Remember my mention of the school where the odd signs are located? The one with “Parent Drop Off and Pick-Up”? It’s an elementary school near the place where I live — actually right across the street. If I leave late for my walk to work in the morning, I’ll likely weave my way through a few throngs of kids headed for classes, although I stay on the opposite side of the street on which the school fronts.
Usually, I walk the half mile back home for lunch by the most direct route, which keeps me across the street from the school. But sometimes, as I did today, I take a longer route home for lunch just so I can get more fresh air and steps in, since I spend most of my day sitting on my derriere. The longer route ultimately takes me down the sidewalk alongside the elementary school. And since I was late leaving for lunch today, the youngest students were walking homeward as I neared the institution. Lots of cute kids, mostly bronze children with dark almond eyes, jet hair and smiling faces tottered along the sidewalk toward me in typical friendly banter among themselves, many bearing backpacks that dwarfed them in size — indicative not of the large size of the backpacks, but of how small the children are. Most of the youngest ones were with mothers or grandmothers and other, older kids. Some of the mothers pushed strollers with lap babies inside, and some of them were not terribly larger than the kids they accompanied. So I guess I must have seemed a sight to them as I approached, a tall lanky white-haired Anglo. My youngest daughter once commented about a photo of our family shot in the outdoors by saying, “Dad, you look like a Q-tip!” That brought laughter — her description was spot-on.
Today as I neared each individual or group of kids, I could not help but break into smiles because of the cuteness of these little folks. I love little kids and all their play. They remind me of my own grandchildren, who are younger than these schoolchildren, — and of my own childhood. The rise and fall of their excited voices and the quick little steps were fun to witness, for me. Full of life, carrying their lunch boxes or backpacks, bouncing balls and kicking and poking at each other in good nature. Carefree … or were they?
As I moved along at a good gait, I noticed something that made me progressively wonder, then made me sad, and finally made me want to gather them in my arms with reassurance that they were safe and loved. Without intending to be schmaltzy, I found it heartbreaking as I realized that these little guys and gals are being trained to be suspicious, to be leery of “strangers,” to be fearful of people who may want to victimize them. I noted this from the fact that, almost without exception, each group of kids would stop talking as they neared me, would stare until they almost reached me, then would drop their eyes and quicken their steps past. I even turned around a couple of times to catch them staring at me as they hastened their retreat down the walk. Was it my size, or the fact that I’m fair-skinned, or the fact that I was walking at a good clip that scared them? I don’t think so. I was smiling, carrying nothing and making no movement that would indicate any kind of imminent danger. But they still, in the main, looked apprehensive.
Nonetheless, I smiled at them, said “hello” or “ola” to them, and on a few occasions got a bright smile or even an “ola” from the braver, more secure ones and a couple of the adults. But as I reached home in a few minutes I was almost overwhelmed with the sad reality that they are being released into the world each day with a default switch set on fear and a response mode of avoidance. How different from my childhood back in the midwest, where we often played outside after school until dark. Chased lightning bugs in the hot summer nights without direct adult supervision. Played hide-and-seek and other silly games with no thought of being in danger from the presence of unknown people.
Is this present fear the way to cultivate a healthy generation, a generation with hope and enthusiasm? In this training process, are we teaching them to presume everyone guilty until proven innocent? Are we imparting to them the subtle message that evil and bad predominate? To be sure, there are predators out and about, and some children are victims. So I’m not advocating turning them loose outside to become street urchins, nor am I advocating sloppy parenting and negligence. But the predators are rare birds, clearly not the norm. So, is teaching fear the way to inspire young people with confidence that they can achieve a large measure of happiness and can share goodness with people around them? Are we instilling in them the reality of clear and present danger, or are we creating a future culture where all are suspect? Can we improve our world when we’re teaching our young ones to fear, mistrust, distrust and avoid? To look askance at anyone they don’t know? I don’t think so. By doing so, we only erect arbitrary barriers that we profess we want to remove in our “enlightened” culture. What’s going on?
Is this just a sign of the times?
Carpe diem. Vita brevis!
© September 2009, Michael E. Stubblefield. All rights reserved.