The Forbidden Fruit

“I know you care about him. I've never seen you like this about anyone, so please don't take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the Devil. What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I'm semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing … he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance … Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being just ’salesmen.’ And he'll get all the great women.”

--Aaron Altman in Broadcast News (1987)

It’s a beautiful spring day and the college campus is alive with the sounds of young adults interacting. Janie has had her eye on Tom for some time and, surprisingly, today, as they walk into the classroom in Brach Hall, the normally shy Tom appears to be walking right toward her, and as he does, she stares at the ground. She silently admonishes herself for dressing so sloppily today, even slipping on her roommate’s oversized shoes as she headed out the door for class. “Could I possibly get yesterday’s notes from you?” “Sure,” she smiles, taking off her glasses--of all days not to wear contact lenses. “But tomorrow’s the test, I’ll need them to study tonight,” she submits. “How about we get lunch after class and I can copy them while we eat. My treat,” he adds. “I’d like that very much,” she says softly. Tom smiles. Years later, neither can remember what they had for lunch that day. Janie and Tom began a relationship that took them through graduation and into the rest of their lives. They married right out of school despite their parents’ objections, and cheered each other on as they got jobs and promotions and earned the down payment for their first home. The first few years weren’t easy, and Janie recalls rolling pennies many mornings to put enough gas in the car to get them back and forth to work. The Christmas tree they got that year had been pulled from the pile of those thrown away by the Y.M.C.A. on December 24th after all sales were made. They decorated all night and on Christmas morning had created the most beautiful tree either of them had ever seen. It was their present to each other, as they could afford little else.

A New Chapter

Months turned into years and Janie’s tastes made the house a home. Tom took great care of the lawn and landscaping, and everyone who visited envied their happiness. One night when Tom came home from work, Janie burst through the back door and leapt into his arms. They were going to have a baby.

That March, their baby girl Brach came into the world and drew them even closer. They took her to church a few weeks later, and Tom held his little girl through the whole service; never could a man be filled with more pride. He loved his bride and their baby girl more than life. Brach would turn out to be an only child and an extremely sociable girl, bright, caring, loyal and beautiful. Her personality filled the room when she entered. As Brach was finishing her junior year in high school and already considering colleges she wanted to visit as a senior, her parents bought her a car. Her extracurricular calendar was so full she needed and deserved her own transportation. When Brach saw her reward in the driveway, Mom and daughter hugged and cried, and Dad tried to be aloof as if it were no big deal, but they loved their daughter. They lived to make her happy.

One evening after play practice, Brach stopped into a corner store for a quick snack before heading home to study. As she paid for her selection, the young man behind the counter held her hand long and thoughtfully as he took the money. “No lady this pretty should be out alone at night,” he said. His nametag read “Adam.” Brach withdrew her hand quickly but felt a strange excitement at Adam’s flirtation. He laughed at her gesture and her red face as she hurried out the door. Over the next few weeks, Brach found more reasons to stop in the store on the way home. Each time she earned Adam’s patient smile, and before long she began to see that he wasn’t being offensive that first day--he was just being friendly. Adam was slightly older and a little dangerous, and represented all of the things Brach had never done. Actually--as Adam suggested--all the things her controlling, overbearing parents had never LET her do. Maybe this guy was right. Her parents had forced her into a little princess role.

Shortly, Brach’s behavior began to change. She left play practice early and waited for Adam to get off work. They jumped in her car for an hour of smoking and driving through the park. Adam wasn’t “into” all the stuff she wanted to do, and though he didn’t put it down, he told her repeatedly, “Man, why do you want to have all that responsibility?” He was right, you know. It was her parents who made her run for class president and be in the National Honor Society. It was never her choice … I mean, how come nobody ever asked her?

The Turning Point

One night Adam asked if he could drive Brach’s car, and she complied. “For that, you deserve my thanks,” he said, and pulled a different-looking cigarette from his pocket. Janie loved what happened to her when she tried that smoke. Adam drove faster and faster, and she couldn’t control her laughter. He suddenly pulled off the road into a grove of trees and smothered her with urgent, pent-up kisses. Brach’s heart heaved and she embraced him as his strong arms held the rest of her in place. After a few minutes, she started to panic and pushed him off. Adam relented and sat back, lit a cigarette and started the car. He drove back to the corner store and got out, laughing and shaking his head. Brach jumped into the driver’s seat and sped home. In the safety of her bed, she cried, knowing full well she had escaped a great deal more than she’d ever imagined. Although Brach was not yet 18, she’d been exposed to a different side of life. She would be more careful next time, but she had to admit there was something about Adam that was very exciting.

Janie and Tom didn’t know what was wrong with their little girl. They smelled the cigarette smoke on her clothes when Janie did the wash, noticed her grades were slipping, and that she slept a lot later on weekends than she ever did before. Soon arguments at the dinner table became common, and the once clean and well-maintained car they’d given her looked like junk.

What happened here?

Reality Check

I am quite sure many parents are silently nodding as they read of these circumstances. No matter how hard you try to raise your children with a perfect environment and all the proper influences, lying in the bushes is one improperly raised home-wrecker who can ruin another person forever in no time at all. And it goes both ways. Many a girl has ruined a young man as well. See, here’s what happens: creeps and bums and tramps and users all travel incognito. They come on with charm and grace, and represent something cool or forbidden but the disaster that they promote leaves good people in their wake, and they not only ruin individuals but entire families.

How do we recognize a creep? It really isn’t that hard. There was a fellow thinking about running for president a few years back, famous for creating a notion in another administration called “family values.” This man married his high school teacher, a woman substantially older than he, then had an extramarital affair and divorced her while she was fighting cancer. He later had to be pursued for support. He would like the country to embrace family values. I would like him to sit on a flagpole.

I recall a man who marched with the greatest emancipator known in modern times. Unfortunately, that first person has ridden that reputation for years, telling people constantly how they should live their lives. But this man fathered an illegitimate child and had her moved and supported from funds gathered by and for charitable organizations. Recently, he smiled and spoke kindly in front of a microphone but seconds later whispered something so crude about a presidential candidate that it cannot be printed here. That’s called hypocrisy, my friends, and it carries extra weight when it comes from someone who deigns to speak for others and tells the rest of the unwashed masses how to live.

Take Action

Normally this is the place where I offer solutions, but this scenario falls into the category of bewilderment, like “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I have a few suggestions for parents, but they are usually the ones responsible for the bad influence in the first place. If they are listening or interested in bettering the world at all, I ask them to do the following:

If you’ve tried your best and still your kid doesn’t respond positively, warn the people he befriends. Call their parents and say, “I notice your son’s been hanging out with my kid. Well, my kid is a bad egg, and I’d keep him away if I were you. I’m just being honest.” I am proud to say that the fellows who married my three daughters have turned out to be good family men who love their wives. But in the beginning it wasn’t always so clear. I took the opportunity to know their parents really well while the courtships ensued. It took a willingness to be blatantly frank on both sides, and my wife has never had a problem with that. Each boy knew that if he wanted to make a life with one of our girls, it was a commitment he was expected to honor.

Don’t mince words with your kid either if he/she is a slacker or a bad influence. Be honest without being derogatory. An 18-year-old boy who has never had a job and watches TV all summer instead of working or being busy with sports or other positive activities is going to become, and remain for that matter, lazy. Believe me, a kid that’s blowing off life knows he is--he just hopes no one notices. Call him out and let him know you see him as others do; maybe he will want to change and be respected as a good influence instead of what he has been momentarily drawn to. As with any disease, early detection can save the patient.

Finally, employ those around you to intervene--aunts, uncles, coaches, teachers, a pastor, anyone you think may have influence over your child. I did this with all of my kids, and at times it really embarrassed them, but now as they reflect, those confrontations and interventions were turning points in their lives.

A Parting Gift

My friends whose daughter took a similar path to the one I created above felt no action was too small to help their daughter to a better life. When she began to make bad choices and turn away from her once-inspired direction, the father took another job out of state and moved the whole family there. That fall, when she should have been entering a four-year college, she chose to attend the local community college because she felt unsettled in a strange town. Later, with two years of college completed (while living at home), she finished her degree at a four-year school, making high marks, and pursued graduate school. By uprooting her and changing the scenery, her parents felt they could “reset the clock” and, to a certain extent, they did. Her father’s logic was clear: “I did all that juggling for four years, and now she has a good life, makes a decent living, and has her head squarely on her shoulders. If I didn’t do that, I’d be bailing her out of one mess after another for the rest of my life. Who wants that?”

Conclusion: There are parents out there killing themselves to give their children a good life. There are also parents who created kids, but seemingly never bothered to look at them again, let alone teach them right from wrong. There are men and women, like the Big Brothers of America, Little League coaches, and thousands of volunteers in various organizations throughout the country, who give of themselves so that those without good parental influences can find help. But despite all that, some people just seem to take delight in being unproductive and constantly rebellious. For those who have responsibility for such charges, please do your best to prevent them from taking those who hold keys to the future down with them. Do whatever it takes to keep good kids from going down a path where the traps lie hidden beneath a bed of leaves, set by those who simply want others’ failures to justify their own shortcomings.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail