I was driving past Middle Canyon Elementary on 1000 North the other day and noticed about 200 vehicles piled up around the school’s entrance and spilling into the streets. Now, most of the children going to Middle Canyon live within earshot of the school. In fact, most of their parents are probably reminded to pick up their kids by actually hearing the bell. Looking over this mass of idling minivans, I couldn’t help but wonder at how the times have changed.
When I was a mere lad, by mother took me to kindergarten the first day and from then on, as far as I can remember, I was on my own. I walked more than a mile and a half each way all alone to school in the St. George heat. For a time, my little 6-year-old mind was given complex orders to go several blocks out of my way to a trailer park to pick up a little girl and walk her to school as well. I was given no more instructions than that it was the third trailer on the left (“Which way is ‘left’ mommy?” “It’s the hand you don’t write with.” “Oh.… Which one is that?”) and that she would have black hair. I found her, miraculously. At least I think she was the right one. She kept saying her school was 26 blocks in the other direction. But she kept going with me anyway. Probably just went back on her own after dropping me off.
You see we kids were much tougher back then. We would cut through vacant lots and backyards, outrunning loose dogs twice our size, and jay-walking across lanes of high-speed traffic. We thought a “crossing guard” was a position played in some form of exotic European football. (We never heard of “soccer.”)
Nowadays, I’m afraid we are raising a bunch of pansies. I see children on tricycles with training wheels wearing monstrous helmets Evil Kenival would have envied. The little tike’s head is actually lower to the ground than if he were standing. The poor kid is going slower than a 90-year-old driver trying to operate a text message on her new cell phone, and yet his sweaty little noggin is wrapped in 5 inches of styrofoam and re-enforced plastic polymers.
Growing up, I don’t think “bicycle” and “helmet” were ever put together in the same sentence. Sure I crashed on my bike plenty of times, occasionally smacking my head around, but I always got back up with no ill effects. In fact, it was right after one particularly creative crash that I met Elfy the leprechaun, who has been my constant and life-long companion ever since. Today we are robbing our children of the wonder of seeing stars in broad daylight, to discover the power of the human heart (“Hey, look at Henry’s head! It’s pulsing!”), and the convenience of not remembering great stretches of their stressful childhoods.
Today, when I look at park playgrounds with their almost complete lack of skin-searing bare metal equipment, their piles of soft wood chips and spongy asphalt, I can’t help but mourn the loss of the childhood evolutionary magic of weeding out the weak. Gone are emotional-complex-inducing 90-foot slides and splintery-wood teeter-totters. Those teeter-totters were especially magical. Nothing can compare to the shear terror of the mischievous look in your little brother’s eyes when you realize his butt is firmly on the ground and a simple roll to the right or left will send you to spine-crushing, and if you’re yelling at the time (which you invariably are), tongue-lacerating pain. The remnants of my tailbone are aching right now just thinking about it.
And no self-respecting monkey would ever lower himself to play on what passes as “monkey bars” in today’s playgrounds. If you were to fall off one of these lame little dome-shaped contraptions there are literally no concrete-filled metal bars beneath to block your fall. Where’s the adventure? One of my greatest childhood memories was shoving kids off to the sides and dodging cross bars in my accelerated descent from the 31st “floor” of the monkey bars at St. George’s East Elementary trauma ward… um… I mean, playground.
Would Columbus have ever developed the courage to blindly sail off the edge of the known world if he would have had a mound of soft wood chips to land in instead of hard-pack earth at the bottom of his monkey bars? No! Would Admiral Perry ever have made it to the North Pole if his mother had picked him up from school in a heated carriage? No! How are we ever going to develop the agility of an O.J. Simpson on the football field or at beating a rap if we don’t first learn to dodge traffic on our way to school?
We need to shove our kids out the door and tell them to fend off candy-wielding strangers using the hardened experience of the playground and that frightening “lazy eye” developed from repeated knocks on the cranium. Then we can rest assured that with Elfy’s help and some nameless black-haired girl from a trailer park, they can go on to discover and pillage a “New World,” or set out on pointless searches for an arbitrary spot on a frozen ice sheet.
And don’t even get me started on “booster” seats… Um, gotta go. My wife just called and I’ve got to pick up the kids from school.
John Hamilton is the creative director for Transcript-Bulletin Publishing.