Not much happens in Ponder, a Texas farm town of 500 people. Not much, that is, until teacher Amanda Henry assigned her seventh-graders the task of writing a scary story for Halloween. As it turned out, that was more than the folks of Ponder could handle: By the time the hysteria and panic blew over, 13-year-old story-writer Christopher Beamon was jailed as "a threat to the community."
"I was supposed to write a horror story, a scary story about being home alone and hearing noises," explains Christopher. "I don't think I did anything wrong." More than not doing anything wrong, the kid proudly volunteered to read his essay, a potential pulp-fiction thriller, in class.
Here's Christopher's essay, exactly as he turned it in, complete with all its errors:
"My flashlight went out and I heard someone right behind me and I turned in a very slowly scared way and boom the lights came on and the door bell rang. I walked very slowly and creepy and turned the knob ding dong the door bell went again. I said just a minute and I will be right there and I looked through the little hole in the door and Robin said Boo. I told him to come in and have a seat and we both wated and wated for Ismael because he was supposed to bring the ounce so we could get high but half an hour later still no Ismael so I got the idea of Freon and we grabbed a bag and a knife and ran out back to the airconditionar. We througth the bag over the nostle and covered it tightly and used the knife to press the volv. We started to hear something after we got high so we ditched everything we quickly run to the door to see who it was and there wasn't anybody there then we heard someone at the back door to see who it was I thought it was a crook so I busted out with a 12 guage and Ismael busted out with 9 mm and we step off the porch and this bloody body droped down in front of us and scared us half to death and about 20 kids started cracking up and pissed me off so I shot Matt, Jake, and Ben started laughing so hard that I acssedently shot Mrs. Henry. Ismael saw somebody steeling antifreeze so Ismael shot over ther near the airconditonar and hit somebody (indecipherable word) also scattered out and went home and my mom drove up and everything was back to normal but they didn't have any heads."
The next day Christopher, turned in by a terrified Henry -- who'd been whipped into a frenzy after being inundated by phone calls from spooked parents -- was hauled out of class by sheriff's deputies. District Attorney Bruce Isaacks told the Dallas Morning News that school administrators were "legitimately concerned." Texas Republican Gov. George W. Bush, reached on the presidential campaign trail in Delaware, declared that things such as this can't be taken too lightly. "We've instructed our school officials" he said, "to take any threat to any child seriously." By day's end, juvenile-court Judge Darlene Whitten ordered the boy held for 10 days, pending psychiatric evaluation.
What's really bad here, aside from a 13-year-old sniffing Freon after his "ounce" was late, is that Christopher earned an A-plus, "100 percent," for effort and creativity before he was jailed. As for the uproar over the likelihood of him shooting Matt, Jake and Ben and then, buckled-over in laughter, accidentally blasting Mrs. Henry, that's most likely the result of the good people of Ponder overdosing on television and watching ABC News report that Chicago's public-school system had purchased 24 cemetery plots for the victims of the next classroom slaughter. During the last three years, gun violence on television -- fake shots as entertainment -- has skyrocketed, up more than 300 percent, painting a picture of a nation gone "postal," a place overflowing with well-armed kids and crazed office workers. In fact, workplace homicides are at their lowest level in seven years, school violence has been dropping for more than a decade and the U.S. murder rate stands at its lowest level since 1967.
Columnist Robert Bidinotto, describing the results of an experiment at the University of Oklahoma, shows how preconceptions determine what we see, how the hysterics of old Salem, Mass., came to see a witch behind every tree and how Christopher Beamon ended up in Juvy Hall. Researchers filmed an actor playing a happy, problem-free scientist. They showed the film to undergraduates, law students and psychiatrists. Each group was told that the man looked normal but had been diagnosed as quite psychotic. Result: the actor was diagnosed as mentally ill by 84 percent of the undergraduate students, 90 percent of the law students and 100 percent of the psychiatrists. Later, identically composed groups were shown the same film of the same actor but were told that he "looked like a healthy man." All of them diagnosed the actor as free of mental illness.
Christopher says he wants to be a writer. His mother, Jan Beamon, says she's taking him out of Ponder High School and he's going to a private school. Who knows, maybe he's got the right stuff to be a pulp-fiction hero.
Ralph R. Reiland, coauthor of Mom & Pop vs. the Dreambusters, is associate professor of economics at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh.
Source Citation:Reiland, Ralph. "Chicken Littles in Texas Town Would Do Well to Turn Off the TV." Insight on the News 15.46 (Dec 13, 1999): 46. Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 20 Oct. 2009
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