Going to school in Oregon in the 1990s, helicopter parenting was only just starting to get a name. Parents were unaware of just how much danger lurked in the world. Then an eighth-grade girl got raped in the girl’s bathroom by a stranger with a swastica tattooed on his forehead. The whole town was talking about it. By the time she confessed to making it all up, it was too late. Now everyone had to wear their student ID on them at all times and the side and rear entrances to the school had their outer handles removed so you could only enter by the front office. It made everyone’s walk to school that much longer, but to the school district’s credit, they never again had a case of fake Nazi rape.
This was back when you could get in a fight and you’d be hauled down to the principle’s office to think about what you did while inhaling second-hand smoke. Then came mandatory sentencing laws. Slam a kid up against his locker now and you were going to juvie until you were 18. Grown men, salaried prosecutors and public defenders would argue in front of a judge about whether young Timothy represented a clear and present danger to society for having thrown a book at Billy during a pubescent tantrum. One charlie-horse and playground shove at a time, the bullies disappeared.
And what happens when you remove the apex predator from an ecosystem? It creates an imbalance. Suddenly the other animals don’t behave the way they used to. They get lazy. The squirrels get fat. They lose their instincts for survival.
Whereas in elementary school kids would taunt each other over whose dad could beat up whose, now you had a school full of kids who watched Law & Order, threatening to sue each other for defamation. The lonely police officer assigned to the school, having successfully cleared the hallways of violent scum, was reduced to taking statements from crying cheerleaders. Becky said that Cindy eats her boogers. Becky better lawyer up.
Everything was fine, for a while. Then a kid in the 7th grade went home one afternoon and laid his head on a table saw. Parents and teachers started to talk medication. During bi-weekly D.A.R.E. classes, kids would learn that if you rely on drugs or alcohol to escape your problems, you’re a junkie. Then there’d be a squawk on the P.A., and a third of the class would be called to the student office for their afternoon dose of Depacote and Dexedrine and Zoloft and Ritalin.
Cindy used to come home after school and cry in her room. Now she comes home and reads quietly at the kitchen table. Clinks of glasses filled with Mommy Merlot can be heard from the living room.
Then a kid named Kip Kinkle took his dad’s hunting rifle to class and shot a few dozen fellow students. Everyone cried. At least, everyone still able to do so. This was before Columbine and Sandy Hook, back when school shootings were new and exciting. Looking back on it now, the real mystery is why someone would name their child Kip?
That’s about the time that clear plastic backpacks became fashionable. (Did you know that Kevlar backpacks have been available since 1997?) If the kids had known that in just a few years they would all have to take their shoes off and submit a DNA test just to board a two-hour flight, they’d probably not have complained as much.
Sometime around their 18th birthday, they finish high school. They are congratulated on their mere survival, and then they go to college to explore this thing called “independence” with pristine medulla oblongatas, never once sullied with a drop of adrenaline.
They go off in search of identity. They throw the pills away, shunning Big Pharma in favor of $5 coffee and paying to have their chakras realigned.
They stare in bafflement at the world around them. The bullies are back and micro-aggressing them from every angle. It becomes too much to take. When the deadline comes for their final paper during their Senior year of college, to excuse their tardiness, they mail in a printed copy of a meme they saw on Facebook. “15 Things You Should Never Say to a Person with X.”
When their GPA starts to slip, they reach for the bottle of beta-blockers only to find it’s empty. In a panic, they search every drawer for leftover ginkgo biloba. It’s not fair, they say. The world can’t truly be such a cruel and unforgiving place, can it? Tearing through the cupboards in search of something, in search of anything to help them cope, they at last find relief: a dusty bottle of Mommy Merlot.
They reach for a glass, and graduate.
An adult is born.