The new movement du jour circulating around Facebook these past few days directs us to change our profile pictures to our favorite cartoon characters:
Change your Facebook profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood & invite your friends to do the same. Until Monday (Dec. 6), there should be no human faces on Facebook, but an invasion of memories. This is for violence against children.
I haven't done this yet--not because I think the cause is unimportant, but because I've spent a few days wondering how changing profile pictures to cartoon characters will accomplish anything. Why cartoon characters? Why not traditional symbols of childhood innocence (a dove? a white rose? a teddy bear?)? Why not pictures of our past selves as small children, both as a testimony to the people we were able to become, and to those small souls whose lives were cut short too soon? Around the campus where I teach, it's not at all uncommon to see college students wearing t-shirts bearing the words "Forever Young" above the grainy photo of some young person they once knew, whose life was brought to an abrupt and violent end. Most of the time these young faces belong to high school students, or young adults, but now and again you'll see a younger face, as I did last week. One of my students wore a t-shirt with the photo of a young girl on the front. Forever Young was written in curly, flowery italics above a blurry color photo of a sweet girl with corn rows and a twinkle in her eye. The date on the shirt was fairly recent: February 2009.
"I'm sorry," I said to the student when she came up after class to ask me a question. I indicated the photo on the shirt. The little girl was this student's 11-year old niece, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, shot dead by her mother's angry ex-boyfriend.
When I was 6 or 7 years old I was out one morning riding my Big Wheel along the sidewalk in front of my parents’ house. We lived in a quiet college town, and the year was probably 1976 or 1977. I’m not sure why I was out by myself riding up and down the sidewalk, but I have a recollection of my mother being in the kitchen. A car pulled up alongside me and stopped—a long, blueish-gray sedan car—and the front passenger door swung open. At least I think it was that door. I’ve thought it over many times and I can’t figure out how it couldn’t have been that door, since I think I remember the direction the car was headed down the street, and I'm also pretty positive there was only one person in the car--he must have leaned across the seat. Or maybe my memory is flawed, and he was headed the other way down the street, and opened his driver's side door instead. Anyway, he was white, had shortish hair, and an anxious, almost scared look on his face. He leaned out and grabbed hold of my Big Wheel’s handlebar and started to pull the bike closer to the car. I’m sure it must have all happened very quickly. In my kid thoughts I really imagined he was stealing my bike and so instead of hopping off and running back to the house, I held onto my bike with all my might, bracing my feet against the sidewalk at the same time--I remember that part vividly. It was only when he kept pulling the bike closer and closer to the car that I finally got scared, jumped off, and ran towards the side door of our house. I rushed in crying to my mother that a man had tried to steal my Big Wheel. When we went back outside it was still there where I had left it, solitary on the sidewalk, the handlebars turned slightly askew. I was so happy that the man hadn’t stolen my bike after all and it was only a good many years later that something clicked in my head and I realized that it was me the man had tried to steal, not some red and blue plastic bike.
After that realization I became terrified; terrified of the alternative path that event could have taken. I would lie awake and imagine my mother coming out of the house to look for me and finding only the abandoned bike and an empty street, like the cliched scene in some police crime show. I would be gone, vanished, as so many kids vanish, the everydayness of the world closed up around them, a world that somehow, inexplicably, goes on without them. The terror of that thought has never left me and it has affected me in many different ways, I think, particularly with respect to how protective I am of my children, and of who I entrust them to. What haunts me the most, though, is the fact that when that car door opened and that man leaned out, it wasn't a monster I saw--a person with a frightening face who shouted or leered at me. He was smaller than that, and scared himself. In fact, it was probably his own fear of what he was doing that caused him to botch it. I remember him as very human, although only a monster could try and take a child, pull her from her bike and into a car and shatter lives. A monster in human clothing, an ordinary-seeming scared man.
My parents wanted to protect us from the ugliness of the world. My ignorance about those types of evils--my innocence--made me cling to my bike when I should have run the minute the car stopped. Perhaps I warn my kids too often about strangers with my kids. I shudder when I think about what could have been. As a mother, I hate giving my own children a glimpse into the darker corners of the world--the world I saw in that man's face, the world that could have swallowed me whole, the world too many children see.
Forever young: what a terrible, terrible thing to be.