When there was time in the summer, and there was always time, I would ride my slick rear tired red Schwinn dirt bike down Malvern, across Cary Street and into Windsor Farms, and when I would get to the remnants of the Civil War trench works, I would gather as much speed as possible so that I might catch a bit of air off the top. Cutting back over to Grove Avenue by Mary Munford School, I would turn toward points West and the swimming pool and tennis courts a couple of miles up the road that offered all the advantages of summer day camp without any of the liabilities, such as close supervision. Later I would start for home, perhaps stopping for an hour or two on St. Andrews, North Wilton, or Oak Lanes where friends were ready to throw the football, play H-O-R-S-E, or squinting, aim pump-action BB guns at nearly impossible targets.
The world I lived in as I turned eleven was both larger and smaller than the one kids inhabit today. It was larger because I had greater freedom of movement—as long as I was home by five-thirty or so, all was well. If I were going to be late, I would call home from the phone attached to every friend’s kitchen wall. My world was roughly three miles West, a mile and a half East, a mile and a half South, and about the same distance North. By the time I made it to Middle School, I knew virtually every house, every neighborhood dog, and every hidden cut through for several square miles. Not many kids have this much freedom to wander anymore.
The world I lived in was smaller because the landscape I traveled on my bike was not paired with the vast 24/7 digital landscape that faces kids today. When I went home, I had a life apart from my friends as much as the life I had earlier in the day was apart from my family. Excepting glimpses of the evening news and evening newspaper (remember when cities had morning AND evening papers?!), my understanding of the world was largely built from the Boulevard to Three Chopt Road riding along the spine of Grove Avenue. I knew it wasn’t really representative of the real world–my parents gave me enough glimpses beyond those boundaries to solidify that understanding in me; however, by having the ability to wander that area, I developed tools that are relevant to navigating the endless complexity of the real world. Along with my friends, we learned how to make our own fun; we learned how to adjust a plan based on the weather; and, most importantly, we learned how to make our own decisions.
While I can reflect nostalgically about growing up without constant supervision, I do so at the risk of diminishing the real adult presence virtually around every bend of the West End of Richmond, Virginia where I grew up. I never really had reason to doubt that if I stepped too far out of line, word would get back to my parents, and that if any plan was too hair-brained, some responsible adult would put us back on the rails. Nostalgia has a more poignant risk as well, that is, it can blind one to the rather obvious truth that kids today are also learning how to make decisions on their own and in their own ways–however, they are facing different risks and rewards.
As we head toward a new year, the one to come thirty-five years hence from the one in which I turned eleven, my wish is that kids have some space and time to wander, and that as adults in their lives we find ways to support them in this youthful pursuit of aimlessness. I want them to have the gift of operating independently within a caring community that prioritizes supporting them and giving them the tools to make meaning from the experiences they have–on-line, in class, in their neighborhoods, and even on their bikes (though I hope, unlike my eleven year old self, they will wear helmets!). With a balance between high standards for their hard work/achievement and the gift of time to wander, kids will come out better prepared for the real challenges that await them as adults.