I don’t recall ever being told as a child not to talk to strangers. Perhaps I was, but if so, I’m sure it struck me as a strange directive, and thus, one I would ignore. After all, the people at the bank of mailboxes who shared the same apartment building as my mother and me would have qualified as strangers. I didn’t know most of their first names, though their last names were on the mailboxes, but I still saw them often enough that it would have been rude not to speak. No, I don’t believe I ever was told not to talk to strangers. But it’s a warning I’ve given my own daughter several times.
I also used to walk home from school, alone, back in the 1970s, in the small suburban town that was thirty or so miles outside of New York City. My Catholic elementary school was almost a mile from the apartment building I called home, and I was a latchkey kid as young as eight or nine. My mother had no choice.
But I didn’t let either of my children walk home from school alone until they were twelve. Even then, for my daughter at least, someone had to be home, and they needed to have a phone for emergencies if someone accosted them during a walk that takes less than half the time that mine did thirty-five year ago.
Children must know that no one can be trusted, that they are not safe, and that any adult they haven’t met before is a potential danger to them that they should guard against. This is what twenty-first century American children are taught every day, it seems – if not directly, then by osmosis. How sad for them. How sad for us all, I’ve often thought, enraged by the times in which we live, times that include danger, fear and caution that all but eliminate any possibility of immediate warmth with a person one barely knows.
I had three brand new students in class tonight, all doing kung fu for the very first time. One was a six-year-old girl. During our first break, I began to tell her what a good job she’d been doing following along and paying attention, but three words into my sentence, she flung her arms around my waist and hugged me. I’m almost as nuts about children as I am about kung fu, so I automatically hugged her back without looking around to see if a parent was primed to sue me or something. It was one of those moments that makes me happy to be a teacher. Two minutes earlier she’d told me how the drills we were doing were making her arms hurt – but apparently not enough to keep from hugging me.
At the end of class, after that little first grader hung in through almost twenty lines of walking horse stances (twice as long as one of the young men doing the same drill right next to her), she followed the last bow of the evening with a final impromptu hug for me. As I watched her run off to the parent or guardian who was speaking with Sifu, I thought: We adults haven’t scared the warmth out of all of them yet. Some know that all new people aren’t strangers to be on guard around.
And that’s perhaps the most important lesson for us all to learn.