One single mother’s account of raising teenage boys on the “mean” streets of LA Suburbia
A few months ago I walked out of my house to find a razor sharp javelin stuck in the middle of my front door. It was at eye level, right where my forehead would have been if I’d opened the small window in the door and looked out when I heard the screams and squeals of tires around 1:30 am. I guess if I’d looked, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d probably be dead.
Fifteen years ago, my husband and I had moved to Calabasas, the new Beverly Hills of LA, thinking there couldn’t be a safer suburb in which to raise our children. We were the perfect family—really looked the part, private school, church on Sundays, big house on a hill overlooking everybody else on the flats. Seven years later I was divorced, expelled from paradise and living just across the border in Woodland Hills. The perfect façade was gone but I was happy in my modest home, making the best of my situation, believing it to be a peaceful neighborhood and close enough to Calabasas so we could smell the clean air wafting our way and my kids could stay in the preppy schools.
I now find myself, a single mother of two teenage sons, one sixteen and one fourteen, fighting for their safety and my own. Their sister made it through the terrifying teens and is in her third year at UCLA Law School, so I know there’s hope. I believe in my boys, I am proud of them and love them fiercely. They are exceptional human beings. More than anything else in this illusory era, where the concept of standing by your word is virtually unknown, they need to hear me say “I believe in you,” “I am proud of you,” “I love you,” and know that I mean it, so that they can grow into believing it about themselves.
Unfortunately, like so many single mothers, I’ve had to play the role of father as well as mother, doing my best to teach strength, honor, defense of the weak, respect and how to be seekers of truth. As a second degree black belt and amateur boxer, I’m not a light-weight, but every day is still a battle for my voice to be heard by young men who are finding their way into manhood without a father to guide them.
While many parents tell me they fear for their children and are at a loss how to protect them, others stick their heads in the sand, preferring ignorance to the reality of the tight-wire lives their children lead. Not having the hard evidence of javelins in their front doors, it’s easier to pretend that everything’s fine when their children, pockets flush with cash, roam the Calabasas streets and hang out at the Commons, the pristine Caruso-designed mall where even smoking in public is now illegal. Is it possible that the adults strolling along the charming winding pathways don’t know what goes on behind the Commons, where children make drug deals (often selling their parents’ prescription drugs or their own psychiatrist prescribed and government sanctioned uppers and downers), girls lie passed out drunk and fights erupt over small disagreements growing bigger over time until the boys have formed gangs that do violence to one another over stolen drugs and girlfriends?
I didn’t know at first, didn’t want to know. But ignorance is not bliss, it is foolishness.
When I heard the screams and screeching tires, and then a few seconds later, two ominous bangs, I didn’t dare go outside to investigate, just checked the interior of the house, our dogs barking frantically, my younger son following after me like a frightened puppy and then making a bed on the floor next to mine for the remainder of the night.
After discovering the javelins the next morning, I called 911 and the police arrived about one hour later. A nasty, creative piece of work, they said. Could’ve killed somebody. Prison style, homemade, with a six inch nail attached to a steel rod. Shot from some kind of weapon, imbedded at least an inch into the hard wood of the little window in the door.
The police took a report. No, I had no idea what it could be about. There’d been a young man, recently graduated from Calabasas High, who’d stayed with us for a few nights but I hadn’t seen him in the past couple of weeks. From what I understood, his father had passed away when he was young and he and his stepmother didn’t get along. He’d needed a place to stay and I’d let him use the garage.
When the young man found out about the javelin, he volunteered to talk to the police, taking responsibility on himself for what had happened. He could have easily denied the javelin incident had anything to do with him but underneath the scars that had accumulated from growing up in paradise he was a decent young man.
He explained to the police that he was in fear for his life, on the run from a gang of skinheads.
A gang of skinheads—in my neighborhood?
Oh yes, said the two police officers, heads nodding in unison. It seemed the gang was well-known to them with older men and serious murderers in their ranks. When the police pressed the young man about why the gang was after him he finally admitted that besides being Jewish—cause enough for a conflict—he’d bought weed off someone from the gang and they claimed he owed them money. The police admonished him to make better choices in the future and the young man agreed, explaining that he had to try and stay alive for the next three weeks, at which point he could join the army. Then, he’d be safe.
Safe? I thought.
But to this young man, fighting in Iraq was safer than living in or near Calabasas.
Once the police were gone, I was left with the problem of what to do with the young man. I couldn’t just let him loose on the streets so I called another single mother who lived in an exclusive gated Calabasas community and often took in troubled kids. No problem, she said, she’d make sure he stayed safe until he could join the army.
A few months before the javelin incident, my older son, who was fifteen at the time, had been attacked by a seventeen year old on the Calabasas High School wrestling team. My son had gotten into a verbal argument with the wrestler’s younger brother, who was my son’s age. That, added to the fact that we no longer lived in Calabasas but in Woodland Hills, “the wrong side of the railroad tracks,” was enough justification for the wrestler to want to do serious damage to my son and make it clear that he should stay out of the wrestler’s “hood.” Within a few seconds the wrestler, supported by back-up of about thirty of his “homies,” had my son in a head lock and threw him to the ground. The wrestler bashed my son’s head twice into the concrete and then yelled that he was going to “curb stomp” him, just like he must have seen in “American X,” and started to drag him towards the curb. Someone else yelled “shank him.”
All of this was filmed on a cell phone and immediately put up on Youtube by the perpetrators.
As the wrestler was dragging my son to the curb, someone cried that the police were coming and the gang dispersed in their BMW’s and SUV’s. My son and his four friends, who were all too young to drive, were left to make their way home on foot. My son’s forehead was the size of a grapefruit. It looked like his nose was broken. Long, angry scrapes ran down his chin, shoulder and arm. He and his friends were angry and I worried that this would escalate. My son hadn’t made the best choice by arguing with the younger brother and continuing the argument with the older one, to the point where a confrontation had occurred. Still, such experiences were part of growing up and learning the right way to behave. I knew it was natural for boys to get into tussles. But curb stomping and videos on Youtube were taking the common fistfight to a whole new level. The desensitization and disassociation from reality that those kids must have felt in order to premeditate filming the violence and then posting it online was chilling.
I knew what my son needed in those angry moments when he felt obligated to seek revenge in order to prove his manhood and a hasty decision could affect a lifetime, wasn’t me, but a man to talk to. I called a mentor of my son, a retired boxer, and he came right over. He’s a Godly man and talked straight, about how he grew up without a father, becoming an angry teenager who thought he needed to prove himself through violence. As a result he’d been shot, knifed and spent time in prison. He said it was only by the grace of God that he was alive. He told my son that you never start a fight but if someone is determined to hurt you, you do what you have to do to survive. He said, learn right now how to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut, and always, if possible, walk away. In fact, if you can run away, do it, never think you have to prove your manhood to a punk. He spoke with authority and compassion. He talked of honor and respect and doing the right thing. My son listened.
Twelve years ago, as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, I’d created a writing program in juvenile hall called InsideOUT Writers. I’m now in the process of creating WORDPOWER, a critical thinking and literacy skills curriculum to help young people learn how to think and reach independent conclusions. In juvenile hall I’d heard every story imaginable of how hurt, angry, abused kids had fallen into violence and couldn’t get out of it. Honestly, for all the gang-bangers I’d met in juvenile hall I’d never run across one who I’d felt was evil, just misguided. And now, here I was, struggling to communicate to my own son the dangers that he and his friends would face if they took justice into their own hands by choosing violence over reason. The humiliation of having to suck it up, knowing that every kid in Calabasas was watching the fight on Youtube, was almost too much for my son to bear and I suffered with him.
I’m proud to say that my son and his friends decided not to escalate the violence. Convincing them to go down to the police station to file a report was something they were not willing to do and I understood why. They did, however, agree to speak to the police if they came to our house.
Anyway, nothing will ever happen, my son and his friends said.
Why, I asked.
Because, the wrestler’s Marsha Clark’s son, they said.
It took a moment for the name to register. The Marcia Clark, the prosecutor in the O. J. Simpson trial? Yes, they said.
I was dumbfounded. My first instinct was to forget about the advice I’d just given the kids and make a visit to Marcia Clark myself. But then, I realized I had to set the right example and so I went to the Calabasas sheriff’s station to file a report. I told the police everything that had happened and explained that if they came to my house, my son and his friends would give statements. I gave all the proof the officer who interviewed me needed to back up my statements and he promised to follow up immediately. He never contacted me. No one came to interview my son.
I reached out to Marsha Clark by writing her a letter, requesting that we meet in order to get to the bottom of what had happened and bring reconciliation. I did not hear back but ever the optimist, I wanted to believe my correspondence got thrown out with the junk mail. I have found that when I am able to communicate with parents who seem on the surface to be uncaring and disconnected, in almost every instance they are people who love their kids but are overwhelmed by the commitment that it takes to raise them.
But what, I wondered, was this teaching our youth? What was it showing my children? That justice is a sham? That bullies prosper?
The fact is that while the words “equality,” “justice,” “honor” and “truth” are flimsy platitudes slung from pulpits and podiums by hypocritical, marketing-branded leaders, on America’s streets there is an ever-widening gap between the rights and privileges of the wealthy and the lack thereof amongst the poor….to be continued.
After my older son was beaten up by the Calabasas wrestler, I took both my sons out of the Calabasas school system and put them in a Charter school, where they are now home-schooled and meet with their teacher twice a week, one on one. Both of them are thriving in this program. They love their teacher and are proud of their achievements. These types of independent study programs are becoming ever more popular and many of my kids’ friends are joining them, consequently doing better academically and socially. Gone are the drama and distractions of a huge, impersonal high school campus where I’d been appalled to find teachers and staff just as dispirited and angry as the kids they were supposed to be teaching. How can teachers respect and honor their students when they are not respected and honored by those above them for the importance of their job? As a result, teachers have little patience for students who don’t fit the cookie cutter mold that all children are now required to squeeze into—or else be penalized for being “special,” which is a sure fire ticket to stifling a creative child’s brilliance.
When my oldest son, who is a talented artist and writer and has been tested as “gifted” and “highly gifted” in verbal skills, was only eleven years old he already had it all figured out. Mom, he told me one day as we were driving through idyllic Old Calabasas, you don’t understand, in Calabasas, kids have no conscience. They’ll lie, steal and cheat you. And the grown-ups aren’t any better. It’s just the way life is. My son says that one day he’ll write about this Calabasas life and I hope he does because the truth needs to be told by those who have experienced it if anything is ever to change.
Not long ago he and his best friend were stopped by the police because it was past curfew. They weren’t far from home, it was just past ten o’clock and they were hurrying on skateboards to get back. The result of this heinous “crime” was that my son and his friend were given tickets and had to go to court so that the judge could pass a sentence. The judge commended my son for being a straight “A” student and he and his friend were each fined $495 and ordered to attend a class, similar to traffic school, and told to come back in a couple of months with a certificate of completion. If they did this, the fine of $495 would be reduced to $135. Both boys attended the class and the reduced fine was paid.
I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to afford to pay the ticket? How do single mothers in more dire circumstances than mine, perhaps who don’t speak English or have no transportation, deal with these minor run-ins with the law, having an angry teen in the house, or maybe two or three? I have personally seen parents and kids in this situation, where the “crime” started with something insignificant but because the child failed to comply with the court order and the parent couldn’t pay, the problem escalated until the parent and child became so angry, frustrated and overwhelmed by worry that their already fragile relationship was ruined and the child ended up being sent away to camp or juvenile hall—where he then became the angry, violent young man that he had never been before the court intervened.
If I, in my “peaceful” neighborhood, face so many challenges, I cannot even imagine what it must it be like for single mothers in the poorer, more violent neighborhoods of Los Angeles and other big cities. Thanks to the powerful industries that feed our children’s minds on a daily dose of violence and disrespect (and don’t tell me that a daily dose of violence and disrespect doesn’t influence young minds) children think that by forming “gangs,” wearing colors, fighting over a piece of concrete, they are expressing their independence, when they are only doing what they have been taught to do by the opportunistic media giants who crave to eat their souls and bleed them dry.
I’m not interested in hearing results from another government study costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to determine whether or not violence in the media affects our children. Nor does it take a great intellect to figure out that it’s unhealthy to manipulate children into believing that they must have “things” in order to be happy and fulfilled, triggering them to demand those “things” at any cost. As adults, as a community, we are responsible to uphold to our children a standard of behavior that they can respect and feel proud to emulate. They are trying to grow up and learn how to be decent human beings. Who is teaching them? The voices of parents are all but drowned out by a society that doesn’t like and even fears teenagers, and yet caters to their impressionability, telling them how to think, feel, look, act cool—and exerting pressure on them and their parents to spend huge amounts of money in order to do so.
I am only one of many single mothers. I also happen to be a writer. As such, I believe that words, spoken with true conviction, have power. So, I am using my voice, not only for myself and my children, but for the many single mothers with whom I identify. Whatever it takes, I will be there for my boys, all the way through to manhood. They’ll be amazing, strong, good men because of what they’ve survived and because they are being taught how to make independent choices based on their own power to reason, not passively absorbing what they are being fed by market-savvy mega-corporations.
In the meantime, I’ve recently heard that the kid who started the trouble with the javelin incident is now “safely” in the army—if that isn’t an oxymoron—and thankfully, our house has been peaceful since. I’ve started MMA classes in my garage for these scrappy teenage boys with a tough MMA fighter who mentors them and teaches them the true spirit of a warrior, not the fake bravado of a street punk. And, I must admit, I join in the classes, too.
I defend my home the best way I can, setting a high standard for myself so that my kids will carry that example with them into adulthood. I stand on my own two feet, with my eyes wide open and my head out of the sand. Because in the neighborhood where I live, in every neighborhood, it’s better to be educated to the reality of the life our kids face on the streets, than to be ignorant and foolish.