Our smallish city contends with a homeless population, a disaffected-punked-out-young-people population, and a population of drug-abusing folks who congregate around the main railway station and the main tram station, our city's version of Times Square. On our way to dance classes at the local ballet school, my daughter and I have to walk past loud, smoking, beer-bottle waving crowds of these folks, and I hold her hand.
My sons go through the same area on the way to school, and they recently reported taking a short cut--"not the escalators, Mommy, 'cause they take too long--we just went through that tunnel on the side."
That tunnel--that poorly lit tunnel that nobody likes because it stinks of pee.
When they walked through, some drunk guys were in there peeing against the wall and making sure my boys saw them. My boys felt embarrassed, and I could tell by the way they talked about the incident that it had disturbed them. Children who see some guy doing something wrong feel almost that they've done something wrong themselves.
I told my sons always to stay where they see plenty of people and light, never to take the shortcut when it's dark and they're on their own. I told them those guys were sick, and should not have done that, and please never to go that way again. They knew all that but they had to get rid of the disturbance by talking, and I encouraged them to talk.
How much should I tell my children? The school already provides a "my body is my body" lesson and a troupe of actors perform skits about what to do when an adult comes up to a child and says, "Come with me--your mommy sent you to me and your daddy is sick," or "Come look in my car." On the street leading home from school, various shops have signs in the windows for "emergency islands," where any child feeling threatened may go.
But there's still the guy who goes down our street in a green car, calling to children. There's still the man with the knife who went after a child in a toilet in the local park. There's still the shady deals I see in the woods as I walk down the path leading to our house, the men back there trading something, and I look the other way. There's still the time the girl arrived at the local ballet school crying because a man on the tram showed her his penis.
My daughter, who is nine, wants to walk home from school alone, and her friends are allowed to do so. One of them regularly walks through the woods alone to our house, past the drug deals in the woods.
At times like this I wish my daughter could morph into the most hideous child in the world during her walk home. But she's Goldilocks. She's Madeleine McCann. I remember Etan Patz.
Finally I agreed to allow my daughter to go home alone during the last week of fourth grade, but warned her not to go through the woods.
"Mommy, let me show you how I'll go," she told me, heading for the well-lit road with family homes rather than the isolated woods. She went on to detail how she knew how to run away from bad guys and I wondered how much she really knew. I told her about the girl and the man on the tram--I said, "he showed her something he had no business showing her," and she said, "Eeewwww. You mean like his thing where he pees?" Neither of us were going to say, "penis." And I told her that when I was her age, I'd headed home from school one day and a man in a parked car asked me the time, but when I told it to him he also showed me what he had no business showing me. And I told her to run away.
"Mommy, eewwww. We had all this in school." But now I know that she knows it can happen to us, that these guys are sick, and that she should run the other way.
I still want to post bodyguards all along the route the week she comes home from school alone.