When I was in third grade, I had to walk to school and back home again, a mile and a half each way.
I know that sounds like one of those stories older folks are fond of telling younger ones, to point out how cushy the kids have it. “A mile and a half, uphill each way, rain or shine, and we didn’t get off for snow…”
In this case, though, it’s true. I went to St. Patrick’s, over on the corner of Cooper and Green Street. My parents sent us there after our stint at Oakview kindergarten because they were products of the Catholic school system and didn’t really consider otherwise for their children.
In first and second grade, I walked from our house on Frances Avenue to the corner of Shields and DuBois, where I would wait with the other neighborhood kids for the yellow bus to transport us to school.
But sometime in between my second grade year and my third grade year, the diocese of Camden decided they were no longer going to pay for transporting West Deptford students to the school, which is located in Woodbury. The responsibility of the transportation fell to the parents…which meant it inevitably fell on us. We had to walk to school. I was 8 years old at the time.
It wasn’t as bad as it may sound, actually. My sister started first grade that year, so the two of us would be together, of course. And as we walked down Frances, we met up with many of the same neighborhood kids who waited on that bus stop with me in previous years.
Eventually we were a small mob, a group of uniformed kids from 5 to 14, walking down Red Bank, up Broad Street and down Evergreen to get to school each day. We’d walk back together, too, often stopping at that old news stand across the railroad tracks from school to stock up on penny candy for the trip home.
The next year, the powers that be decided the walking thing wasn’t working out. The bus was reinstated, and we were back at the bus stops again.
I hadn’t really given that daily walk much thought since, not until this week when I heard the horrible, sad story of Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old Brooklyn boy who wanted to walk home from summer camp. His mother had practiced the route with him and finally, on Monday, allowed him to walk alone. She waited on the route, but her boy never made it there. His dismembered body was found Wednesday.
A lot has been written since then, by news commentators and mommy bloggers alike, judging the entire situation. Some say the 8-year-old was way too young to be permitted to walk the seven blocks to his home. Others believe an independent nature is one to be encouraged. Are we hovering like helicopters protecting our kids? Are we naïve to believe “the village” is actually looking out for them?
I admit, I have no answers. I know I don’t allow my 8-year-old to walk alone anywhere. She doesn’t even walk the dog on the sidewalk out front without us watching from the kitchen window. And yet I know someday, sooner than I think, she’ll want to walk a bit further, and without me. And someday, I'm going to have to let her.
I’m haunted by this story, and by my own decisions. My parents let us go it alone, all those years ago, but we were a group of kids who always had more freedom. From an early age, we were banned from the house until the street lights came on. We explored the neighborhood on bikes or on foot, we sold cards or cookies door to door, we grew into our independence every single day.
I wouldn’t trade the freedom of my growing up years for anything. But I won’t offer the same freedom to my children. The world is a different place. It’s that simple—and that scary.
When I was in third grade, I walked to school and back home again, a mile and a half each way. But I drive my kids to school. And when I tell them the story of my daily walk, it’s not to point out how cushy things are now. No, it’s to remember how awesome it was then.