I work in what could be considered kind of a rough neighborhood. Lot of boarded up windows, torn up sidewalks, that sort of thing.
Not too long after I was employed, a woman was beat up and mugged in our parking lot in the middle of the afternoon.
So now we’ve got guys installing new locks and security cameras all over the building to keep our staff, volunteers, and class participants safe.
But outside the scope of those cameras, the neighborhood remains the same.
And every day at 4:30 p.m., I exit the building into that same parking lot, and I hear kids playing. Laughing, screaming, riding bikes, chasing each other around.
And this is in parking lots and back streets. Most of these kids don’t have back yards to hang out in or anything. After school, their stomping grounds are street corners, alleyways. No parents supervising. Nobody to tell them it’s dangerous.
And that’s probably because it really isn’t dangerous.
Yeah the homes aren’t pristine. There’s a lot of garbage in the street. But the mugging was kind of a freak accident. When its sunny, I can stroll a few kilometers to a local park and back and I never feel unsafe.
And even though these kids are playing in streets and parking lots, they’re still playing, socializing, laughing and screaming together.
Tearing their clothes, scraping their knees, getting dirty and learning.
In short, they’re growing up.
The primary setting of my childhood play was quite the opposite – yet the play itself was strikingly similar.
I didn’t have a large gang of neighborhood kids to play with. The nearest house to ours is a good half mile walk, and there were only a handful of kids in this “neighborhood” that weren’t my brothers.
And we didn’t play in streets with traffic, but rather in the woods and streams that surrounded our homes for miles. We’d play outside for hours, roaming off into the wilderness, trespassing on neighboring agricultural lands, pushing our boundaries ever farther until our parents yelled from the doorstep for us to come inside cos it was getting dark and it was time for dinner.
And we did stupid things, unsupervised, all the time.
One of my most vivid memories is of me and two brothers from across the street, playing in the a ditch. One boy, Zach, and I stood at the top, picking up rocks and chucking them downward. The oldest, Pat, stood several feet below us, throwing rocks up and out.
This pointless activity was keeping us quite entertained until one particularly sharp stone that I threw sliced cleanly through Pat’s shin, and a gigantic wound gave way to a thick, oozing stream of deep red.
Pat cried out in agony and had to literally hold his leg together to minimize the bleeding.
Horrified, Zach and I sprinted to my house, which was decently far. The long dash left us out of breath, and we hid whimpering under my couch until my ma strolled by and asked what we were doing.
Thank god she did, or who knows how long Pat would have stood in that ditch bleeding.
Another time, the three of us along with my little brother were stomping through the vast field of long grass that covered most of the twelve acres my family owns. We came across a compost pile of rotting veggies, and one of the neighbor boys started cramming as many of these as he could into an empty gatorade bottle he was carrying.
Once filled to the brim, he began to shake the bottle vigorously, and continued to do so for some time as we traversed around.
At some point, he wanted to stop and pry open the bottle, which caused us all to crowd around like fools. When the highly pressurized pulp – which consisted mostly of rotting peppers – exploded from the cap of the bottle, it had a pepper spray-like effect on me.
The spice was unreal.
Perhaps my favorite story to recount is one in which Zach, Pat and I decided to take our bikes to the home of a neighboring family. They had a large pile of mulch in their driveway, and had used approximately half of said pile.
So now, it looked just like a stunt ramp.
Naturally, as the youngest, I got the privelege of testing it out first. And as I pedaled as fast as I could, my 8-year-old brain imagined soaring through the air, looking so wicked cool in the process.
Moments later, I had soared nowhere, and instead ridden my bike at a 90-degree angle directly face-down into the pavement, smashing my mouth and chipping a newly grown-in adult front tooth. My screaming lured an adult out to cart me off to the E.R.
My now fake front tooth is a reminder that despite all of the harm we did to ourselves, I’m still alive, and now I have all of these valuable memories. My childhood was full of unadulterated learning experiences (pun fully intended).
My parents didn’t hover over me at all times, assuming that just because I was a child out in the woods alone that I was incapable of looking out for myself.
And so, in that sense, I think I had a really perfect childhood.
Thanks, mom and dad.