One morning, I put my clothes in a washer at the laundromat and, as has become my habit, left them while I walked around the block to the coffee shop. That particular morning, I was headed back to my laundry, large Americano in hand, when I came upon a group of children waiting for their school bus.
The children stood in mostly silent clusters with their parents. There were one or two quiet conversations between adults and children, but otherwise, everyone stood – eyes forward – waiting. Not too different from most bus-stop behavior I’ve observed here in the city.
What struck me as odd, however, was how wildly different this experience was from my own childhood school-bus-waiting experience. I walked to school with my siblings through most of the early grades, so my first experience with busing to school was in 6th grade when we moved into a housing subdivision in Hastings, Minnesota. I took a bus to school most days from 6th grade through my junior year of high school in Ohio. Not one single day in all those years did I stand silently with adults, eyes forward. Most days, if I wasn’t running to catch the bus at the last second, I was joining in tumultuous, cacophonous, playful engagement with my peers.
One could argue that this difference is partly due to the fact that these children live in the heart of the city. But as I drive to work, through the affluent neighborhoods of Edina, I observe the same scene repeatedly, parents and children waiting together, mostly silent or interacting with one another in their family groups.
I have nothing against children spending more time with their parents than we did back in the Dark Ages when I was a kid. I am concerned, though, about what this says about being a child (or a parent)- namely, that children are only safe when they are with their parents. In at least one incident in Silver Spring, Maryland, parents have been investigated for allowing their children to walk freely through their neighborhood unaccompanied by adults. The mother, quoted in this USA Today article, says, “I grew up in New York City in the 70s and nobody hesitated to let their kids walk around. The only thing that’s changed between then and now is our fear.”
This mother’s statement cuts to the heart of what bothers me about the kids waiting for their bus the other morning. I’m not a parent, but I do understand the fear. Anyone who has ever loved a small child understands the desire to protect that child; anyone who lives in our current cultural climate understands the fear of dark possibilities. But, as Cheryl Strayed says earlier in the passage quoted above, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”
I have to ask: is this the story we want to live in?
I’ve found myself limited by fear time and again. Some of these fears result from the story our culture tells women. That story goes something like this: “Be careful how you dress, where you walk, when you are alone – you are not safe. Bad things can and likely will happen to you. And if you have not met every one of the spoken and unspoken expectations for appropriate behavior, it will be your own fault when the bad thing(s) occur.” There is a narrative like this readily recognizable for whatever group you are part of: gender-, culture-, or role-based.
But I’ve also learned that we don’t have to live in that fear-based world. Many years ago, after my sister first came out to our family, my parents and I attended Iowa City’s gay pride rally with her. We heard a speaker who challenged the audience with this statement, “If you want to live in a world in which you can walk down the street holding your lover’s hand, then walk down the street holding your lover’s hand and you will be living in that world.” As I’ve watched my gay and lesbian friends marrying and creating families together, as I walk through this city and see couples freely expressing their affection, I am amazed to find that we ARE living in that world. Has every person working to create that reality done so safely? Sadly, no. I would argue, though, that even those who have suffered to create this new story would say it has been worth the risks.
So, what exactly am I advocating? Am I saying parents shouldn’t accompany their children to the bus? Of course not. But I am asking us to question the story we are telling ourselves about the world we live in. The story that says we should face each day and each choice from the perspective of fear. The story that says we are at risk of life and limb in every moment. The story that says a fearful response to our world is the only prudent response. When we participate in creating a culture that is fear-based, we also create individual lives that are fear based. And those lives end up being so much smaller than the lives we are capable of living.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!