When I was a kid, I pretty much went where I wanted. My parents never asked and I never told. As long as I was home before dark, no one cared. I could have been dealing blackjack at a blind pig in downtown Detroit for all they knew.
Every kid I knew lived like that. We pedaled our bikes barefoot, jumped off them and let them fall on the gravel. At night, we washed our hands and watched the water make clean streaks on our filthy arms. Nothing smelled better than the wild and the sun on the backs of our hands.
We weren’t afraid and we weren’t careful. I don’t remember a single time of being afraid of an adult when I was a child unless it was of my father’s deep preoccupation with the welfare of his Ben Franklin Store. Adults to me were neither here nor there. They ignored us. They let us be weeds.
Yesterday in our town, a kid playing at the neighborhood playground was shot in the head, caught in the middle of a gun battle between two men. In the paper today, her father said she was brain dead and then later said he hoped that she would pull through. He’s hoping against hope. Who wouldn’t be?
Now every parent in this girl’s neighborhood is laying their own body across their child’s. There is no safety. There is just danger. And fear. The parents are afraid. The children are afraid. They will never ever be free of that.
God, I’m thinking. Why was I given such a gift? To not be afraid of people? To not have to be afraid of people? Why could I be feral, pretend to be a wild horse, careen my bike down a dirt road and smash on the brakes to make the dust fly? And what has that meant for me as a person that I wasn’t afraid of people hurting me? And what does it mean for children now that they have to be afraid of people and they have to figure out how to grow up with their mothers forever throwing their bodies over them to protect them from everyone and everything, even light and energy and things that would make them happy and free?
Once I ran a planning session about youth recreation in which I asked each community leader to draw a picture of their youth and label it with one word. The police chief drew a picture of himself on a bicycle on a hill overlooking a town and he labeled his picture: lucky. In presenting his art, he described the wonderful freedom of his childhood, the abandon of it, how he rode his bike into the hills and was free, all the time free.
No child now will even know what that is.
It isn’t just nostalgia. It’s a grievous loss.
A whole generation of children growing up worrying about what happens next. That’s not the stuff of childhood. It shouldn’t be.
That’s for grown-ups to figure out.