I grew up with more freedom than most kids. I was a product of benign neglect, a middle child with divorced and absent parents. If there was something urgent that we needed, my older sister was the "parent" obliged to get it done. Beyond that slightly-older sibling, I was more-or-less alone out in the world.
Recently, I ran into a man I’d barely known as a kid. In 1970, we’d gone to the same grade school, and now forty-some years later, he regaled me with stories of how he, and his creepy eighth-grade buddies, used to window-peep at my old house. That boy, who grew up to be a lawyer, didn’t seem to have a clue how offensive that confession was to his once-victim, the child inside that house unaware that she was watched. If he had, he wouldn’t have told it as a joke.
When he’d finally finished laughing, he asked with odd sincerity: “So what happened to your parents? Why didn’t you have parents?”
I didn’t ask if he had parents. Of course, I knew that he had parents, and apparently HIS parents let him window-peep at night.
Here’s what he really meant to say when he’d finished his strange story, (I’m a writer; I know subtext): If your parents had been home, we wouldn’t have lurked outside your house. In other words, three girls without their parents attracted adolescent voyeurs. Somehow it was a violation we deserved.
I’d like to think that things have changed, that we’re a more enlightened, compassionate species than we were in 1970, and yet kids surviving on their own are often suspect. We act as if a child unattended is at fault. We blame them in our neighborhoods and schools, I know we do. There are kids across this country waking up alone each morning, dressing younger siblings, desperate for clean clothes. There are kids without a parent to help them with their homework, kids without a grown-up to see that they eat supper, and yet somehow these strong, young ones must survive. They go to school, they hand in math and spelling, they take state tests with little sleep. They do everything we’re asking, despite a terrible freedom they’d gladly trade for love.
In my good dream, every child born would be fed and clothed and cared for, they’d be safely carried from their first breath to their last. But I know that that’s a dream, just like I know that curse of freedom, and I know that kind of freedom isn’t any child’s fault. If you come across that child, don’t ask if they have parents. Drop off a plate of cookies; leave a meal at their door. Take time to acknowledge the good things that they’ve done. And by all means, teach your sons and daughters to respect those brave young spirits. However odd they seem, they’re not a freak show.
They’re strong, and young, and worthy.
Say that. That’s what should be said.