So there I was, for the second time in as many months, sitting in a tiny school gym on chairs designed for much tinier behinds than mine, watching my almost five-year-old walk across a stage in a makeshift cardboard mortarboard with Pomp and Circumstance playing in the background.
The first time, it was for his preschool graduation. (I’m pretty sure my parents never attended such a ceremony for me circa 1977, but I digress…) This time, it was Safety Town graduation. For those not familiar, Safety Town is a one week program for 4 and 5-year-olds that teaches lessons about fire, pedestrians and traffic, water, guns, strangers and poisons/drugs. Each day has a safety theme that is accompanied by age-appropriate aids including puppets, songs, games and crafts, and special visitors like Neighborhood Safety Officer Mike, or Louis the Lightning Bug. One of the highlights of the program is a daily cruise around the miniature town they construct in the parking lot on Big Wheels so the kids can practice traffic and bicycle safety under controlled conditions.
Around these parts, the week is a rite of passage for rising kindergarteners, one of those things that everybody just seems to do. “What week is so-and-so doing Safety Town?” is a commonly heard between parents on playground this time of year. So I didn’t give much thought to the whole thing beyond getting our registration in before the deadline, which miraculously, I managed to do. A week of camp sounded great. Safety camp? Even better.
But somehow over the course of that week, something changed. As my little Safety Towner came home each day and shared his new found expertise (including a thorough inspection of our house and yard which turned up numerous egregious safety violations), I felt myself growing more and more concerned, and not just about Violation 107.4, subsection C: we do not have a fire extinguisher in the attic.
Fire. Strangers lurking in the park. Electrocution. Fingerprint kits. The more he learned about safety, the more dangerous the world suddenly seemed to me. As he ran through the house in his plastic fire hat singing “If you don’t know what it is, ask a grownup not a kid, if you don’t know what it is, walk away!” to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it,” I did not want to clap my hands, but I did feel an overwhelming urge to get in bed and pull the sheets up over my head.
It’s not that I haven’t discussed safety with my son, and it’s certainly not that we live in some sort of an idyllic bubble. As a former news reporter, I’m all too aware of crime, of tragedy, and of suffering, particularly where children are concerned. I’ve sat in courtrooms across from accused child molesters and murders, interviewed grief-stricken parents, friends and neighbors in the midst of their anguish, and stood by the side of the road as rescue crews worked (often in vain) to separate survivors from mangled metal.
But until that week of Safety Town, it hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be there to protect him from all that. Though he’s gone to daycare, gone to preschool, he’s even gone to spend the night at his grandparents’ without me, his experience with the world outside our bubble has been limited until now. Home has been his dominant sphere, and I hope it will always be. But in September, he’ll head to kindergarten, thus beginning a process where School and Friends and the vast mysterious Outside World will play a larger and larger role in his life.
I see that my little boy is ready for that seismic shift, that he has the confidence in his inner world to navigate the outer one. I understand that it will be good for him to experience different people, different ideas, and different ways of life. And as much as it pains me to accept it, I know that I cannot always be there to shelter him from harm.
Already, I see the changes. A cruel comment from another little boy made him realize that not everyone in the world is nice, and that words can be the most painful boo-boos of all. An ailing loved one has shown him that hospitals aren’t always happy places for Mommies and new babies, and that some boo-boos just don’t get better. I know that these lessons will continue, right along the ABCs and the 3Rs for the rest of his life. I see how important they are in building the person he is becoming, and yet I still can’t help but want to push them away.
As we left Safety Town on that final day, I stepped off the curb and was heading for the car when he suddenly grabbed my arm.
“Stop, Mom,” he insisted in a voice filled with authority I’d never heard from him.
“You need to look both ways. It’s how we stay safe.”
Mona Shand is a former radio and TV news reporter who now works in public relations. She and her husband and 3 children strive to live as safely as possible. You can read more on her blog.