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Our Worst Nightmare

Straddling the scary line between encouraging independence and assuring safety

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.

Tim Dixon July 18, 2011 at 12:25 PM
When I was in 2nd grade the younger sister of a classmate was abducted from Shields Ave. Authorities combed the neighborhood, I can still see them checking all of our backyards and looking in tool sheds. While she was still missing, my mother and I were driving home from my Aunt's house on Barlow. As we crossed over Sheilds I could see the families house and the silhouette of a man peering out of the picture window. They found her body in Salem. As far as I remember, never found her killer. So yes, this is not new. Maybe this is the one time we thank God for the 24 hour news coverage. I will keep my kids a little closer, keep my eyes on them, and make sure that they're not another statistic. I guess this is one subject that I will let someone else spout off numbers while I squeeze my boys hands tighter as we walk across the parking lot. My heart aches for the Kletzky family.
WDNeedsHelp July 18, 2011 at 03:52 PM
Personally I blame the Liberal Justice system we have created here in the US. We give rights to criminals who are let out to commit more crimes on innocent citizens (Can you say Casey Anthony for starters) We are afraid to confront these monsters because they grab lawyers and sue us. Until we all decide that it's time for the justice system to dispense justice and not give rights to criminals get used to reading thses sad stories of dismembered kids. everyone around this monster said he had this in him but still he walks the streets with YOUR kids !!!! Now lets start to put the blame where it belongs. God help ANYONE in the justice system who frees someone who harms my child, there will be NOWHERE for you to hide......
Tim Dixon July 18, 2011 at 09:45 PM
Unfortunately, the only mark on the killers criminal record in New York was a summons issued last year for public urination.
Mary Lebeau July 19, 2011 at 11:14 AM
Tim, I thought a lot about writing about the Brenda Probasco case when I was working on this article. They did find her killer decades later - a neighbor, also on Shields Avenue (http://articles.philly.com/1995-11-04/news/25680900_1_state-police-second-degree-murder-state-prison) I remember this search vividly, and I wonder if actually having this happen in my neighborhood has affected my "hovering" MO when it comes to parenting. And I agree that I may be more frightened because I am more aware. These things may have been happening all along, but now I'm the parent, and they're my children. God has entrusted them to me. That makes all the difference, and makes the world scarier (in my opinion, as this column always is!)
Patrick Hair October 03, 2011 at 08:51 AM
We do live in a different world today. It's not just the news coverage. We had neighborhoods. We knew the neighbors. Some of them were our parent's friends. We played with their kids. We went to their houses and they came to ours. If something happened to someone or someone got into trouble with the police, half the town knew it. Most of the older people lived there until they died. So there were always several families that you could trust--at least in life and death situations. To some extent they watched out for each other. Today, many neighbors don't know one another. And in many cases, they'd rather NOT know one another. People move around more for employment. Parents may be drug addicts or worse. Homes sit unattended for 12 hours a day so there is seldom anyone watching and there are few places for kids to shelter in if in danger. Things really have changed.

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