By Dr. Russ
The Etan Patz case is profoundly sad. A little six year old boy, at the end of his first grade year, had been begging his parents for the self-worth enhancing independence experience to walk the one and a half blocks to the school bus stop on his own, unaccompanied by his parents. They were trying to raise an optimistic child, one who would grow up with self-confidence and without irrational fearfulness.
The day before Memorial Day weekend was the last opportunity his parents would have to give him this growth experience while still a 1st grader. On May 25, 1979, they gave him the chance to grow in self-confidence that he had been waiting for. They waved goodbye, watched him start out toward the bus stop, but in keeping with the idea to let him be independent went back inside and trusted he would be ok. He has never been seen again.
I am a parent, and I can think of nothing worse than losing a child, let alone never knowing what happened to him. I do know what it is like to think your child has disappeared and possibly kidnapped. When my son was in first grade, he started an after school day care program at a local community center. He would have to take a short bus ride to the center after school. In order to give him a sense of independence, his mother and I decided to let him catch the bus to the after school program on his own. The first grade teacher would make sure he got on the right bus, and also assign him a buddy, a student from his class familiar with the route and where to get off.
At 5 pm, I went to the Community Center to pick him up and went to the classroom to which he had been assigned. When I opened the door and looked in the classroom, he was not there. When I asked the teacher where my son was, she examined her roster, and announced he had never shown up. I know my face went ashen in a moment and I felt lightheaded.
- · “What do mean he never showed up?” I implored with great stress in my voice.
- · She answered, “He never came into this classroom.”
I immediately went into panic and high adrenalin mode. The director of the center was called, as were the police, bus driver, 1st grade teacher, school principal, and of course his mother who was still at work.
The teacher said he had gotten on the bus, and the bus driver said he was not sure where he might have gotten off. We had the name of the “buddy,” only to find out the police had been at his home earlier in the day on a domestic violence call!
I was frantically combing the neighborhoods and retracing the bus route in my car. The police said the chances of finding him were significantly diminished after two hours of disappearance. We were rapidly approaching that deadline when for some reason I went back to the Community Center and started looking in classrooms.
You could not see into the rooms from the hall because the windows of the doors were made of opaque glass. When I entered the third classroom, there was my son sitting next to an adult who was reading a story to him. I was overwhelmed with joy and relief at the same time.
What had happened? He had followed his “buddy” into his “buddy’s” assigned classroom that was different than the one he was supposed to go to. The teacher, who was new and trained as a teacher’s aid, just assumed he belonged there. She also assumed she was to wait until a parent came even though it was 6 pm, and hour after the program had ended for the day. Within days, the after school program immediately began implementing a new and improved system for how it accounted for its kids on a day-to-day basis.
While I do not know what it is like to never have the child return, I do know what is like to think for an hour that something untoward has happened to your child and that you may never see him again. In those moments of panic a mixture of hope, optimism and pessimism flows over you like a sailboat caught in a raging storm at sea. One moment the wind and waves knock the boat on its side, and the next the boat self rights and all the while you are “holding on for dear life.”
I also can empathize with 6-year-old Etan, who only wanted to prove to himself and his parents that he was a “big boy” and could walk to the bus stop on his own. In the early 1950’s, my family moved to the Philadelphia suburbs. I had just learned to ride a two-wheeler at the beginning of the previous summer. It was my dream to be able to ride my bike to school. The new school was within bike riding distance and the neighborhoods were considered safe. So, after a few days of my mother driving me to school, I was sure I knew the route well enough to ride my bike. I made it to school without a hitch. But, when I went home, I made a wrong turn and then kept going around in circles. I was frustrated, but not scared. Finally, about an hour after the designated time I was due home, my mother found me a block from the school. She of course was frantic, and I finally could empathize with her when I was driving around looking for my son some 33 years later.
Despite her own feelings of fear and panic, she quickly calmed her emotions upon hearing my story. She did not want me to feel defeated, and wanted me to feel confident about myself. So after loading my bike in the trunk, she drove to the school and then showed me the right route home She then stopped a few blocks from home and let me ride on my own from there. From that day forward, I rode my bike to school everyday, I could with confidence and optimism.
According to news stories, Etan’s parent’s never moved from the home he never came back to. Etan was declared legally dead at the beginning of this century. There is a man in jail convicted of his kidnapping and death based on circumstantial evidence. But that man claims he is innocent.
Last week, this very “cold case” came to the forefront of national news once again. As of today, the FBI has dug a up basement where he may have spent his last moments on earth and they are searching for any remains that can be analyzed and identified with the latest CSI type of technology. It has been announced that they found a bloodstain and some strands of hair to analyze.
Etan’s parents are remaining quiet as they have been through this roller coaster of hope followed by a return to despair several times in the past.
As I complete this blog post, I am feeling very sad and at the same time searching for some optimism. There is hope that the FBI may have found some forensic evidence that might lead to an answer to the question, “What happened to Etan?” There is optimism in that this case sparked a national outcry and call for action about child kidnapping.
- · Etan’s face was the second child ever to appear on the side of a milk carton.
- · His disappearance along with others led to the creation of the “Amber Alert.”
These missing child programs have saved lives and there is some optimism in that.
However, even that thought does not remove my sadness. Opportunities to teach children optimism have been lost. We are increasingly limited in the independence growth experiences we can give children. I see parents walking their 3rd and 4th graders to school or standing at the bus stop with until the bus comes. We know these parents are not behaving irrationally or instilling irrational fear in their children.
Perhaps these kinds of events and changes underlie the paradox of why we have less optimism and more pessimism in times when we have a much better standard of living than those who lived 100 years ago. For now, I will have to sadly accept that sadness can coexist with optimism.