Small towns. They are amazing. They are the best and the worst of America. They are the best because of the kinship and feeling of community and the worst because you can put your shoes on the wrong feet at 8 a.m. and the entire town knows about your faux pas by 8:45. It is just the way small towns go.
My small town is a wonderful place and I have called it home for well over 40 years. We have four schools, a grocery store, three restaurants, fast food joints, umpteen churches of different denominations and an honest to goodness main street that runs through the center of town. If you live here for more than five minutes, then you know that everyone either knows everyone else or is related to at least one other person in town. Yep, folks...this is small town America.
Not to be outdone by the big city though, we are not without our issues and sometimes we become infamous for things other than our high school sports teams or our yearly Old Settlers Days. We are currently dealing with one of those infamous moments right now. A few years back, we built a grade school which resides next to one of the main thoroughfares connecting our small town to the city. On the back side of that school is the old junior high school which has been made into district offices and a recreation center. As rec centers go, it is small by most standards, but it does serve its purpose. Then a bond issue was passed and in that bond issue, a huge gymnasium was put into the works. The gym sits directly between the grade school and the rec center. It's purpose was to be shared by both the school for PE classes and as a early morning gathering spot for students and then also by the rec center, as the gym has a walking track that goes around the upper level of the gym. When this gym was being voted on, some voted for it without doing any research, some researched it and did not vote for it, and people like me asked how this would work having a shared gym and were told that it would be used by the rec center in the early mornings before school and in the afternoons and evenings after school and then during the summer. I was told that it would not be used by the rec center during the school day as that would be too distracting for the kids using the gym. Great! However, I did not vote for it because I felt that the money could be better used elsewhere. After all hadn't we just refurbished the football field complete with new bleachers, changing area for visiting teams and a brand new entrance to the field? I was thinking that perhaps we could actually use some money for....I don't know....education maybe.
Jump ahead to the last couple of months. The long awaited gym is finished and now parents are not happy that both the rec center and the kids are sharing the space at the same time. Yep, I and others were misinformed about when the rec center would use the facility. Now there seem to be a lot of parents very upset about this. Some are the parents who originally objected to the gyms use and others are arriving late to the party and just now realizing what they voted for. I have one word for these folks....EDUCATION! Don't vote on something if you don't have all the facts. It is because of this kind of uninformed voting that the American people keep getting scr@wed. But I digress.......
So now we have a big beautiful gym, with senior citizens (apparently they are the only ones allowed to use the new facility) walking the track at the same time kids are in there during school. Parents are not happy about this. Some parents are up in arms because it makes their kids feel uncomfortable having people "watch" them while they are in PE and others are upset because of the safety issue. Now in my opinion the safety issue is two fold. One is the fact that in order to get into any school in this town, you have to ring a bell, give your name, explain why you are there and I think give a urine sample in order to be allowed into a building where your child spends 7 hours a day/ five days per week. The school is crazy about their privacy issues and will not let teachers or anyone else take pictures of a student or breathe a word about a student outside the confines of the school, however.......they are fine with complete strangers watching everything these kids are doing in the gym. Double standard you ask? Ummm....yeah! Now the rec centers position on this is that their walkers have no access to the kids. They get to the track through a door that never allows them physical contact with the kids and when they are finished walking the track, as they leave, the door locks behind them so that they cannot re-enter. Great. That for the most part solves the issue of one of the walkers just grabbing a kid and walking off school grounds with them, however, I find there to be a much bigger problem that I don't think the district in their infinite wisdom thought about.
I hate to say this but as much as I would like to deny it, my town, small though it is....is not Mayberry. We have crime, death and the word that sends a chill down every parents spine.....sex offenders. If you check out the sex offender list, there are a number that live all over this town and scarily enough, some that live within a block from my house. Now, I am not some crazed over reactive person. I am semi-educated, after all I graduated from here, so I do realize that being labeled a "sex offender" does not mean that someone is automatically a pedophile. Sometimes the label is put on a 16 year old for having sex with his 15 year old girl friend. Back in my day that was called growing up, now a days its a felony. However, some of those sex offenders are the real deal. They are predators that prey on kids and have earned their title again and again. These are the individuals that parents fear and have every right to worry about. Predators don't usually just grab a kid, they do their homework. They watch, research and then act. What better way to pick a child than to simply watch them and what better cover to do that than a "harmless" daily walk around the track? From that vantage point a predator can watch and learn what kids are shy, what kids are friendly and from there, choose their prey. It is also dangerous as kids like adults can get familiar with seeing the same faces walk everyday. What was once a stranger is now a familiar face. All it takes is for a parent to be late once or a child to be alone for just a few seconds and suddenly the unthinkable happens. It is a real possibility and in my opinion, the real concern about this gym being shared.
Some parents became so concerned over this issue, that a facebook page was started. At first it was parents airing their opinion and sharing information, but like always seems to happen, it went from civil to heated in the midst of all the posting. Some parents are angry because other parents who voted for the gym are suddenly just realizing the reality of it all. Other parents are angry because they feel that people are worrying for nothing and thus making a big deal out of it. People are trying to call the schools and the district and they are learning where the real power in the district lies. Sadly there are many complaints of parents calls and concerns being ignored and dismissed, and the heat is rising on the subject.
Last night one of the local news stations (undoubtedly called by a concerned parent), did a story on our new gym. A couple of parents were interviewed as well as someone from the district office. Of course the districts position is that they are in the right, but if parents voices are respected, the district maybe forced to reconsider this position. It has been my experience though, that the district likes to talk a good game about respecting the parents voice but when it comes down to it, not so much. Of course, maybe that is just my experience.
This morning someone who chose not to use their own identity made up a fake facebook profile just so they could post an opinion in the facebook group. It basically stated that parents were over protecting their kids and over reacting to this situation. He called himself Joe Commons and portrayed his comment as the voice of the average person in our town. It had condescending overtones which obviously stirred an already boiling pot and it struck a lot of people the wrong way. Truthfully, I found the sentiment behind the fake persona to be quite nice. It was about people walking, adults among kids, people not living in fear and kids having a real childhood, not constantly having to be hovered over or their actions constantly second guessed. Ahhhh yes. I think that was my childhood he was referring to. What a wonderful world that was. And yes, we all want that for our kids.
I remember growing up in this town and walking all over it both day and night unsupervised. I remember walking to the pool, on my own or in a group of friends, spending hours swimming, again....unsupervised and then walking home. My neighborhood was my boundary and no one called for me until it was meal time or the street light came on. I had no cell phone to tie me to my parents and my parents never gave my whereabouts a second thought. I was always somewhere around and usually within yelling distance. Parents walked freely in and out of our schools and no school would have ever gone on lock down over a grandparent walking onto the playground. Kids on the playground rushed to the fence to wave at their parents if they drove by and if you needed to leave school, with a quick call to your parents, you could actually walk home on your own. No one would have given a multipurpose gym shared by town folk and school kids a second thought and the school district actually used to listen to what the parents had to say. However, all of this was before Jonesboro, Columbine and Sandyhook. This was before crazy divorced parents would try to steal their kids off the playground and before we got daily Amber Alerts on our cell phones, computers and tv's. This was before bullying was a no tolerance policy that no one follows and when kids could actually have a fight, be pulled apart, shake hands and go back to class. This was when both parents and teachers had a right to discipline our kids and our kids spent time playing baseball, kickball and playing outside instead of being doped up on ADHD meds and spending their time glued to video games. This was when people said what they thought and didn't hide behind political correctness or call everything they didn't agree with "hate speech." This was before the newspaper, the internet and the nightly news was full of horrible things happening to innocent children in a world much different than when I grew up. That was when we actually were Mayberry.
Are parents over reacting to this gym situation? I don't know. Shall we ask the parents of the Derby kids who were playing on their own front porch last week and the person tried to abduct them? How about if we ask the Columbine parents or perhaps the parents of the latest child gone missing in our area? In this day and age, society and life dictate that we must be vigilant with our children. If we allow our kids to go walk on their own, their safety is on us, but when our kids are in school.....then our kids safety is on the teachers, the administration and the district. Do I think these powers that be are making a decision based on the best interest of the kids and their ultimate safety? Not really. I think they are inadvertently setting our kids up to be victims and it is time the district listens to our concerns.
Yes, it is a shame, that like Joe Commons pointed out, that we can't let our kids be kids. It makes me sad that my child can't roam the neighborhood, play out all day and come in tired, dirty and happy at the end of the day. However, my kids look to me as their parent to take care of them and protect them from the things they understand and know about and the things they don't. If my child gets hurt because I didn't do everything in my power to keep them safe, then where does the blame lie?
We do live in small town America, but just like anywhere else in the world, we have good people, bad people and yes, even evil people. Our Mayberry days and ideals are long gone. They have been replaced by the knowledge that even in our own front yard our kids can be in danger. I think the district needs to listen to our concerns and respect that we as parents have the right to speak up for the safety of our kids, and even more than that, the district needs to act in the best interest of the kids.