Monthly Archives: November 2010

Everything I Needed to Know About Kids I Learned from Sgt. Krupke

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It has been a very difficult month, and my inner and outer dialogues have circled around questions that are essentially unanswerable. Why do some kids make it and others don’t? Some people do stupid stuff for years and survive, others don’t have that kind of luck. It seems entirely random who lives and who dies.

There is no formula to follow: points off for emotional volatility and early hardship, extra credit for talent and having opportunities. That’s an old model of social betterment, from back when there was funding for things like after-school programs, financial aid and the CCC, but it’s not the world we live in today. I grew up believing that with a hand-up anyone could succeed. Right now I think it’s a miracle that anyone survives.

A few nights ago I had a dream about talking with some disadvantaged kids from Alex’s old high school, asking how many had actually gone on to college as they’d planned. Not one of them had, and one was a homeless addict who defended himself by saying, “I’m a really good thinker!” Last night I had a long dream in which my family talks and talks about what to do with his body, meanwhile Alex is lying there waiting to be put to rest. After waking from dreams like these I can’t get back to sleep, and am mired in a swamp of grief all day.

A good friend argues that you can’t separate out the elements, that each person is a complex mixture of family dynamics, psychology, brain chemistry, early parenting, learning styles, education, etc, and there’s not one thing to point to and say, “that’s what went wrong.” I think character has something to do with it too, though I couldn’t say how much and don’t even know what it is.

Very quickly, all these discussions start to feel like less ingenious spin-offs of what was said perfectly by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein in “Officer Krupke.” Is society at fault? The family? Or is it the individual? In the end, you just hope that kids survive long enough to gain the maturity they will need to lead a good life. Often, that effort seems to hinge on random moments of grace, that come out of nowhere and carry us safely to higher ground. I am so sorry my nephew missed that last moment of grace, and that we will never see what his version of “leading a good life” looks like. That would have been such a great show.