Linus is reading a book for school that is a mystery/thriller about shadow children, or so the cover says. I thought that was pretty heavy stuff for third graders, to read about shadow children, which I assumed to be kids that for whatever reason are just invisible to society either through neglect, abuse, immigration, or some other undesirable circumstance.
As it turns out, the book is from a series about a futuristic society that suffers from overpopulation, and families are only allowed two children. Except some families end up with more than two, and the extras are the shadow children who have to stay hidden from the government. Still seems kind of intense for third graders, but he’s really into it. And it does address important issues like overpopulation, resource shortages, draconian government policies, attic ventilation, and perhaps the folly of the rhythm method.
I knew a sort of shadow child when I was growing up. He wasn’t a true shadow child, as he was in the public education system for most of his childhood, but he was outside the social and family safety nets in a way unlike anyone else I have known. His name was Robert, and I met him my sophomore year in high school, when he was a freshman. He joined the debate team, and right away it was clear he was smart and funny and an easy guy to like.
Eventually I found my way over to his house, and that’s when I first realized his life was unusual. The house he lived in was a real abomination, almost a shanty. We entered in the back door, into a room that had a kitchenette, a bed, a small TV, and a tiny bathroom off to the side. It wasn’t condemned-scale filthy, but it wasn’t clean, either. And that was it. The rest of the house was essentially stripped bare, to my recollection. No lights, no insulation, many windows missing; essentially the one room in the back was all there was to live in.
I asked him about his parents and in a very offhand way he said his dad was a truck driver who wasn’t home much, and he hadn’t seen his mom since he was six or so because she was schizophrenic. If his dad lived in that house, I can’t fathom where he slept. That was the first and last time I recall talking about his parents. I looked around the room again and realized Robert, at the age of 13 or whatever he was at the time, took care of himself and probably had for awhile. I was stunned. I had never seen anything like that before.
We had a good time on many occasions, though I can’t say I remember many specifics. He had a cat named Betty, and thought The Worst of Jefferson Airplane was the only tape really worth listening to. He was a skinny kid with a deep voice who knew how to make people laugh without putting other people down, a rare gift, particularly among the debate crowd.
We hung out a fair amount my sophomore and junior years, but it wasn’t easy. My recollection is that I called him or stopped by his place trying to find him more than he tried to find me; Robert was amiable but distant, at least with me. Then, when school started my senior year I learned he had abruptly transferred to another high school. I didn’t see him for a year or two after that. I mean, he disappeared completely, and I was bummed. I wondered if he was still living alone in his little room.
Then out of the blue I reconnected with Robert twice during the summer after my freshman year of college. I don’t remember exactly how that happened, but illicit activities were involved. In one memorable instance, the death of Len Bias weighed very heavily on my mind and rapidly beating heart. That was a new experience for me but was apparently somewhat commonplace at the time for Robert, which probably isn’t a good sign for what he was up to at age 18.
After that night I completely lost contact with him until a chance encounter at a packed Lawrence, KS Village Inn restaurant late one night after a college debate tournament, some three years later. He was waiting on our table, and I recognized his voice before I actually realized it was him. I looked up and said, “Hey, Robert!” I was glad to see him, but he had a complete deer in the headlights stare that shortly gave way to a look of panic. I noticed his name tag said “Brooke” instead of Robert and was about to ask him about that, but he immediately turned and walked away into the kitchen. He never came back out, and that’s the last I saw of him.
When I think back about how he lived, what strikes me most was what he told me about his mother being schizophrenic, and knowing there’s a about a 10% greater chance of a child being schizophrenic if a parent was. Obviously he had a lot of risk factors beyond that, including neglect, drug use, working at the Village Inn, etc. Maybe he turned out just fine; he had a lot going for him to balance some of the bad influences. But every once in awhile, as with Linus’s book about shadow children, I’m reminded of Robert, the self-sufficient boy, and wonder what became of him.