Confounded by the fourth-graders’ lack of interest in journalism, the career-day speaker knew he had to expand his topic.

So one by one, he asked the youngsters in the classroom what they wanted to be when they grew up — and why.

He started with his son, who answered that he wanted to be a zookeeper because he loved animals. A little girl said she wanted to be a ballerina because she loved to dance. Another little boy said he wanted to play in the big leagues because he loved baseball.

And so it went, late in the last century at a local school, with good kids giving good answers, including doctor, astronaut and movie star.

Then the learning experience went bad when Joe, a pal of the editorial writer’s boy, took his future-aspirations turn.

Nine-year-old Joe: “I want to be a policeman.”

Editorial writer: “Why?”

Joe: “So I can shoot people.”

OK, so Joe wasn’t the child’s real name. But that good kid really did say that bad thing.

And that really did strike the guest speaker, despite being a man who worked with words, into stammering incoherence.

Though the newspaperman said something about that not being the right reason to become a policeman, he forgot to point out that only a small percentage of law enforcement officers ever fire their guns in the line of duty, much less hit anybody.

And when they do shoot someone, authorities thoroughly scrutinize the event.

That includes incidents where reckless types force cops to reach for their guns.

As colleague Andrew Knapp reported in a front-page story Sunday, “Two of the three fatal police shootings during the past year in the tri-county area have been attributed to suicide-by-cop.”

Hassled by ‘The Man’

Yet some of the dead men’s relatives and friends, some community activists and some just plain folks attributed one or both of those killings (of Richard Cathcart III in Mount Pleasant last year and Derryl Drayton on James Island 2½ weeks ago) to excessive police force.

The State Law Enforcement Division cleared the Mount Pleasant police officers who fired on Cathcart, a 60-year-old white man. SLED’s still investigating the shooting of Drayton, a 52-year-old black man, by Charleston County Sheriff’s deputies.

A grim history of separate and unequal justice fuels residual suspicions in the black community that too many white cops — and even some black cops — are not colorblind on the job.

A fine, honest friend of mine shares that concern. He tells me he has frequently been unduly harassed by the police because he’s black — including by police up north.

Of course, even white people are at times subjected to police bullying. And beyond the racial-profiling debate lies this daily reality:

Cops don’t just carry guns. They carry an immense responsibility if they must make the split-second decision of whether to use potentially fatal violence in the name of the law.

For most of us, the biggest job worry is getting fired.

For cops, the biggest job worry is you — or your co-workers — getting fired upon.

And close behind on their list of work concerns are the consequences of pulling the trigger too soon — or not soon enough.

Back to Sunday’s paper:

Knapp’s story was accompanied by a chart on a 2009 Journal of Forensic Sciences study that found more than a third of 707 officer-involved shootings across the nation from 1998 to 2006 were suicide-by-cop.

The chart also showed that 62 percent of those shot had been diagnosed with mental health problems.

And as another award-winning colleague, Jennifer Berry Hawes, reported in another front-page story Sunday, “Local mental health experts say their clients increasingly live on the streets, crowd homeless shelters and wait for high-demand affordable-housing options.”

An unstable formula

Thus, the police don’t just have to handle the calculating criminals in our midst.

They have to handle out-of-control lunatics.

No offense to lunatics for calling them lunatics, but doesn’t it seem crazy to let so many of them run loose?

As for police brutality, sure, cops should never cross the line between necessary and unnecessary force, deadly or otherwise.

But in this mostly law-abiding citizen’s admittedly limited view, few of them do.

And remember, police put their lives on the line for all colors on the thin blue line.

Remember too that if a kid gives you the wrong reason for wanting to became a cop, remind him of this right one:

To protect and serve.

Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is wooten@postandcourier.com.