A counterpoint:
Peter Schafer
938

Truth is stronger than rhetoric.

Years ago, I was wearing the hat of a father figure to one of my first wife’s daughters (let’s call her “Alice”, although that’s not her legal name), and one of Alice’s friends had decided to run away from home after getting into a huge fight with her parents. Alice, about twelve or thirteen at the time, trusted me to know things and had asked me how hard it would be to hitchhike downtown to the bus station (Can you hear the pop pop popping sound of those red flags springing forth?). I asked her why she wanted to know this kind of thing, putting on my “understanding and sympathetic” face and she told me the whole story, about how cruel and unfair her friend’s parents were, how her friend’s “real mom” lived in the next city over but never got to visit, blah blah blah… There’s no real way to know the truth of these things - her current parents may very well have been abusive idiots who would drive her to do something desperate like this, but I remember what it was like at that age for me, at her age I didn’t usually think about consequences, just what was happening Right Now.

So I offered to drive her myself, and that sounded easier to my sweet Alice than possibly standing out on a street corner in the darkness flagging down strangers for a ride. We went to the “friend’s house” where she was currently hiding: she had her backpack stuffed with clothes, a water bottle and an extra pair of shoes - this girl wasn’t kidding around, she meant to disappear for good. I remember thinking, “If I were a bad man, this could be so easy…” it was a scary thought, a disturbing realization - that this young, naive girl could disappear just like that >Snap<, and no one would know except her abductor and a girl who would be easily convinced that she’s done right by her friend in distress.

I happen to know that there are such predators out in the world, people that are less ethical than I am, that would take advantage of the situation offered like a perverse seductive candy. It’s why I volunteered to drive that poor girl, because out on the street, she may as well have painted a neon target on herself saying “victimize me”. So I drove her the hour or so downtown, carefully chose the most roundabout route and talked to this poor girl about what her future might hold. I tried to “give it to her straight” without holding back the horrors, warning her of the different ways she might end up in a ditch somewhere, or worse. I offered no judgement, no moral platitudes, that kind of thing would have sailed in one ear and out the other when I was at her age, but what scared me the most was things that could happen to me Right Now, so that was the person I was speaking to. After awhile, she decided to “come clean”, there was no money for a bus ticket, or a mother the next city over. She had decided to hitch a ride downtown because of some half-formed idea that there were people who would take her in, a youth hostel or something.

I offered to buy her a hot tea at a drive through, and while it cooled and she drank it, we drove round and round that night “looking for the teen center” (I knew where it was, but I wasn’t about to let this sweet child disappear into it, possibly on the way to something worse.) Instead we talked, or rather, she talked and I listened, and then commented on what she said as if she were a mature adult. What she’d most needed, what I’d most needed at her age, was validation. I saw in her that same desperate need to be recognized as a person with a mind and desires of her own rather than just another proto-person waiting to be real. Finally, after considering it for awhile she asked me to take her to a police station. I told her to ask for a social worker and to tell them what she’d told me about her parents, and about the conditions she was living in that had been so intolerable. (There had been some valid concerns, which I fact-checked throughout the conversation, “getting it wrong” in her favor when repeating it back later, but her story never changed - unless she was an accomplished liar, I believed this was the truth.) I waited in the car until I saw her go up to the desk and speak with the Sergent there. Then I drove home and told my worried Alice that her friend was going to be fine.

Two or three years later, we chanced to meet that girl and her parents at a grocery store. Alice and her friend greeted each other, and when her friend pointed me out to her parents, they came over and thanked me for what I did that night. Alice’s friend did too. I may have very well saved that young girl from trauma at home as well as the possible abuses she could have had if I’d sat on my duff and done nothing because “this wasn’t my concern”. I don’t know about the big numbers, about 100,000 in the United states blah blah blah… Truthfully, I don’t trust these over-generalized pronouncements followed by an 800 number - those sound like “give us your money” couched in “so we can ‘step up’ for you.” All I know is that when I had the chance to do something specific, somehow I made a difference. That’s all anyone can do.

Actions speak louder than money.

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