Potentially Dangerous Friends: How They’re Made
I am the mother of a child who is a little different. You probably wouldn’t notice. He speaks, eats, runs, and jumps. He cries when he’s sad and laughs when he’s happy. He looks like all the other kids in his class. Though they can see the difference, even if you can’t.
In kindergarten, he once hid under the table for hours. The teacher didn’t know what to do. I had to crawl in with him and coax him out. In first grade, he refused to do his school work for almost the entire year. They thought he needed to be held back. In third grade, they put him in the gifted program. At home, he ate only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I tried to sneak in bananas when he wasn’t looking but he always noticed. When things didn’t go his way he’d throw himself on the floor and scream. Things like my request that he brush his teeth or change his clothes. That he take a bath. He’d slam his fists and feet. He’d bang his head. He was 9.
In fourth grade, he became so angry with his teacher that he wrote hateful things in his journal. When he was caught he blamed her for going through his personal things. He wrote of wanting her to die. The school took the threat seriously. They suspended him for two days.
He was devastated. He had erased it, he said. It wasn’t there anymore. Why was he still in trouble? He wanted to know. Why was everyone always so mean to him?
When we got home he cried and wanted me to hold him. This was nothing new. He’s full of contradictions. Angry one minute, playing with my hair the next. He tells me he loves me at least a hundred times a day and follows me to the car when I leave. He stops to hug me every few feet. Sometimes I have to remind him that I need space too. But he has a hard time remembering.
His anger seems more controlled now that he’s older. He has a dog and two rabbits, and books. Both help him feel calm. He eats carrots and cucumber, pasta and avocado, and smoothies, though still prefers PB&Js to all of it. He’s obsessed with computer programing and making YouTube videos. He’s really into science and space and theories and discoveries. His hero is Neil deGrasse Tyson.
He’s really smart.
But being smart doesn’t make friends. Or community. Or build connections with other kids. In real life, they remember the boy who throws fits and uses huge words and talks about astrophysics and politics. The boy who never does what he’s told because he thinks he knows a better way. Who plays Lego and Minecraft and seems to be oblivious to their more grown-up interests. He’s 11 going on 9 while his classmates seem to be quickly approaching 14.
He’s alone a lot.
And then, a few years ago he made a friend. He liked Minecraft too, he told me. They played video games together, had Nerf wars in the woods, talked about the animals they each had. It seemed like a good fit. At first. But this new kid had the color of someone who hadn’t been outside in a long time. His skin was like yellowed paper, fragile, and dirty. It made me sad. I wanted to give him a bath and take him to the beach.
After a while, little things crept up. He never took his shoes off unless I made him. When he spent the night, he never brought pajamas and next day clothes and a toothbrush—even when the sleepover was planned. He always smelled a little like mildew and dust, and he never asked for things. Instead, he’d make statements: I’m hungry. I’m bored. I don’t want to play anymore.
I stopped feeling so sad for him.
His family lived at the end of a meandering mountain road which was overgrown and unpaved. There were no utilities out there. A satellite connected them to the rest of the world—sometimes. Their water came from a well. It might have been quaint if the property hadn’t also been littered with machine parts and broken vehicles, littered with bullet holes. There was five miles between their property and their neighbor’s. I know. I counted.
I took the boys to the science center once. Later. After seeing where he lived. I wanted to show him the bigger world. We saw a show at the planetarium. My son was so excited, but his friend didn’t care. He didn’t even look up. He just sat there picking his nose and eating it. Slowly. Methodically. There was something deeply disturbing about the blank look on his face. About the way he licked his finger. He was 10.
I decided I didn’t like him.
I may have actually hated him. I never imagined myself capable of hating a kid. But I did. He was weird. Rude. He smelled, and his dirty shoes on my carpet made me crazy, and his parents were also weird and awkward, and I began to form this idea in my head of the kind of home they had. Of course, for all I knew, they felt the same way about us. I’m a realist. I know we may not be top pick either, probably not even middle. But there was something else. Something beyond just weird. They made me uncomfortable. They set off alarms inside me.
Sometime around the end of 5th grade, I ran into the boy’s mom in the grocery store parking lot. I don’t think she and I had ever really spoken. Maybe it was the place I parked. Or the way I loaded the groceries. Whatever the reason, she was compelled to stop. To speak. To share with me a story I have never been able to shake.
Two men had robbed her recently, she told me. Right where I stood. They stole her purse. She used the term conceal and carry. And permit. Hers. Not theirs. Conceal, it turned out, was her bag. And carry was a handgun. She never left home without it, she said, and ‘felt naked now that it was gone.’ She laughed here as if it were a joke. As if having a gun helped everyone to feel clothed. She went on to complain about filing a police report. Expressed annoyance at their blame. Putting a gun into the hands of criminals wasn’t her fault, she said.
In my mind, I tallied all the times my son may have been within reach of a gun. How many times had hers? I wondered how many other guns they had on that property? How many times had the kids almost stumbled into one? How many times did they not have to stumble at all? I began counting the bullet holes in all the rusted metal in my memories.
The alarm bells sounded a little louder.
I decided my son was no longer allowed to be friends with the kid. That was it. They were dangerous. And not the ‘kind of people we wanted in our lives.’ But then, how would I explain to my son that his one friend in the whole world was now off limits? These kids were caught in the middle of two conflicting ideologies. It wasn’t fair.
But what was fair?
Was I expected to abandon my convictions about guns and gun culture so that my son could have a friend? Was that friendship worth the risk to his life? Whose beliefs trumped whose? It felt disproportionally weighted to their side. After all, a home without a gun poses no risk to their ideas about rights and bearing arms. But theirs…I wasn’t telling them what to believe, but having firearms in a house with children wasn’t OK with me. Especially if those guns were being carried, armed, and in a bag.
I began telling other parents about this concealed gun story but was met with tepid indifference. Sure, they’d say, lots of people have guns. I have one in my closet. Or my dad has a locked safe in his garage. Or we have a couple we keep just for emergencies. As though an emergency kit should come stocked with bandaids, aspirin, and a 9mm.
Ok, I thought. I hear you. But I politely disagree.
My son and I spent a lot of time doing activities that kept us too busy for friends that summer and the following September marked the first year of middle school; a place with a hundred new kids who didn’t know my son’s more prickly side. I was convinced he’d meet someone new. Someone without guns. Someone who bathed and used tissues and who maybe liked to ride bikes.
But he didn’t.
Instead, they reconnected despite not sharing any of the same classes or lunch hours. I relented and said yes to the boy coming over. I thought that was a good compromise. He could come to our house, and I wouldn’t have to ban his openly. Win: Win.
Except he talked only about getting his own rifle. About going hunting. About target practice in the yard. He was 12.
He wanted to play first shooter games on the computer. When my son tried to get him interested in Minecraft he chose to play the laptop instead. On the other side of the room. Good, I thought. Maybe they were finally drifting apart. But the thing about my son’s brain is that it works really well to connect facts and ideas, but it’s terrible at reading people. He had no idea they weren’t playing together. To him, nothing had changed.
At pick up time his mom asked me how my son liked middle school. Asked me how his grades were. She told me that her son was finally getting As. She asked if I wanted to know how she kept him motivated, focused. ‘He and his dad have this deal,’ she said, ‘for every A he brings home, he gets one more piece of an AK47.’ She smiled. She seemed to be pleased with the arrangement. Her son was an A student, and she got to give him what he wanted: A semi-automatic weapon. An assault rifle. Designed for combat.
What would a 12-year-old boy do with it? What would anyone do? What image did she hold in her mind when she saw her son using it? Because in my mind, I saw him standing on a tower over a crowd of people. I saw him walking into a school cafeteria. I saw him point that gun at all the people who called him weird or poor or told him he smelled like dirt.
I looked at his mother with fresh eyes. She had the same yellowed skin as her son. She wore the same tired jeans. I wondered when they had last bathed. Or hugged. I wondered how the inside of their house felt when no one was looking. Was there love in that house alongside the neglect? Was there abuse?
My sister thought that maybe he kept his shoes and clothes on because he felt like he always had to be ready to run.
I hadn’t thought of that.
We sat there in silence for a few minutes, my sister and I, later. After they left.
‘Is this how mass shooters are made?’ I asked her.
‘Maybe.’ She said, ‘Maybe this is exactly how they’re made.’
This article was featured in Issue 72 – Sensory Solutions For Life