Angel was preparing to join the dozen or so children who commit suicide each year in Arizona when someone heard her cry for help. At a moment when her despair was so deep that Angel felt as if the earth was closing over her, a stranger reached out and infused strength into her weakening grip.
The stranger was a school psychologist, an outsider who recognized and responded to a need that went unseen by Angel's own family. The act may have saved Angel's life; it unquestionably turned her life around.
But events swirling just beyond her understanding make it uncertain if the next child to face her crisis will be so lucky. Angel is a sixth-grader in the Glendale Elementary School District, a system that is itself in crisis.
The district is under attack by ultraconservatives who've targeted school counseling services for elimination. Despite the unprecedented flood of drugs into American schools, the drug abuse prevention program is also a target.
The activists' agenda doesn't stop there, either. It reaches all the way into basic educational programs, where they want to mandate fundamentalist teaching methods in place of the district's much-praised reading and writing program. To eliminate what is perceived as a threat to the family, the fundamentalists have drawn up a hit list of administrators who must be fired because they are responsible for the programs.
Glendale is in the middle of a guerilla war against "secular humanism," a value system in which there is no absolute "right" and "wrong" and people are taught to trust their own moral judgment, rather relying on the Bible, explains Donald "Mac" MacPherson, a Glendale lawyer for conservative causes.
"Secular humanism is a religion," says MacPherson, explaining his religious objection to having his children participate in the school drug program.
The dissidents fear these programs to counsel kids, combat drug abuse and increase literacy, recent introductions in a community renowned for its conservatism, will undermine the education and emotional well-being of their children.
Administration supporters are terrified, saying they fear the demolition of a system that is gaining national respect among educators. They point to the district's large numbers of poor and minority students and express disbelief that the conservatives' simplistic morality will work even in their own homes, let alone in troubled homes like the one Angel comes from.
So deeply wounding is this war that it has spilled outside school walls, ripping at the tightly woven fabric of a proud community. The conflict does not separate conservatives from liberals so much as it draws divisions between conservatives and ultraconservatives. It has destroyed long-standing friendships among some of the principal antagonists, and spread such dissension that even the town's elected leaders and business people say they are worried about lingering damage.
Actions by the school board since the recent election of a conservative majority have spurred a recall movement in retaliation for the swipes taken at current school programs and officials.
Critics of the school programs say they are fighting for their children's interest. Armed with ammunition from such New Right groups as the Eagle Forum, they are feeding on the discontent bred by a school district in transition. Each unhappy parent, no matter the source of his or her concern, is a potential ally in their fight to overturn the reforms enacted by district administrators and their supporters on the school board.
But the conservative activists admit their solutions do not take into account children like Angel. She and the 160 other kids in trouble seen by Glendale school psychologists each year seem destined to be the casualties in the latest crusade to protect the family.
"I'M NOT WORTH ANYTHING. Life is not worth anything." Angel was only eleven, a student at Bicentennial Elementary School, when she wrote those words in a letter to a woman she had never met. "I feel like I don't want to live any longer."
Angel had been slowly suffocating beneath her parents' problems for years, a lonely child waiting for recognition from two adults locked in a furious dance of alcohol and emotional destruction. "It felt like I was in a hole in the ground being covered up," she says of the weeks before her suicidal letter. Angel thought about telling her mother, but says she had long ago decided it was futile to seek comfort from her tormented parents. She suspected it was the same with all grown-ups.
"Angel was in a crisis of despair when I met her," says Cheryl Batton, one of seven psychologists in the Glendale Elementary School District. Batton met Angel in October after another school official, sensing the child's deep sadness, persuaded her to put her feelings in a letter. "I did most of the talking in our first meeting. I told her life is worth living and that she is a worthwhile person."