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Kids need guidance, not fear

(ran LA edition of LT )

They were just playing, the three children in the back of the bus.

The girl said something about one of the boys, maybe about his big head, or his yellow teeth, or one of those other things children key on when they're playfully slapping each other with words.

The boy responded in kind, addressing his barb to "you ashy-legged m----- f-----."

He laughed at the clever name he had coined for the girl and used it to end every insult he threw back at her. She was no laggard and kept up her end of their profane bargain.

The trio, none of whom could have been older than 12, was sitting in the back of the bus, but their conversation was loud enough that they could have been talking to the driver.

The adults on the bus _ about six of us _ winced at the foul words. We wagged our heads and wished that they would stop, but none of us said anything.

Soon, we just did our best to ignore it.

The exchange continued for several blocks, several minutes in PSTA time, until the boy got off the bus.

None of us adults even acknowledged that the filth had been spewed. None of us talked to each other about how that wouldn't have happened when we were that age. How it couldn't have happened.

We just continued on to our various destinations, some of us perhaps feeling guilty because we had not shown the children that we did not approve of their behavior. Some of us perhaps felt some anger because they had shown us such disrespect.

But I'm sure it took a while for any of us to feel what we should have felt _ ashamed for our behavior, which was far more despicable than theirs.

We had an opportunity to help them, and we missed it.

We had a chance to tell them they won't get any further in their lives than the corner down the street if they don't respect themselves and others, but we let it slip past.

We could have told them profanity is the crutch that lazy, undisciplined minds lean on, but we didn't.

We could have told them their foul mouths dirtied our image of their parents, teachers, preachers and anybody else their lives touched, but we just wished they'd go away, just get off the bus and let us go where we were going in peace.

We could have helped raise three children, but we declined, perhaps afraid one of them would pull a gun and shoot us.

That's what happened to Thomas "Jet" Jackson almost 10 years ago after he corrected a young man who was profanely abusing two young women. "The next day he came back and said I shouldn't have jumped in the middle of it, and he shot me in the foot," Jackson said.

The shooter said Jackson had made him look bad in front of his peers.

Still, Jackson said, he would not have sat quietly through the scene on the bus. He said he would have intervened and let them know their conduct wasn't appropriate. "I believe it's my duty to do that," he said.

He has had plenty of occasion to do that in the 30 years he has worked with children through St. Petersburg's recreation services. In recent years _ the last four of which he has operated Wildwood Community Center in what generally is considered one of the city's tougher areas _ he has seen those occasions proliferate.

He doesn't buy ignorance as an excuse for their caustic behavior.

"They know it's wrong. They do a lot of these things to be seen."

He doesn't make any bones about confronting the behavior. You may find yourself staring at a gun or facing some other threat. Jackson takes that reality into account and excludes senior citizens from his suggestion.

"I would advise any middle-age or younger person to intervene," he said. "You shouldn't be afraid of those kids. Most of the people know those kids or their parents.

"I've had them come back later and say "I'm sorry, forgive me,' " Jackson said.

There is hope and tragedy in Jackson's words. Hope that more of us will find the strength or the courage to stop allowing our world to be polluted anymore by the foul-mouthed games too many children play.

Tragic that we may have allowed it so long that we've lost the wisdom of old age, trapped behind its fragility.