by | Apr 14, 1996 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

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 TV, 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 to take flying lessons. And even though she needed a cushion to reach the controls, the idea came 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 publicity
— and there was plenty of publicity — were all arranged by the parents. No one called Jessica to arrange an interview. They called Mom or Dad.

So Thursday, when Jessica lifted her small Cessna plane into a terrible rain storm in 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.

Her parents.

But that’s only part of the story. Plenty of publicity

“WHY WAS JESSICA ALLOWED TO FLY?” the media screamed, just hours after the crash. The nation seemed up in arms. A congressman vowed new legislation. The FAA planned to review its policy — which allows anyone, of any age, to fly with an instructor alongside.

And all this is besides 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 seven 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 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, maybe even ask, “Weren’t you scared of crashing while you were up there?”

If you watched the news programs the night of her death, you saw plenty of film of Jessica, smiling, flying her first leg, talking about how she only had two hours of sleep the night before the fatal flight in Cheyenne. Ask yourself this: How come there was so much footage?

Answer: Because the media was following her around, glorifying her story. These are some of the same people who are clucking their tongues now that she’s dead. Plenty of blame

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 — weather so bad, nearly every pilot interviewed shook his head in disbelief.

But I would not be surprised. Parents often live vicariously through their children. And this trend toward early accomplishment — miniature gymnasts, musicians, figure skaters — has become a pint-sized epidemic. Some believe the push to get Jessica across the country was because she was 7 years old, and she turned 8 in just a few weeks. If she set the record while she was 7, she might have 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 kids as much as they can, and as hard as they can — if there’s something to gain, like 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? Don’t we hear every week about some small plane that crashes
— and those are flown by adults!

Instead, we are all there after the fact, ready to blame someone, our new national pastime. We can’t jeer one day what we cheer the day before. 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, if she’d still be alive today, looking at the sky and dreaming of her future.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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