By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnist
Ronnie Paris and I had the same father.
At least, that’s the way it felt reading the news reports out of Tampa last week. They told of how Ronnie’s dad — his name is also Ronnie Paris — used to hit the boy, throw him around, bang him up. According to testimony from the man’s wife and sister-in-law, he did this to toughen the boy up, make a man out of him. Paris’ fear was that otherwise, his son would grow up to be “soft,” a “sissy.”
There are only three differences between this little boy’s experience and mine.
One, the word “gay” wasn’t a common synonym for homosexual when I was a child. My dad’s word was “punk,” which meant the same thing.
Two, in all fairness to my old man, he was nowhere near as harsh to me as Ronnie Paris was to his son. My dad never left me with broken bones, internal bruising or brain swelling.
The third difference is the most important. I am alive. Little Ronnie Paris is not. He died on Jan. 28, 3 years old.
Last week, a Tampa jury found the toddler’s 21-year-old father guilty of second-degree manslaughter and aggravated child abuse. Afterward, Ronald Paris Sr. — father of the killer, grandfather of the victim — protested his own blamelessness to a reporter from the Tampa Tribune. “I raised my son in the right way,” he said. “We played football, went fishing, went to wrestling matches, boxing, all that.”
It’s one of those Lord-give-me-strength quotes, because it manages to be earnest, self-justifying and clueless all at the same time. To put it another way, it’s telling what the eldest Ronald Paris doesn’t say about raising his boy right.
He doesn’t say he ever talked to him. Doesn’t say he ever hugged him. Doesn’t say he ever taught him.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with fishing, football and other “manly” pursuits. But while you’re tossing the pigskin around, maybe you should explain to a son that the measure of a man is more than the ability to summon or endure violence. And the strength of a man has to include the strength to be tender sometimes, especially when confronted with a tiny life that looks to you for protection and guidance.
Maybe it’s not too much to ask also that a father teach his son that “gay” is not something you can knock out of a child. Nor should you want to.
A story by way of illustration: I have a younger brother. By the time he was a toddler, my father had given up on me, resigned himself that his bookish and unathletic oldest child was doomed to punkdom. So Dad decided he’d save my brother from that fate. He took him under his wing and taught him every manly heterosexual art and vice he could.
I’ll give you one guess which of my father’s sons went to the gay pride beach party a few years back.
It’s probably a sign of God’s mercy that our father did not live long enough to learn.
Too bad there wasn’t a little mercy for the youngest Ronnie Paris. Too bad his mother — now facing charges of felony child neglect — did not call authorities. Too bad the state, which took the child out of the home in 2002, did not leave him with the foster mother who loved him. Too bad he was returned to his birth parents in mid-December. Too bad he was in a coma by Jan. 22.
It is said the Parises could not wake him that day after he fell asleep on the couch in a neighbor’s home. His folks had gone there for Bible study. Apparently, “Thou shalt not kill” was not among the verses on the agenda.
Maybe you can tell that I take this one personally. It’s hard not to. Ronnie Paris was terrified his child would grow up gay. Now the boy won’t grow up at all.
And I’m left to choke on the irony. Paris thought he was going to teach his boy how to be a man when clearly, he didn’t know himself.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org