Jessica Dubroff came into the world underwater, a birth method chosen by her parents. She never ate meat, a decision made by her parents, and she did not watch television, a decision made by her parents. She did not play with toys and she did not go to school; she was educated at home, where Barbie dolls and Tonka trucks were not considered worthwhile endeavors. Naturally, all of this was her parents’ choosing, too.
When she was 4 years old - 4 years old! - Jessica began a paper route, a task encouraged by her parents. Four months ago, at the tender age of 7, Jessica began taking flying lessons. And even though she needed a cushion to sit on to reach the controls, the idea was hatched for her to try to break an age record for flying across the country. This idea was suggested by her parents.
When their little girl said yeah, that would be neat, the money, logistics and lots of publicity all were arranged by the parents. No one called Jessica for an interview. Everybody called mom or dad.
So, last Thursday, when Jessica lifted her small Cessna plane into a terrible storm at Cheyenne, Wyo., and crashed to Earth a minute later, killing herself, her father and the flight instructor, there was only one place to point the finger.
But that’s only part of the story.
“WHY WAS JESSICA ALLOWED TO FLY?” the media screamed just hours after the crash. A congressman vowed legislation. The Federal Aviation Administration planned to review its policy - which allows anyone, of any age, to fly with an instructor alongside.
But all this is beside the point. This is a very simple tragedy with very simple culprits. It doesn’t matter that Jessica was a bright little girl who read historical books. It doesn’t matter that she was mature and well-spoken. Seven years old is 7 years old. Children that age listen to their parents; they want to please their parents. And Jessica Dubroff’s parents are in every way responsible for her death, as sure as if they had let her play in traffic.
But if they - and the flight instructor - are guilty of terrible judgment, then many of us in the media are guilty of something equally bad: hypocritical judgment.
The fact is: Had young Jessica completed her flight successfully, she would be a media star today. You would see her on David Letterman, the “Tonight Show,” “Entertainment Tonight.” Hosts would coo over her, marvel at her maturity.
If you watched news programs the night of her death, you saw plenty of film of Jessica, smiling, flying the first leg of the trip, talking about how she had had only two hours of sleep the night before the fatal flight in Cheyenne. Ask yourself this: Why was there so much footage?
Answer: Because the media were following her around, glorifying her story. These are some of the same people who are clucking their tongues now that she’s dead.
I do not know whether Jessica’s father was in love with headlines. I do not know whether the fact that satellite TV crews were waiting at Jessica’s final stop in Massachusetts and the fliers already were behind schedule influenced the decision to let her fly in terrible weather.
But I would not be surprised. Parents often live vicariously through their children. And this trend toward early accomplishment - musicians, miniature gymnasts, figure skaters - has become a pint-sized epidemic.
Some believe the push to get Jessica across the country was made because she was 7 years old and she would turn 8 in just a few weeks. If she set the record while she was 7, she might hold it for a while because, as she herself told one interviewer, “we don’t believe someone would ever let a 6-year-old break the record.”
Don’t bet on it. Parents will push their children as much as they can and as hard as they can - if there’s something to gain, such as TV exposure, a book deal, fame, fortune.
This whole affair is depressing, sure. But those of us in a position to criticize should have been doing it last week - before Jessica ever took off. Where were we then? Why weren’t we screaming about the danger of this endeavor?
Instead, we all are there after the fact, ready to blame someone - it’s our new national pastime. A 7-year-old girl is dead because her parents felt accomplishment was worth the risk. You wonder: If we didn’t celebrate such accomplishments, would she still be alive today, looking at the sky and dreaming of her future?
Mitch Albom is a sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press.
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