In the first grade I had a spectacularly useless health book entitled “Health: Focus On You.” I don’t think there was a single page in that book which was informative on any topic. First graders already know that grown-ups want them to eat five servings of produce rather than snack food, and sneeze into kleenex rather than their fingers, and stay away from those mysterious bogies known as “drugs.”
At the end of each chapter was a review section, which we went over aloud in school. There were multiple choice questions where we circled the picture of a dairy product, and true or false questions where we had to determine whether or not regular bathing was healthy. And, in the final part of the review, there were discussion questions that were always labeled “What Would You Do?”
The scenarios posited in “What Would You Do” were always the simplest, most banal ones imaginable. The desired answers were so obvious, I used to brainstorm obnoxious over-complicated answers that the teacher couldn’t technically count as wrong. “You want to have a snack. You could have an apple. You could have candy. What would you do?” Eat both, of course. “You are at a friend’s house. You have to cough. What would you do?” Faint. “Your friend wants you to stay the night at his house. You want to stay the night at your friend’s house. Your friend has a cold. What would you do?” Go, but try not to touch him or breathe very much. “You see a jar of pills on the playground. Your friend says ‘These are different colors. Let’s taste them. What would you do?” Run away screaming.
Running away screaming is always a good option, in my experience; it’s what you do when you run out of breath that’s the question. And “what would you do” did not adequately prepare me for having to make any of my own health choices– for myself or my daughter. Real life is always too complicated for “What would you do?”
Sometimes, in real life, there are no healthy choices at all.
Let’s say that you live on a relatively respectable street in the poor neighborhood of a bleak, poverty-stricken abandoned steel mill town. Let’s say that all the respectable children play together in each other’s yards, even though they’re not matched in age, and you thought that was a wholesome thing.
Let’s say that there was this one, pasty white, blonde-haired and blue-eyed little boy who looked like the skinny version of a putto on a Valentine. His parents had wholesome, country accents and not many teeth; there was a picture of Christ standing at the door a-knocking in the foyer of their apartment. You’d seen it when you walked him home, once. It reminded you that everyone who knocks at the door is really Christ.
Let’s say that, as soon as school let out for the summer, that child started knocking at the door every morning at about nine o’clock, shirtless. Let’s say that after awhile he started just letting himself in. When you said he couldn’t play right now, he went up and down the street looking for other friends. When you walked him back to his own house, you found a grown man lying listless on the sofa, drunk or ill, you couldn’t say, and the little boy’s grandfather looking gruff. “It’s not time for him to be home yet. He doesn’t need to be home yet.” You found that he wasn’t allowed to be inside his own house until suppertime; he was supposed to play outside until then.
Let’s say that when you saw his mother she was drunk or impaired herself, and mentioning having to care for two elderly relatives who couldn’t take the stairs, and not being able to find an apartment without stairs for rent. Let’s say the little boy was visibly afraid of his older male relatives, but seemed to love his mother.
Once, at eleven o’clock at night, he burst into your kitchen door barefoot and in his pajamas and was halfway up the stairs before he noticed you were screaming. When you finally got his attention, he claimed he’d been sleep walking, but you weren’t sure.
Let’s say that, even though he was pleasant and polite every time you spoke to him, you caught him being violent when you turned your back. He started food fights and flushed a pair of scissors down the toilet when he spent the day at another family’s house, and after that he wasn’t allowed in. He stole mail from a mailbox and tore it up for a game. He smashed part of your porch’s railing, to see what would happen. Let’s say you were the only family that let him in the house after awhile. Let’s say that, once, he pushed your daughter’s face underwater in the baby pool and when you pulled her out he claimed he didn’t know it was dangerous.
Let’s say that this child triggered every stirring of mom guilt in your soul, so you decided what he needed was supervision.