Tales From the Trenches, Told by the Youngest Conscripts
Who are the authors of the following anti-drug pronouncements?
* “Our lives are so precious that without a doubt, they are priceless. That’s why I am healthy and drug free. I would never think of wasting my life away, because life is too short.”
* “I lost my grandpa when he was only 62. He died because of alcoholism, which is a disease that comes from drinking too much . . . . I will never drink before I am of age, and then I will remember that everyone has to be careful to not become addicted.”
* “Hello, there (cough, cough). I am the brain of an inhalant addict. Inhalants are drugs such as glue and gasoline. They cause serious brain damage because they contain toxic chemicals. Right now I am a mushy, black (cough) lump inside this (cough) addict’s head. I can’t stop using drugs (cough).”
The answer is two fifth-graders and a fourth-grader, all students at a Newport Beach elementary school. In the war against drugs, some of the most committed soldiers are children 12 and under.
We also know that many of them have gone over the hill before they’re 15.
Debbie Smith, a Newport Beach mother and president of Parents Who Care, knows all about the defection rate but thinks it can be reduced.
“When you’re in the seventh and eighth grade, it’s really a time to learn about yourself, who you are, what you want to be, where you fit in. . . . What I see is that a lot of times, kids take drugs because they don’t feel good about themselves. What happens is, kids don’t incorporate the good things they do. They don’t absorb who they are and that they’re good people. So much is ‘Do’ and ‘Be successful’ and ‘Get grades’ that they don’t have time to say, ‘It’s OK to be who I am; It’s not the things I do, it’s who I am.’ Because when they get to high school, and I tell them they’re doing great, they don’t absorb that.”
I ask Smith if she thinks the elementary students believe their anti-drug message. “They believe it, but they haven’t actually lived it yet. I think they truly believe it. They want to do good, but then, they’re almost powerless when they go into a bigger world [of junior high school], and they don’t have the tools.”
Smith teaches parenting classes, and a recurring fatal flaw is that parents don’t stress to their children the consequences of mistakes--either large or small. Children need to learn that even simple things such as forgetting their lunch or doing poorly on a single test have consequences, she says. That is a lesson that pays off later, when stakes get higher.
“It’s hard to be that person, but we are the adults and we need to teach them,” she says. “The bottom line is that it [parenting] is not fun, we’re not their friends. We’re there to teach them to be whole people. We don’t do that by giving them only half.”
Another close-up observer of the metamorphosis of young people is Don Laffoon, a co-founder of STOP-GAP, the acclaimed Santa Ana theater troupe that performs anti-drug skits in schools.
“I think they mean it,” he says of younger children’s anti-drug statements, “but it’s not a reality. It comes from the outside. It’s an anti-drug message, it’s knowing what the right answer is for the exam, that it’s the right answer to walk away and just say no, etcetera.”
The reality of growing up and being in junior high can hit like a sledgehammer.
“The possibility . . . of being cool or being part of what’s happening is what it’s all about,” Laffoon says. “The wanting of being accepted by peers, by other folks, overrides everything else.”
Laffoon bans the usage of terms like “self-esteem” or “peer pressure,” however. Those are adult words that don’t get to the core of the young people’s problems, he says. Rather, his background as a therapist leads him to explore the source of pain in a young person’s life that, he says, almost always is the reason they sustain drug use.
“We know what the pain-killer is,” he says. “What’s the killer pain?”
People usually start with drugs either for experimentation or to be accepted, Laffoon says. “The question is not why they start, but why they stay on drugs. If he or she goes off and smokes marijuana one night, the world is not going to stop. But if he or she continues and uses it as a gateway drug, there’s a pain in there somewhere.”
Maybe that’s why this drug-fighting business is so hard. Stopping the pain seems to be getting harder all the time.
But when you read essays from a group of elementary students, many still largely oblivious to life’s problems, you appreciate the stakes:
“One day, you may have to make a choice that no one else can make for you. Will you choose to stay drug free and live the best and happiest life that you can imagine? Or will you try drugs and endanger your precious life? Choose a drug-free life and live it to the fullest.”
Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.