Thursday, April 23, 2009

Free range kids

Just got finished reading an article in Edutopia called "A Conversation with Lenore Skenazy on Free-Range Kids." You may have heard about Skenazy. She's the mother who became an unwitting international celebrity when she allowed her nine-year-old son to take the New York City Subway home from Bloomingdales in an effort to allow him to experience some independence. As I recalled the story that took place some time ago, I found myself remembering my own childhood growing up in Brooklyn and the freedom we had then.

Growing up in Clinton Hill in the late 50s and early 60s was an ideal experience. Kids at that time were allowed to travel away from the womb in increasing expanding concentric circles until the umbilicus was snapped from stretching. This was quite a feat for me considering my mother was not one to let her little darling steer too far too fast. Still, by the time I was 10, I was regularly hopping onto the Vanderbilt Ave. bus and traveling with my (slightly) older sister up to the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza.

By my mid-teen age years I had free reign of the "City that Never Sleeps" and eventually could be found taking the subways in the wee hours of the night.

My greatest feat of early-adolescent independence took place when I was about 12 or 13. At the time, my concentric circle of freedom and independence had expanded to about 3-4 blocks in all directions. Whether on foot, bicycle or roller skate, the opportunities and adventures continued to expand.

That summer, like most boys growing up in NYC, I was transfixed with everything baseball. The daily activity from March until September involved copious amounts of stickball played on Waverly Avenue, in traffic, with a stickball bat made out of an old broom handle an either a Pensy Pinky or the, quite-preferred Spalding (correctly pronounced Spaul-deen) ball. And yes, a homer was usually the result of a shot hit two sewers (aka, soo-ahs) distance; a feat that I was known to frequently accomplish. I was good.

That summer - it must have been 1965 or 66 - we had tired of stickball and longed for the real thing. You know, grass, a hardball, real bat. But alas, our little neighborhood had no such location for this kind of activity. The nearest bonafide baseball field was located at the Parade Grounds, a newly developed park just south of Prospect Park. The Parade Grounds contained a number of regulation baseball diamonds and was where the local little league teams (or school leagues like CYO) played. The distance from our neighborhood was a good three miles and required traversing through some "interesting" neighborhoods.

One day, quite spontaneously, my fellow scallywags and I decided that we should walk the distance armed with our bats, ball and gloves. I'm not sure why we chose not to take the bus which would have been a lot faster, safer and a lot less strenuous, but the likely reason was that we were all a little low on dough, and walking was free.

So off we went without a care. None of us had even bothered to tell our mothers where we were going. We just went. Ah, youth!

I seem to recall that I chose to be the the navigator and directed our posse up Vanderbilt to Grand Army Plaza. This was the way the bus would have taken us, and it was the route my father took when he drove us to The Park. Much like the scene in the movie Stand By Me, my troops and I talked up a storm and didn't seem to mind the long walk which was mostly uphill.

When we got to Grand Army Plaza we headed right into Prospect Park. I figured this was the most direct way to the Parade Grounds and I think secretly I was thinking we might find a suitable place to play much closer than the Parade Grounds which were still quite a distance away.

And indeed we did. Soon out into the middle of the meadow we caught up with another group of boys who were already playing a pick-up game of ball. Within minutes we had the Clinton Hill boys in hot pursuit of the Park Slope boys and a grand time was had by all.

I don't remember much of the game but mostly I remember walking home and how tired we all were. Despite the fact that it was all down hill, I think the extent of our exertion had taken its toll.

We got back to Clinton Hill just before supper time and most of us just peeled off and when into our respective apartment buildings.

I don't recall much of what happened after that except that I knew better than to tell my mother where I had been that day. She heard about it some time later and yelled a bit, but it was all part of the game.

I can't say that I would let my nine-year-old solo the NYC subways these days, but Ms Skenazy does have some good points to make. And perhaps the kids of today would be just a little better off if they had a chance to get out and about more often.



Lenore said...

What a great story! And a great memory! That's really what my book is about -- giving our own kids a chance to spread their wings and say, "I did it myself!" -- the most exciting words of childhood. (Actually, still pretty exciting words.) Anyway -- wanted to say hi! Lenore, the mom of the 9 year old (who is getting older!!)

john eric brandt said...

Glad you liked the story...I'm going to buy your book this weekend. Maybe when you kid is older, he can blog his version of the experience.

Anonymous said...

WOW! this is a great story and I have never heard it till now. Man, we were good at keeping our whereabouts secret. It does seem like a long walk, but I recall once Sigrid and I had to walk home from grand army plaza after the bus broke down or something. the park slope boys have some appeal to me as they are all vampires in my new illustrated graphic novel.
yac and i did the subway thing when we were around 12 years old (not much older than nine) and julie and I went downtown on the dekalb bus almost every week in 6th and 7th grade! sshh! don't tell!