School Kids

I’m sitting at a traffic light in north Columbus near an intersection where there is a school. Even though it’s February, the sun is warm. School is out. There’s a gaggle of boys walking down the edge of the road toward me. I’m guessing 5th graders.

I didn’t know kids walked home from school anymore. Used to be, it seemed like half the kids in my school walked home. A warm sunny day in February was the best kind of day for walking. Toting books under one arm. We didn’t have backpacks. A Gomer Pyle lunch box dangling from the other arm.

I rode the bus most of the time. It was nearly four miles to my house. A little far for walking, unless you were from the generation of my parents who walked 10 miles to school with no shoes, uphill both ways. When I could, I walked down to the foundry where Dad worked. I wandered among the molding machines and watched the men working in the pattern shop. When 4:00 came, I’d ride home with Dad in the back of his truck.

The boys I’m watching are full of freckles and wispy blonde and brown hair. Cut short on the sides and pointing to every pole on the compass on top. Skinny as a toothpick. Heavy backpacks pulling at their shoulders. Three of them have lunch boxes. The soft kind with no pictures. They only wish they had Gomer and GI Joe and John Wayne lunch boxes.

Even if I didn’t know what month it was, I could guess from just looking at them. They are all in T shirts, jeans, and sneakers. And they are all carrying a jacket under one arm. Cold enough in the morning for sleeves. Warm enough by 3:00 to strip down to a T shirt.

They are lanky and awkward as they walk along. It’s like they have forgotten how to walk. The boy in front is walking backwards saying something to his buddies behind him. He stumbles, maybe on a rock, and does a pirouette with arms flailing, but he doesn’t fall.

There’s no sidewalk. One of them picks up a half-crushed Coke can, stands it up on a clump of grass and kicks it off into the trees like he’s making the winning field goal. One kid punches another in the shoulder. I can hear voices, but I can’t make out what they are saying. The laughter seems nonstop.

The light changes and I roll on past, looking at this crew in my rearview mirror. I wonder what they will be when they grow up, what they might look like when they turn, say 30 or 40. I think about how clueless and carefree they are right now. I’m realizing that it’s been 55 years since I was ten, but in this moment it feels like yesterday that I strolled past the guard shack at Southern States.

The guard stands in the door and hollers at me. “Hey Little John. You going down to see your dad?”

“Yes sir, I sho am.”

“You be careful. Don’t let that metal burn you.”

“Yes sir, I will.”

A kid couldn’t do that anymore these days. Too much OSHA. Too many lawyers. Too many rules to protect us from getting burned. If I had gotten burned, my dad would have just sprayed some gunk on it and said, “Guess you won’t touch that again.” That would have been the end of it.

But back to wondering what these kids will become.

My daughter sent me a picture of Zelda today. It’s career day at school. She is dressed in a white frock with a red cross on the front. Holding a stuffed monkey under one arm. A stethoscope hangs around her neck. Her career choice is a veterinarian. The black leggings and cowboy boots set off the ensemble.

Because of the monkey, I ask, “Is she going to be a vet at the zoo?”

Emily texts back, “Let me see.”

The choice is between a farm vet or a zoo vet. My phone dings. “Zoo vet it is.”

It’s not that I expect any kid to know what she will become when she grows up. I doubt that the boys on the side of the road are really thinking about career choices. Zelda is just having fun for the day. And let me just say, she is cute as a button with her stethoscope and braided ponytail.

What I think about most is WHO these kids will become. I don’t really care about what they do with their vocations. Okay, well, I hope exotic dancer is not on the list. But for the most part they can do whatever they want. A career doesn’t make the person. Rather, who that person is can make almost any career work.

What I hope, when these boys and girls grow up, is that they are honest people. Oh, they will tell their parents a few lies to hide things, and to stay out of trouble. But once they get past childhood, I hope they see the value in being as good as their word. I hope a handshake means something to them. I hope they pay their bills. I hope they value the truth enough to tell it even when it means confessing the part in which they might be wrong.

I hope they are believers. I have my preferences, but I don’t really care if they are Baptists or Methodists or just plain old Christians. I hope they keep their eyes open and their hearts tuned in to the little things that God does everyday to remind us that He is still here. I hope they lean on prayer and get a chance to see it work. I hope they understand that this world, with all of its trouble, is not their home.

I hope they are respectful. That they will see some value in every person they meet. That they won’t judge a person by the way he looks or by one bad experience. I hope they will believe in giving people a second and third and fourth and fifth chance in life, because we all blow it from time to time. I hope they will open the door for people at the post office. I hope they will say “ma’am” and “sir” and “please” and “thank you” for the rest of their lives.

I hope they are neighborly to everyone they meet. Treating others as they would like to be treated. I hope kind words and not harsh words are their first thought when they speak. I hope they take time to mow the grass or paint a room for an elderly neighbor lady. I hope they never squabble over where the line in the grass is between their houses. I hope they change a tire for a complete stranger just because it’s within their ability to get it done.

This is not a complete list. I have lots more hopes for these goofy boys on the side of the road. Lots more dreams for my grandkids.

And please don’t tell me I’m kidding myself.

I hope they change the world.

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