This summer when my wife and I and our two daughters arrived home from a three-week vacation, one of our neighbours came across the street while the taxi was pulling away. His face was solemn. "Be prepared for a shock," he said. "Your house was invaded while you were away. A bunch of teenagers took it over."
You can guess the scene we opened the door to: beer cans and empty bottles everywhere, chairs overturned, glasses broken, liquor cabinet emptied.
A gut-wrenching stench rose from the basement where a package of chicken had been pulled from the freezer and left to rot on the floor. Half the basement was crawling with maggots. Upstairs, dresser drawers had been ransacked, desks rifled through. Messed beds showed evidence of sexual activity, the most prominent being a large stain on my 12-year-old daughter's sheets and mattress. Jewellery, iPods, cellphones, cameras, stereo speakers were missing.
We found out later that the kids also signed their names on the inside cover of a book on Africa that I owned and took it as a triumphant totem of their "wildness."
"We didn't clue in right away that something was wrong," our neighbour said apologetically. "It seemed like just kids having a party." When it went on for three or four days, however, the neighbours confronted the teens and the kids hightailed it, jeering as they went. "You can't touch us," they yelled. The cops were called, but by the time they arrived the kids were gone.
"Another thing," the neighbour said. "It looked like they had a key."
A key? In the midst of our jet-lagged shock my older daughter remembered something. She'd left her purse with her key at someone's house a few months ago. A girl had picked it up to return it to her but they hadn't managed to meet for my daughter to get it back. The girl used to be a good friend.
"I'm going on Facebook to see if she's on," my daughter said. After a couple of back-and-forths it became clear that she was involved. She was a bad liar. She also implicated another girl.
When the police investigated, they soon had a list of a dozen or more kids involved. The majority were 15-year-olds from my daughter's Grade 10 class. Some of them were kids we had seen often, had over for meals, sleepovers, driven to movies. Some of them were top students. Nearly all the names we recognized. It added to the shock of it all.
Wresting hundreds of squirming maggots out from under rugs and furniture is hardly a pleasant undertaking; nor are scrubbing floors and walls to eliminate the stench of rotten chicken or filling out insurance claims or getting locks changed.
But it's a piece of cake compared to trying to restore a sense of comfort to your house after your things have been rummaged through, stolen, broken, violated. Even though we've replaced my younger daughter's stained sheets and mattress and painted her walls and rearranged her furniture, she's still begging not to have to sleep in her room. It's also a piece of cake compared to trying to settle your mind down when it keeps conjuring idiotic fantasies of revenge or dropping into despondency over the callousness of these kids you thought you knew.
Every day seems to provide new fuel for frustration, the latest being my daughter's discovery that some of her friends are hanging around with the kids involved - that she, not the perpetrators, has become the social leper, the liability.
Then there's the deafening silence from the kids' families. Maybe this has been the hardest of all to deal with. Although the police informed all the families of the invasion, sparing no details, only one father has called. Not a single other parent from the dozen or so families felt any need to do so. The father who phoned us also called some of the other parents; none of them returned his calls.
The police are not pressing charges. Although the kids are guilty, it's too hard to prove conclusively in court who did what and who knew what and who took what. A civil action is likely to cost more than we would ever get back. And some kind of unofficial mediation would depend on the willingness of the families to come to the table, which, given their indifference thus far, seems unlikely.
I suppose I sound like a crank if I wonder about the kind of society we're fostering when kids from apparently good homes want to do this and when there are so few consequences when they do. Yet I do wonder. Maybe the parents - lawyers, stockbrokers, business executives among them - are simply refusing to believe their kids acted badly because it asks too many unsettling questions about their own parenting. As for the kids, is the virtual world they are so deeply plugged into impairing their ability to imagine the outcome of their actions in the real world? Whatever it is, where once parents and society provided inhibiting consequences for teenagers' anarchic energies, that mechanism is now wearing thin. Or so it seems to me.
In the meantime the kids are out and about, skulking around my daughter when they see her on the street but feeling far less awkward than she does. They're on Facebook recounting the parties they've been to and how drunk they've been. Every once in a while maybe they will all get together and examine their signatures in my African book - wherever they've got it - and proclaim their wildness, their inviolability, the ease with which the thin coat of civilized behaviour is scraped away.
Surely it's not just me that finds this depressing? Surely someone else can imagine what we as a family have gone through? Anyone?
Peter Sanders lives in Toronto.