The customer waves me over. Sizing me up he says: you’re new here, aren’t you? No, I say, almost a year. Hmmm, don’t know ya, but that’s okay, got something to tell ya. My name’s John. I nod as he settles into his story.
You see, I was sitting outside my porch the other day watching the neighbourhood kids play games. There was a bunch of them, a girl and two or three boys, just little ones, four or five years, you see.
I nod again. I like listening to the old guys who come into the store. They usually have an appreciation for laughter and a quick tale that lightens my day. This man, however, seemed to want something from me: I found myself leaning back as his story unwound.
So, they were playing games, see, cops and robbers, bang, bang your dead kind of stuff. I loved those games when I was a kid so I called them over. I says to them: you know, when I was a little boy, I played the same game you’re playing… we had a lotta fun, too, just like you. And you know what? We used the same kinda sticks you’re using: pointy ones, just like that.
He looks at me, waits a second and then lowers his gaze down to his fingers. He touches the thumb and the pointer lightly together: they were real sharp, you know, razor sharp. I nod.
Well, one day we were playing and my little sister was chasing after the kid next door shouting bang bang, your dead and kinda whining cause he wasn’t falling down dead when she tripped. And you know what happened I says to these kids? That stick went right through that little boy’s eye.
The old mantra from South Park silently runs through me: it’s all fun and games until ….
So, you see, he says, I had their attention. I told them how my sister cried and cried but it was too late… he never did get his eyesight back. Then I told them, why don’t you leave those sticks here and go ask your mom for a safer game to play. And that’s what they did.
He paused now. It felt that he liked the dramatic form so I tried to look appreciative. I didn’t know where he was going with his story. Even though the adult part of me knew that it was good he took the sticks away there was another part that felt a bit sorry for the kids having to put up with this nosy and, perhaps, too cautious neighbour. Sometimes I feel we keep our kids too safe. Haven’t kids always played with pointy sticks?
He takes a breath, more like a sigh and carries on: Now I got to thinking again when they were gone how much I still loved that game and it was such a shame they couldn’t play it. Thinking got my hands busy as they’re wont to do. I got a piece of plywood and a pencil and before I knew it I had traced a gun on it. Cut out four of them and slipped them into a bag. When I saw them out playing again, I called them over. I must say they were a little more reluctant this time but anyhow, on they came. They’re good tykes, you know. I says to them, come on over and see what I got in the bag. The little girl comes first. Brave little thing and she opened it right up. You should have seen her smile. God it was beautiful. Then the boys came a rushing over… did you make us one too? they asked. Yep, I says, you all have your own gun now and you can play that game again.
I look at John as he finishes his story. My stomach tightens as a serene, perhaps even smug look comes over his face. I don’t know what to say. He is so obviously pleased with himself, he doesn’t notice me pulling away. Doesn’t even notice the flatness of my voice as I say: gotta go back to work now… nice meeting you.
I feel dirty afterwards, a left over grime marred with confusion and disgust. How are we going to stop our culture’s love of guns and violence if we don’t teach our children that there is nothing to love about killing, pretend or otherwise.
I want to denigrate John, make it his generation’s fault that guns are fetishized. But then my thoughts come back to my own views, how at times I feel we are too safety conscious, not allowing kids to grow up learning a few hard lessons. Are pointy sticks really better than guns? Or vice versa? As a kid I played with knives, bows and arrows, darts. I imagined myself a cowboy and a sheriff; Clint Eastwood; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In retrospect it was damn lucky that my siblings and I are not missing any eyes. But that isn’t what is really bothering me.
Each parent, short of home educating and living in isolation, has to figure out how to help their kids wade through the media sanctioned messages of violence. It is not so much about stopping it—if it is possible to do so—but educating them as to the actual consequences of violence—to the individual, the family and community—and teaching their children alternative ways to live. John, in his own innocent way, was trying to keep those kids safe. I understand this. But what he also did was lead them to believe that guns are better than sticks—that guns are somehow preferable and adult sanctioned.
What really hurt, however, what really made me sad, was that I didn’t say something to help John see this.
Jo-Ann Svensson teaches “Creative Codependence” and is a BodyMind Therapist.