After the disappearance last week of 7-year-old Phoebe Ho, all the dire parental warnings about strangers and dark alleys suddenly have a hard-edged reality for her schoolmates at the Arroyo Vista Elementary School in South Pasadena.
"They knew that they should have no contact with strangers," said Grace Kim, watching her two apple-cheeked sons in the middle of restless flow of children that had just poured from the school to the sidewalk one afternoon this week. "Now they know that something could really happen."
She was talking about the nightmarish quality of the past five days for her children, especially for Joseph, the older boy. Joseph was assigned to the seat next to Phoebe, who vanished on her way to school last Thursday.
"A policeman came to my house to talk to him," Kim said, keeping an eye on the boys. "Some boy had said that he saw Phoebe in school the morning she disappeared. But my son knows better, because he sits next to her in the class."
She said that the boy was taking the disappearance hard.
"He has headaches," she said. "There is so much that he imagines. A wrong guy could be waiting for him behind a bush, he thinks. He's really scared."
Arroyo Vista Principal Helen Cease said that there has been a general feeling of anxiety among the school's 420 students. "The kids are very upset and fearful that the same kind of thing could happen to them," she said.
Teachers and counselors were emphasizing safety precautions to the children and "zeroing in on students who are showing signs of fear and anxiety," Cease said.
Some children have found it particularly difficult to cope with the situation, Cease said. "Among the signs are crying and nightmares and not wanting to come to school," she said. Such children were getting extra counseling and faculty support, she said.
Some of the anxiety is even rubbing off on the parents. "Many, many more parents are arriving at school with their children now," said Cease. "We're seeing a lot more fathers than we had in the past. The awareness level is very, very high. People want to
make sure that their kids are safe."
Phoebe was last seen about 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 11. She was walking on El Centro Avenue, midway between her home and the school, which is at El Centro and Cawston Street.
Her parents reported her disappearance that evening, after she failed to return home from school. It later was determined that she never made it to school that day.
Virginia Harrington, the girl's second-grade teacher, said that Phoebe's classmates were trying to carry on with their normal routine.
'All Pretty Traumatized'
"They're all pretty traumatized," she said. "But they're really calm and they're listening to directions. They realize the seriousness of the problem. Of course, they're asking me a lot of questions that I can't answer."
She pulled a stack of papers from the drawer in the desk where Phoebe normally sat.
The last class work that Phoebe had completed before disappearing was an exercise in capitalization, Harrington said. She laid the exercise on the desk on a lined piece of notebook paper, dated Dec. 10. On it, the girl had responded to questions about her name, her address and the school she attended, spelling out the answers in large letters.
On Cawston Street, where children generally enter or leave the school, there was a minor traffic jam on Monday afternoon.
"Usually, you can find a parking space here easily," said Amy Lewis, who had driven to school to pick up her 8-year-old son. "The day after this happened, I had to park a couple of blocks away, there were so many cars here."
Lewis shook her head. "Everybody's in shock," she said. "We thought we lived in a real nice neighborhood. Things like this don't happen here. You never even think about it."
Mary Kemper, who had driven to the school to pick up a neighbor's 7-year-old girl, said that there was much less commotion than normal now in the mornings on the Cawston Street sidewalk.
"Usually, they're all out here in front of the school," she said. "Now they go inside the school as soon as they get here."
Parents and community members from all over South Pasadena have helped to spread the word of the girl's disappearance. For example, the marquee in front of South Pasadena High School, on Fremont Avenue, which normally carries news of an upcoming athletic event, bore the inscription: "Missing Child. Phoebe Hue-Ru Ho. Asian, 7 yrs old. Missing Front Teeth."
Churches and relatives of the Hos have committed $20,000 to a reward fund for Phoebe's safe return.
Volunteers have established at 24-hour hot line to accept information about whereabouts. The number is 818-441-6890.
Members of the Arroyo Vista PTA have participated in a citywide search for the girl. PTA member Robert Felix, co-chairman of the security committee, said that he had passed out flyers as far away as Tijuana.
"We had to take a friend to the Tijuana airport on Monday, so we took flyers with us," he said. "We gave them to the police and to merchants, who posted them in their store windows."
"The thing we'd like to emphasize is that Phoebe is not just another little girl for us," said Harrington. "She's very special, and we want her back."