VI: Neglected White Kids

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There’s a lot of understandable attention in child welfare right now about racial disproportionality. Black kids are way overrepresented in the system compared to their actual numbers in the general population. In comparison, Latino kids are pretty proportionate, and Asian-American and White American kids underrepresented.

There’s been a lot of ink (or at least a lot of fonts) written about what brought this about, ranging from historical themes related to the Black family and slavery, the dynamics of race and poverty, and institutionalized forms of racism attributed to child welfare gatekeepers. Most of what I’ve read makes sense in understanding the causes of the problem, but they don’t address how to change it very much, other than create work groups to address the issue. Since work groups tend to read a lot, I thought I’d write about one of my best friends as a kid, a boy named Ross “Butch” Pettis.

Butch showed up in elementary school in the sixth grade, a sweet, goofy-looking kid with sandy blond hair, merry blue eyes, and the biggest buck teeth I have ever seen, before or since. An average student, Butch made up for his lack of academic prowess by being a gifted athlete and a happy-go-lucky guy who was the last kid on the playground in the afternoon and the first one at school to greet you each and every day. Because my mom was such a warm and welcoming lady, Butch soon attached himself to our home, sometimes arriving before breakfast to walk with my sister Betsy and I to school, grabbing a donut and glass of milk before we headed out the door.

None of us thought much about this, although it seemed kinda odd that I never got invited to his home. Unlike the other kids, who complained about their parents and all their rules and stupid ideas about clothing and pathetic tastes in music, Butch never said a word, clamming up as he otherwise never did. He lived in a tiny house behind a larger one owned by Priscilla Parham’s family, and its only distinguishing featured was that it lacked a yard and had a funny-looking stove pipe sticking out of the roof instead of a chimney.

I saw his mother only once, and she scared me. I’d gone up to Butch’s one weekend afternoon so we could go play basketball at the nearby elementary school. As I walked into the muddy parking spot in front of the house, a woman with grey, stringy hair leaned out of the upstairs window and yelled down to me that he’d be right out. A cigarette dangled from her mouth, her voice deep and gravelly as if she’d just gotten up, her housecoat open so that her large, pendulant breasts swung out and down at my gawking twelve-year-old eyes, terrified by what I kept staring at, appalled at her openness and my inability to look away. Looking down, she gave a strange leer followed by a bark of a laugh, then slammed the window shut with such force that it rattled. I was rattled, too.

A while later, I overheard my mother speaking with a friend on the phone. Butch’s mother had disappeared, perhaps to Baltimore, and that she was both an alcoholic and a prostitute.

That left Butch and his younger brother, a shy kid who never looked anyone in the eye and rarely spoke, at home with his father. I saw him often at the grocery store where I clerked after school, a short, wiry man with thick glasses, always dressed in a smelly, stained overcoat that reeked of a mixture of sweet kerosene and cheap liquor. His unshaven face rarely looked clean; his few teeth were stained from cigarettes. Because he rarely bathed, the odor he gave off caused me to move away from him every time he approached, usually buying a pack of Lucky Strikes to go with the cheap Thunderbird wine he’d bought next door. He’d always grin at me and say, “Hey, I know you,” some weird mixture of affirmation and reproach in his voice that never failed to poke a wad of fear into my gut.

Butch visited our home more often, especially around meal times, but I was never, ever invited to his. I only got inside once by accident, a rare slip up one winter day when Butch, who was always early, got home late from his part-time job. My old lima-green Pontiac, complete with Hyrdomatic transmission, had a lousy heater, and after waiting a while in the increasingly cold car, I decided to knock on his front door.

Butch’s father greeted me warmly to come inside. I was immediately struck by the pungent smell of kerosene emanating from the huge, pot-bellied stove in the middle of their tiny living room. Next to it was a broken, green couch covered with soiled clothes, a small bookshelf next filled with bric-a-brac. The equally small kitchen had the only light on, a low watt bulb dangling from a broken ceiling fixture. Encrusted dishes lay in the sink, and days-old plates of half-finished food sat untouched on the kitchen table.

“Come on upstairs and see our train set!” he barked, and I mindlessly followed him up the narrow stairs to Butch’s room. There, overwhelming the entire space was a perfect Lionel train set, complete with tiny towns and mountain ranges and lakes and what looked like miles of track. Quickly noticing Butch’s small cot shoved against the wall, a wobbly metal side cabinet holding his clothes next to it, I experienced the first surreal moment of my teenage life. The pristine beauty of those tiny towns and carefully arranged train tracks, lovingly described in detail by Mr. Pettis as I stood there gawking, compared to the disarray everywhere else, left me at best confused and more likely shaken.

I was shaken even more when Butch grabbed me at the nape of my neck, squeezing it so hard pain shot down my spine. He quickly pulled me outside, the smell of kerosene fading in the cold night air. We walked to the car, his breath spewing out puffs of steam as he sought to calm down. All he said was more than enough. “I’ll never be late again, okay?” It was not a question.

Somehow Butch made it out of there, graduating from college and beginning a career as a teacher and baseball coach in a nearby town. He dropped dead on a basketball court at the age of 22, lesions on his heart that had gone undetected. At his funeral, his friends wept the tears that more often are shed mostly by family members. None of them bothered to show up.

Were Butch and his brother neglected? Abused? Even in the 1960’s, if his father had been Black would others have looked the other way? Would a Black mother spiraling into addiction and prostitution go unreported beyond neighborhood gossip? Was the loving embrace extended by my mother to Butch somehow safer than those of black kin and neighbors who have been doing the same for their children? What’s different in all our communities from 30 0r 40 years ago? Perhaps our community gatekeepers can look at where—and to whom-- we really want those gates to swing as we imagine what it means for children to be truly safe and secure.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on August 6, 2008 9:00 AM.

V: White Fathers Revisited was the previous entry in this blog.

VII: Fathers & Sons is the next entry in this blog.

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