Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rewards (and Risks) of Playground Conversations

I love talking to little kids, because what you see is what you get. When they speak, it’s usually unfiltered, comes from the heart and is soaked in honest curiosity. Everything’s still new, so to converse with them is to rediscover fresh perspectives on the world. Art Linkletter was right when he said, “Kids say the darnedest things.” But in today’s society, interacting with children that aren’t yours can carry potentially heavy consequences, if you’re not careful.
One morning while walking the dog, I turned down a street that parallels a local elementary school property. The fenced-in schoolyard was at least a block long and we were at the end opposite the school building. As I cursed the frigid air freezing my face, I heard them. Kids! Even at a distance I could tell from their high pitched squeals and random shouting that they were pretty young. I squinted in the gusting wind to watch them running, jumping, screaming and engaging in all manner of play. It was recess.
One of them broke from the main group and was walking my way. Must be coming for the dog, I thought. Trailing her was another child. As they closed on my position, concern tickled the back of my mind. How could these kids be allowed to stray so far from the main group? Then I noticed a caretaker had been there all along and was bringing up the rear.
The approaching gentleman was filled with intense interest but not alarm. I assumed him to be a teacher or school volunteer. He never made direct contact but hovered close enough to listen in on my conversation with the two first graders about the dog. After letting them pat her nose, which had squeezed through the fence, I kept moving. I wanted to close the gap between the intrepid pair of explorers and the rest of the youth banding about on the playground. I could sense the caretaker’s approval.
Just then two more kids appeared. Then another. And another. Soon there was an entourage of maybe 30 kids escorting me along the fence line, peppering me with dog questions. Once I made it to where the majority of the kids were, I stopped to satisfy their insatiable canine curiosity.
In the back of my mind, I knew I was taking a risk. After all, the Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy had occurred just weeks earlier. I also considered the concerns associated with adult strangers near kids on a playground and thought about moving on. Still, these kids were interested in the dog I was walking. Who was I to deny them their inquisitiveness? So I began fielding their questions.
“What’s her name?” “Can I pet her?” “Does she bite?” “Did you bring her treats to give her in case she’s a good dog?” “Why do dogs always sniff doo doo?” I answered as simply and enthusiastically as possible.
I was really getting into the conversation, when another adult appeared. If I had to guess, it was the principal. Or Secret Service. That’s because she was throwing me the same kind of look cast by men in black who wore thingies in their ears and spoke into their wrists while watching folks shake hands with the President. Oddly enough, I was okay with her cold, suspicious gaze. After all, she was on the job.
Like the other caretaker, she never said a word. But I knew it was time to move on; especially since one of the kids had just tossed me a zinger: “How can you tell she’s a girl dog?”

No comments:

Post a Comment