A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Stranger Than Fiction

Photo credit: Jay Cable, Ireland, 2009

It was about ten p.m.  My friend Amy and I were biking along a deserted road.  The only landmarks nearby were a cemetery, a field full of musk oxen, and a whole lot of dense woods.  We were at least half a mile from the nearest house when a very small curly-haired person stepped out of the forest.  She was wearing a nightdress, cowboy boots, a large cross, and a backpack.   A dense cloud of mosquitoes was busily feasting on her dimpled knees and pale little arms.  She gazed about in what appeared to be mild confusion.
I squeezed the brakes.  “Um… hi there.  Do you need help?”
She considered this carefully.  She wasn’t sniveling, shrieking, or showing any other signs of little-kid distress.  “Yeah…” she said, with the hesitation of someone who is unsure whether they prefer chocolate or vanilla. 
Amy and I started questioning her, as gently as possible.  She was six – or, no, maybe she wasn’t six.  Her name was Kira – or, then again, maybe it wasn’t.  After the first few brief moments of simple trust, she was eyeing me with suspicion, her brow furrowed as if recalling a lesson. Oh crap, I thought.  She knows she’s not supposed to talk to strangers.
Don’t talk to strangers.  It’s one of the basics, part of Parenting 101, along with Don’t Give In To Whining and Don’t Fill the Sippy Cup with Mountain Dew.  But it was a safety precaution that –unlike the nifty outlet blockers, diminutive bike helmets, and many-strapped car seats --  I’d never actually done anything about.  Last winter, I felt caught out when notes came home from kindergarten with Molly and Lizzy.  My children – along with everyone else’s -- would be hearing a talk about “stranger danger” in school, unless I demanded that they NOT hear it.  It was unclear what would be done with students whose parents refused to comply, but of course I made no protest.  The school was doing the Right Thing – weren’t they?
Afterwards, I asked the twins what they’d been told, but they were noncommittal.  Trying to ask kindergarteners what they did all day in school is about as productive and informative as trying to ask the cat why she insists on shredding my bags of sewing supplies.  However, a couple of days later, as I was dropping the kids off in the morning, I witnessed an interesting scene.
A couple of first grade boys were chasing each other around in the snow, laughing uproariously as one wrestled the other to the ground.   Nothing unusual there; this is pretty much what all kids do until stopped and forced to wait in line by the boring Grownups In Charge.  But when these two came up for air, the kid on top jumped off and cheerfully told his friend, “Ok, now you can be the stranger!”  They took off again, shrieking and laughing and periodically shouting, “Stranger!  Stranger!” as they jumped on one another.
Yeah, I laughed.  Bad, bad, Mommy. But I also started pondering, then, just how useful the whole concept of “stranger danger” is.  Children DO occasionally get harmed by strangers, and the concept is too horrific for me to even try to say anything flippant about it.  But kids much more often get harmed by people they know.  Friends.  Neighbors. Family members.  Parents.  And no, I’m not going to say anything funny about that either.  But it does kind of convolute the message if the grocery cashier might actually be a safer bet than Uncle Cliff.
On that lonely roadside, Kira – or maybe not Kira – suddenly asked me, “Are you a mommy?”  My affirmative seemed to reassure her, but she still looked cagey.  Mommy or not, I was still, after all, a stranger. 
When we asked where her own Mommy or Daddy might be, she told us, big-eyed and with significant dramatic flair, that her mommy had been STOLEN.  
Oh, crap.  Stolen?  My mind raced down all kinds of avenues lifted straight from Hollywood.  An attack?  An abduction?  I started a sort of off-kilter game of 20 questions with the kid, trying to ferret out the story, but the details quickly became ludicrous and self-contradictory, and I caught Amy’s eye.  This little girl wasn’t suffering from trauma; she was suffering from a few too many movies, an active imagination, and a fear of telling the truth to someone she didn’t know.  We agreed that she would bike on down the road in search of other human life forms.  Someone must be responsible for this confabulating, engaging little waif.  At the very least, somebody had to have a phone, to call the cops. 
Police officers, of course, are almost always strangers, too.  Likewise, on the first day of school, the teacher is a stranger.  On the random Thursday when the teacher has finally succumbed to the fetid germs spread by hundreds of sticky little kindergarten fingers, the substitute is a stranger.  The pale teenager scooping Nanook Nosh is a stranger, as is the nurse who jabs you in the thigh with deactivated mumps, measles, and rubella.  There are six billion people in the world – including, presumably, my kids’ future coworkers, friends, spouses, and mildly annoying acquaintances.  They can’t all be scary.
Moreover, almost half of those six billion people are other people’s kids.  To them – to Kira -- I’m the stranger. 
In the end, no cops were called, and no damage was done beyond some parental heart-stress and a whole lot of mosquito bites.  Amy found a herd of frantic family members combing the streets and cemetery half a mile or more away.  Apparently the little cherub had gotten out of bed, donned her boots and backpack, and disappeared out the door while the rest of the family was watching TV.
“Honey, you can’t DO that,” wailed the not-at-all-abducted mother, alternately thanking Amy and me and hugging her wayward kid. 
I looked at little Kira, whose spirits seemed undampened, and considered that if she was capable of this adventure at age six, her mom might have her hands kind of full in another seven or eight years.  I couldn’t help but feel impressed by a six-year-old who had gotten up alone in the middle of the night, covered well over a mile on trails in the woods, and invented an abductor for her mother.  Of course, it was all wrong – totally wrong.  Pretty much the only thing this little girl had done right was admitting that yeah, she needed help – from a stranger.
It became clearer, then, what I’d always known: that ultimately, we all rely on strangers.  We have to trust them to brake at intersections, to measure the prescription accurately, and to serve the fries without spitting on them.  Sometimes, we have to trust them a bit further, too.  Fourteen years ago, I crashed a truck somewhere between Nowhere and Really-Seriously-Nowhere in northern Saskatchewan. I’m sure I looked like a very unpromising hitchhiker when stumbling down a dirt road in the dark with blood dripping from all over my face.  Nonetheless, a total stranger stopped for me. And turned around.  And drove me half an hour the other way to medical care.  And gave me a card and flowers the next day.
Thus, I’ve decided that the whole idea of teaching kids to avoid all strangers is a truckload of donkey manure – regardless of whether you have the kind of six-year-old who decides to hoof it alone cross-country in her cowboy boots, or the sort of overly-cautious child who is terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West even when she’s a marionette (not to name any names here).  Sure, I’ll talk to my kids about what kind of things no one should ever ask them to do, and I’ll try to make sure they know the difference between friendly and creepy.  But I’m not going to keep them on too short a leash, and I’m definitely not going to tell them to be afraid of everyone new.  I just can’t.  I like strangers too much – after all, they’re the people from whom I’ve drawn every single one of my friends.
And if you happen to be reading this and don’t already know me… go ahead, leave a comment.  I like talking to strangers.

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