Truth or D.A.R.E.
Remembering the fallen (candy) and contemplating rougher times ahead
Yesterday, I attended the annual Memorial Day observances here in town.
The most moving part of the Memorial Day ceremonies in Belmont is standing in the Belmont Cemetery as the names of Belmont’s fallen heroes are read aloud. In spite of the noon hour and the hot sun, I get chills as “Taps” is played, and weepy as the Star Spangled Banner is sung.
But for the Brownie Troop that I was tagging along with – and for most of the “under-ten set” attending the observances – the solemnity of the occasion was not the focus of their attention. Oh, it’s not that they were insensitive to the sacrifices made by men and women fighting in wars for this country. Rather, their imaginations were caught up in anticipation of another Memorial Day tradition: the D.A.R.E. truck was going to pass by when the parade got going again, and then candy would rain from the sky!
Each year, the Chenery fifth graders who have completed the D.A.R.E. (Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education) training are invited to clamber aboard the back of a large black flatbed truck to publicly proclaim their commitment to avoid substance abuse by riding in the parade. After a pause at the cemetery to remember the fallen, the parade starts up again and the D.A.R.E. truck heads to the High School for a cookout. On the way, the kids on the truck hurl fistfuls of candy to the crowds of youngsters waving in the road.
In its bold juxtaposition of youthful innocence on the one hand and a warning about substance abuse on the other, this slow moving truck foreshadows the dangerous world all these children are slowly marching toward. Perhaps it’s not the mortal realm that the fighting men and women we honor on this day encountered, but it’s a perilous world nevertheless, a world of hard choices, a world with consequences. And it makes me sad.
In this moment I wish I could magically lock in the education they’ve just received on drugs and alcohol, that I could hold them to the pledges they wrote in their D.A.R.E. essays, that I could somehow keep them from engaging in the kinds of behavior that in three or four or five years, many of them will be engaging in.
The statistics on teens and drinking are no secret. In Belmont and across the state and nation, attempts in and out of the classroom to educate kids on the dangers of drugs and alcohol will not stop a large majority of them from using these substances – and doing so on an alarmingly regular basis. Some teens will begin to battle addictions that will haunt them for a lifetime. And some others will not get out alive.
As a health educator, I know all this and merely sigh – teens have probably been sneaking drinks since the dawn of time, in spite of the problematic aftermath. But as a mother, I am tremendously frustrated and feel almost helpless. These kids know it is not good for them, they know it impairs their judgment, affects decision making, and makes them vulnerable. They know that lives are ruined, that kids die every day as a result of drinking, yet none of this knowledge leads to behavior change.
Our town, because it is so small and has no major roadways, has been largely spared the tragedies that many other communities have faced. But we know from surveys that our teens are still drinking. We know from police reports that they are drinking on weekends at Rock Meadow, at various parks and playgrounds, and in homes across town. And we know that there are parents who look the other way while their teen and his/her friends are holed up in the basement with a six pack or three.
It’s true that such enablers can be held accountable under Massachusetts’ Social Host Liability laws. Parents can now face a $2,000 fine or up to a year imprisonment for allowing underage drinking to occur in their home. And even parents who are not home when the underage drinking occurs are not legally off the hook, should something happen to one of the teens.
But with all that legislative infrastructure in place, it’s hard to say whether such laws will impact the epidemic of teen drinking. It’s hard to say what, if anything, impacts teen drinking.
As I watched all those exuberant faces on the D.A.R.E. truck happily tossing candy into the crowd, I felt sad that the clock was ticking on their innocence, on their childhood. What I want for these kids – and for my own – is to be kids for a while longer. I want them to exercise good judgment and to be safe.
Some people have said to me, “Well, I’m sure you drank in high school, we all did, it’s a rite of passage, after all.” Actually, I didn’t drink in high school. Perhaps I was an odd bird, but I wanted to be the kid who possessed that good judgment. My parents made clear their zero tolerance policy, and it made a difference. Statistics are not fate.
So, while I can’t directly impact the lives of this year’s fifth grade D.A.R.E. class, I will keep talking to my own kids and will keep my own expectations clear. As hopeless as it sometimes feels, there are simple things I know I can do: I’ll wait up for them when they go out, I won’t keep alcohol in the house, I won’t leave them alone for weekends at a time. When they make mistakes, which most kids do, there will be consequences. Love, forgiveness, more education – and consequences.
No, they can’t stay in a protected paradise their whole lives; they’ll be kicked out of Eden soon enough. But why rush it?