Looking back 40 years and recalling the blood flowing profusely from my mouth, I now understand why my Mom frowned every time I asked her for a Daisy BB gun. I often think of this moment, and several others in my childhood, when sitting on the bench or deciding diversion and informal adjustment policies for the court. I look back and I am convinced that adolescents are wired to do stupid things, and I did plenty of stupid things as a teenager – but I was never arrested or referred to juvenile court. Why is it that most of the cases referred to my court are kids who make us mad, the kids who were never arrested or referred in my day, and not the kids who scare us?
I was ten years old and I was relentless about a BB gun. Every time I entered the store I would ask Mom for one. She would say “I don’t know Steve, those can be very dangerous,” or “You need to talk to your Dad,” or “Maybe Santa Claus will bring you one if he thinks you’re responsible enough to have one.” And on Christmas morning, I found out I had grown up; I was now a responsible young boy because Santa gave me – yes, a Daisy BB gun!
I don’t remember receiving any other presents that year although, as Christmas’ go in my family, I got more than I deserved. I wanted to shoot that gun now, but Mom made it very clear that I had to wait for Dad to show me how to use it the “right way.” That meant waiting for all the gifts to be unwrapped (I had three siblings), Mom cooking breakfast, Dad getting showered and dressed, and then the lecture about guns and safety. I hated the lectures! Come on for God’s sake! I am now ten years old. I know what I am doing!
But I took it like a man. I looked on as my Dad strategically placed the Daisy BB targets on the backyard fence. He firmly told me “never point the gun at another person-NEVER.” He told me to always use the paper targets, and to shoot them at a distance to avoid the BB ricocheting and hitting me, or someone else. I repeatedly replied, “Yes sir.” He showed me how to aim and shoot, and after spending what seemed like hours in the backyard, I asked him if I could take the gun and targets to the open field behind the nearby Catholic school. My father granted my request, and I was sure to run out of the yard with that gun as quickly as I could before my mother discovered that Dad let me escape unsupervised with the BB gun.
When I got to the front gate of the school, I looked up and stared at the statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus. I don’t know what overcame me, but for no apparent reason, as if something wickedly spiritual took control of me, I aimed the gun at the Baby Jesus and pulled the trigger. The BB struck Jesus in the forehead, and in that same moment, I felt a burning sting inside my mouth. In a natural response I covered my mouth with my hand and when I pulled it away, it was covered in blood. The flow of blood did not stop. In my ten year old mind, I knew I was going to bleed to death – I was going to die! I still had enough sense about me to run to a nearby water fountain and wash my mouth, over and over until, thank God, the flow of blood stopped – and I was still alive!
I was distraught and scared. I wanted to go home. I looked down at my shirt now covered in blood and gasped with fright thinking how I could sneak in the house undetected to change my shirt and discard the evidence. I made my way home, took off my shirt and buried it in the yard, and waiting for the right moment, peeking inside the windows, I ran inside and into the bedroom to grab a shirt, then to the bathroom to clean up. I made it. My parents will never know what I did. I washed myself, and while brushing my teeth, I saw it – the chipped tooth! Looking into the mirror with horror and disbelief, my left front tooth was chipped by the BB. How am I going to keep this from Mom and Dad?
I went to my room and hid the rest of Christmas day to figure it out, and I did. I would not smile or laugh until I could come up with something plausible, that would not threaten my childhood freedoms and pleasures, especially my Daisy BB gun. I lived in anticipation for only a week. My parents never noticed. Not that they didn’t care to notice. I just smiled less. I finally told them about my near escape from death, and other stupid and harrowing stories, when I turned 40 (I am now 50). They just shook their heads and wondered how their son, or any boy for that matter, made it through childhood escaping serious bodily harm, or death.
Fast forward 40 years. Now, I must respond to the stupid acts of kids. Now, I know why kids do stupid things. Now, I know why I did stupid things as a kid. During my tenure thus far on the bench, the medical sciences have now confirmed what the behavioral sciences have been saying for decades: Kids are wired to do stupid things. The frontal lobe, which translates emotion into logic, is not developed until age 25. To prove my point, just wait until spring break, watch the news and count the number of college kids falling from balconies in Destin, Daytona, and Panama City – the result of alcohol poisoning.
This is why the Supreme Court in Roper decided we cannot execute juveniles. This is also the reason why the same court in Graham decided that sentencing kids to life without parole (except for homicide) is cruel and unusual punishment and contrary to the best practices of juvenile justice. Despite this irrefutable medical research, it begs the question why do so many communities across Georgia, and throughout the country, criminalize stupid adolescent behavior by referral, arrest, and sometimes detention? Why do so many of our juvenile courts receive more referrals from the school system than from any other source? More disconcerting is that most of these referrals are misdemeanors historically addressed by school disciplinary measures. Are adolescents better served and the community better protected by automatic transfer to adult court on violent felonies? If not, is there a better way?
I just wonder how some of us would respond if our own kids were thrown into the delinquency process? How would we want to be treated? Did our kids make an adult really mad and is that why they are in court? Or is it because they did something that truly scares us?
I am not sure I have the answer. I have some thoughts. I know we can’t get there without some frank dialogue, asking pointed questions, and sometimes offending our political, social, and philosophical opinions and beliefs. This column is the first in a series exploring these questions and more, about how we treat kids, or how we should treat them when they misbehave.
I do know this: Given what I know of the stupid things I did when I was a teenager, had I done some of those things as a kid today, I certainly would have been arrested more than once and treated as a delinquent. I doubt I would have become a lawyer, much less a judge today. That I do know.
The Hon. Steven Teske has been a judge at the Clayton County Juvenile Court for more than 10 years. He represents Georgia on the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. Judge Teske also chairs the Board of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and serves on the Judicial Advisory Council to the Board of the State Department of Juvenile Justice. He’s a leader in the Annie E. Casey Foundation Detention Reform Initiative and a nationally recognized speaker on juvenile justice issues.
Read more from Judge Teske: The Silent Majority