Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The ghost of a Chance

In my second grade class, there was a boy named Chance Loving. Since we were both children of the late '60s who lived near the epicenter of the hippie movement, his name may very well have also described the circumstances of his conception.

Chance was small and thin for his age. His eyes held a sweet expression although they often looked tired, and his light brown hair was perpetually uncombed. He was a gentle little boy who loved to draw, and he usually sat alone at the back of the classroom, head down, quietly sketching monsters from the horror movies most kids our age weren't allowed to watch.

One of the reasons he may have sat alone was because he was perpetually dirty. Chance would often come home with me after school, and the first time my mother got a good look at him, she took Chance into the bathroom, soaped up a washcloth and gently washed his grimy face and hands all the way up to the elbows, until he was as clean as she could make him. (If he'd been her kid, she would have put him into a hot bath.) Rather than squirming and complaining the way most second-grade boys would, Chance just smiled and submitted placidly to the cleaning; he seemed to enjoy the attention.

Sometimes Chance wouldn't walk home with me; he'd just randomly show up at our doorstep. At times it would be dark and cold outside. Not once did he call home to let anyone know where he was, and no one ever called us to ask if Chance were there. I have no idea where he lived. On some occasions, particularly as it began to get dark, my mother would offer to drive him home, but Chance would always turn her down. He claimed that it wasn't far and that he preferred to walk.

There was at least one open house night at El Monte Elementary that year, and there were several parent-teacher conferences, but no mom or dad or grandparent ever showed up to admire Chance's monster drawings or to discuss his reading or math scores with Ms. Shore. Some sort of adult relative must have shown up with a birth certificate to register him for school, but for all anyone could tell Chance lived completely alone -- perhaps tucked into a drainage pipe somewhere.

On my first day of third grade, I looked around Mrs. Epperson's classroom and saw a lot of kids from the previous year, but Chance wasn't one of them. He wasn't in any of the third grade classes. Somewhere, in the summer space between second and third grade, Chance disappeared. His family may have been transients, or they may have relocated to a new job, or something entirely different might have happened, but I never saw him again.

I want to believe that, despite having the deck stacked against him, Chance grew up to be all right. I want to believe that conscientious teachers and other responsible adults who came into his life noticed this quiet boy and did everything they could for him, that he learned to be strong as well as gentle. I hope that his love of drawing saved him. Perhaps he changed his name, attended CalArts on a scholarship, and is even now happily drawing monsters for Pixar in Emeryville. I so want to believe that. But it's also too easy to believe that Chance didn't come back to school for third grade because he died over summer vacation. After all, who would have noticed or cared if the thin, quiet boy with the dirty face and the monster sketches simply never returned to school?

Well, for what it's worth, I did. And I still wonder what really happened to him.

Whenever anyone brings up the subject of "parental neglect," Chance's gentle, pinched face will always come first to my mind. And Chance is the reason I maintain that "neglect" is an insufficient word to describe the plight of unloved children. "Neglect" nicely describes what happens when you accidentally forget to water a plant, or fail to pick up the mail for a day or two, or don't get around to cleaning the litter box. "Neglect" suggests a kind of well-meaning forgetfulness that has little or nothing to do with the utter dereliction of parental duty that Chance, and millions of latchkey children like him, had to suffer. It is closer kin to the cold-blooded ruthlessness of the fairy-tale stepmother who leads her husband's worthless brats into the woods and abandons them there to fend for themselves or be torn apart by wild beasts.

The opposite of love is not hatred. It is indifference. It is utter failure to care for, to nurture, and to protect the helpless who have been entrusted to your care. And indifference is poisonous. I honestly don't know what was going on with Chance's parents -- whether they were alcoholics, workaholics, drug addicts, or if they just jumped ship and left him with an elderly, half-senile grandparent -- but you know what? It doesn't matter. Whatever the circumstances might have been, he deserved better. He deserved a home to go back to where someone would worry about him, feed him, clean him, teach him, defend him, love him.  Every child should have that foundation to build on.


MarieC said...


Marci said...

There are two boys who show up at my house for a ride to school at the crack of dawn every morning. I know a little of their home life and I think their dad (single parent) is probably doing his best but I wonder if he was also neglected. I look at his precious boys who are also perpetually dirty, perpetually hungry, and often making choices they haven't been taught not to make, and I ache for them. Other parents in out neighborhood see them as trouble makers. I can't see them that way. I guess all I can do is be the best substitute mother I can be. It's heartbreaking to see children not being loved and taken care of the way they should be.