I had not originally intended to share this story. It felt like a private family issue; I also felt too raw to think it through clearly, much less write about it articulately.
Recently, though, I’ve changed my mind. The few close friends I’ve told about what happened have reminded me that although the details are unique, the experience is not uncommon among parents. As I reflected on this, I remembered discussions on this blog about the fine line between proper supervision and hovering; about whether the world is safer or more dangerous today for children. Finally, despite a number of wonderful things that have happened lately, I often find myself unable to think about anything else. So I consulted my son, who encouraged me to write here about what happened to him.
Ben attends a high school in Manhattan that draws students from all five boroughs of New York City. This can make it difficult to get together with friends when school isn’t in session, especially when some have daytime classes or summer jobs. They travel to each other’s homes for visits, but the trip can take an hour or two, necessitating either a late return or a sleepover, neither of which is always convenient. Besides, they need adult-free time, which isn’t easy to achieve in cramped NYC apartments.
So this summer, Ben and some of his far-flung friends hit on what they felt was an ingenious solution: park parties. Every few weeks they would text each other to meet in Central Park in the evening. According to Ben, they would “hang out,” talk, walk around the park, and share sodas and snacks.
I was uneasy about these parties. Ben is a good kid, but I wasn’t always sure sodas and snacks were all that was being shared, though he never came home smelling of alcohol or pot. I worried about muggers. The whole idea seemed unsafe.
On the other hand, as people keep telling me, the park is safer now than when I was a teenager, in the 1960s and 70s. And I read so much about “helicopter parents,” those pathetic souls who hover so closely their kids never get to experience independence, and so they remain perpetual adolescents. Besides, the parents of his friend C, who are much more straitlaced and conservative than we are, were letting him go. So I convinced myself I was being overly protective, “helicoptering” my huge, responsible, and self-reliant kid. I let him go with only the minimum of nagging about staying in touch and being home on time. He was responsible about all that, until the night he didn’t come home and didn’t call.
The following is Ben’s relation of what happened that night. The important details have been confirmed by C’s parents and by the police, so please don’t write telling me that things were probably much worse and I can’t trust my kid. Please.
There were seven teenagers in the park that night; five “regulars” and two acquaintances from another school. The two newer kids brought two bottles of beer, which the group passed around. Maybe it was the introduction of alcohol, maybe the infusion of new group members, or maybe the underdeveloped frontal lobe functioning characteristic of adolescents. Whatever the cause, the usually cautious and responsible C picked up an empty glass bottle and threw it aimlessly at a metal gate. It sailed over and nearly hit a police vehicle parked just outside.
Two police officers immediately ran toward the group, guns drawn, shouting, “Hit the ground!”
At first nobody dropped. They were too frightened — they froze. One officer repeated the command, and the other kids lay down, hands over their heads. Ben stayed upright. He had separated himself from the group when the bottle went over the gate, and in his panic he thought he was supposed to go back over to the group and lie down with them. What the officer thought (he later reported) was that Ben was going to charge him.
It got straightened out before anyone was hurt — the officer screamed at Ben to get the f down on the ground, and he did, and when the police questioned the kids they realized quickly (again, according to their later report) that these were decent, terrified kids, not hardened thugs. They booked C on disorderly conduct and released him to his parents; they let the rest go with a lecture. Ben wandered around in shock for a while, then took the train home, not thinking to return the frantic calls and texts that had hardly registered during the ordeal — not, as he says, thinking at all.
He’s grounded. There will be no more park parties. (When I talked to C’s father, he said, “I had my doubts about those parties all along, but I figured since you thought it was okay, I must just be overprotective.” We agreed to share our doubts more openly in the future.)
Ben is shaken, but he’s all right. He understands the stupidity of the situation he got himself into (the situation I let him get into), on any number of levels, and that he’s lucky to have gotten off so lightly — this time. But he and I, and his father, keep going back to that moment when the officer felt threatened because Ben was walking toward him, and thinking about how easily it all could have gone so wrong.