Fear and Freedom at the Bus Stop

12 02 2015

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!

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9 responses

12 02 2015
CRGardenJoe

It’s a great tragedy of modern life how empty playgrounds are–and when children are there, it’s under the gaze of an adult. I feel blessed to have grown up at a time when the outdoors was a free-range space for my meanderings, alone or with peers or siblings. I did get beat up a few times. Never did any adult threaten me. And the playgrounds were much fuller then. I think there was an expectation that all adults watched over kids, their’s and others, and parents didn’t have to shadow them like some protective Secret Service. When your kid is 3? Take her to the playground. When she’s 8? Teach her to cross the street and send her on her way. And she can wait at the bus stop with the other kids. The fresh air is much better and less toxic than modern fear.

14 02 2015
jenion

Thanks for your comments, Joe. The idea that all adults watched over kids is something that has changed, I think. As we pull in because of our fear, trusting only smaller units of relationship, we lose that.

12 02 2015
Joe

Unfortunately, I live that fear-based life in my personal life all of the time, but am a bit more lenient with it in the world.

14 02 2015
jenion

Interesting thought, Joe. I wonder how much the way we live our own lives, what our internal realities are, leach out into the way we see the world and interact with it? I don’t have any answers, just like thinking about the questions 🙂

12 02 2015
Kathryn J. Murray

My experience has been there is a big difference in the bus stops in the city vs. suburbs. I had a general idea where my kids were playing but they we out and about with groups of kids without parents. However, it’s easier to recognize someone out of the ordinary when you know your neighbors. I think one of the issues is that people don’t always take the time to get to know their neighbors and to build some trust. But then there is always the Jacob Wetterling kidnapping story in St Joes MN that puts the fear of God in every parent. Given the internet predatory opportunities and children being home alone after school because of the necessary two parent incomes, I’d say it’s not easy to be a parent in today’s world and there is a reason for the fear.

13 02 2015
marionpatterson

Kathryn, to build on your comments, the media have a large part to do with the fear. In a 30 minute broadcast the lead is invariably about some scandal or disaster. Only in the end is there the obligatory “feel good” thirty second spot. We would do well to reverse the ratio of bad to good. Not sure why society has defined “news” as some negative spin on a situation. i.e. we hear about storms on the west coast and flooding but nothing about how the rain fills the natural aquifers and reservoirs. And, if more were done by citizens and cities to keep moisture on property, and not sent into storm drains, then we would have less flooding. And, not so many “bad news” stories. Ah the conundrum.

14 02 2015
jenion

Kathe, I always appreciate your responses – and your perspective as a parent is an important one. I will whole-heartedly echo your comment that it isn’t easy being a parent in today’s world! I hope I didn’t come across as blaming parents – I was hoping to point out something that impacts us all, whether we parent children or not. The bus stop was just the jumping-off place for my musings. Marion touches on it in her comments, but the truth of fear is that it grows exponentially the more attention we give to it. This is true in our personal lives and on a much bigger scale in our culture. We create the world we live in by choosing to pay attention and allegiance to certain things. In the bible, Jesus says, “The poor will always be with us.” This is true. However, the economic systems we build and participate in can ameliorate or exacerbate this truth. It is the same with stories like the Jacob Wetterling kidnapping – bad things happen, and our hearts break for those who suffer. How might we respond to these things in ways that don’t shrink our lives but rather strengthen and expand them? That’s the question I’m thinking about.

13 02 2015
marionpatterson

Nice, Jen!

14 02 2015
jenion

Nice to hear from you, Marion. I agree, news outlets are, all to often, fear-mongerers.

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