Sunday, April 22, 2012

Remembering Etan

Etan Patz was in first grade when he disappeared 33 years ago on his way to school.

I teach first grade.  I know how trusting, loving and happy children are at that age. I imagine Etan walking the two blocks to the bus stop full of big boy pride at finally being allowed to do this on his own for the first time.

But along the way something terrible happened to this sweet-faced little boy.

I remember as a teenager reading about this heartbreaking tragedy that was--and remains--a mystery.  Like the rest of the country it hit me hard. How could someone hurt a child? A few days ago I watched an emotionally painful video clip of his father breaking down as he imagined the moment when Etan realized he was being betrayed by an adult.

Now that the case is reopened I have become somewhat obsessed. I have written before about the promise I made myself as a child to one day use my "grown-up" power to protect and listen to children. Etan's story has certainly been an influence and has held a lasting impact towards keeping that resolve.

I wish I could have been there to protect Etan.

After school on Friday I walked over to 127 Price Street to visit the site of his disappearance.  I'm not sure why I wanted to go but I was hoping for some sense of something.  I wanted to walk the path Etan walked.  To imagine his thoughts.  To remember him.

It shocked me to realize that only 5 years after his disappearance I moved into an apartment less than 10 minutes from his home.  As a student at NYU I worked out at a gym that was just around the corner from his bus stop.

As I deal with the emotions connected with this case I am thankful, once again, that I am in a position to protect, nurture and listen to young children.  It does not take away the suffering of those directly involved in the Etan Patz case but his story has helped shape my own.  I hope his family gets some closure soon.


Angella Lister said...

You know, Gary, I think that my feeling of exposure and vulnerability this week had to do with the reopening of the etan patz case. I think it triggered me. Because what I felt was not vulnerable for myself, but for my children. I suddenly felt fear that I had put them out there too much and that not all the world was friendly, and maybe i needed to pull back. then a friend wrote me in email and mentioned etan and it all clicked. I know my kids are grown now, but what happened to etan when i was in college absolutely governed how i parented, my protectiveness which bordered on paranoia, which they pushed against, i think it is healthy that they did, but still, how i worried and obsessed. all that to say, those of us who were here when this child's angelic face was on the cover of the daily newspapers day after day were forever marked. you took the tragedy and turned it into a positive in the work you do with your kids. thank you for that. and thank you for coming by my blog, for being my friend, for being you. love, angella

Gary said...

Angella - I imagine a parent letting a child go off to explore the world outside of his or her protective arms is incredibly difficult. But it is necessary and certainly inevitable.

I have a friend who authored the book and blog Free Range Kids. Her point is that the world isn't really as dangerous as we fear. And when something tragic happens it is the exception, not the rule.

Etan's story served as a cautionary tale for many, many parents. It changed so much. It is unsurprising that the reopening of this case would make you feel vulnerable about your children. I love the fierceness of a protective mother. My mom is the sweetest, gentlest woman in the world but mess with her kids and watch out! God bless parents. I don't think I could handle letting go. It's hard enough for me to let my students move up to second grade. Sending you love.

Steve Reed said...

It's interesting how much this particular case affected so many people -- I guess because it was one of the first really prominent missing children cases. I do hope we get an answer after all these years, as painful as it may be.

I think your friend is correct, Gary, that the world isn't as dangerous, in general, as people fear. I do feel sad that kids are more cocooned now, and can't just go out and play or explore like we used to when we were young. But at the same time, it's surprising that a kid as young as Etan was permitted to walk to the bus stop by himself -- in New York City, of all places. That seems unimaginable now.

Hilary said...

Such a sad loss. It's unthinkable and yet it happens all too often. I too, hope there is some closure for his family, soon. I can't imagine living through this nightmare.

Gary said...

Steve - Well, there is still no answer. I started reading a free Kindle sample of the book about this case (After Etan) but had bad dreams for two nights and figured I had better not read the whole thing. I have to keep in mind that things aren't this horrible and focus on the happy, happy. It does make me cherish the kids in my life even more.

Hilary - It is a sad loss. Just terrible. I can't imagine living through such a thing either.


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