SOMETHING ABOUT September always brings thoughts of childhood out of cold storage.
It's the annual onslaught of back-to-school-related stimuli, I think. The change in the air and the light that always comes after Labor Day. The din of playgrounds at recess. The sight of small children toting lunch boxes and wearing plaid, as we did. The unsweet smell of chrysanthemums, which I used to inhale all the way to school from enormous bunches cut from my grandmother's garden, a present for the teacher.
Midway through the fourth decade of my life, I am, like many others, too consumed with work and child-rearing to dwell much on growing-up memories. Most times, they blur together in a generally pleasant tableau, a reflection of what was real -- for mine was a mostly happy childhood -- as well as a resolve to remember the bad stuff as rarely as possible.
But in September, I always remember. The pleasures and pain of being a kid come back keenly for a few weeks. I have concluded that this is a good thing, even as I see the pudgy face of the girl who picked on my brother on the bus, taste fresh-baked apple tarts after school and remember what an eternity the six hours from 9 to 3 seemed when I was 7. We adults could do with more frequent reality checks on what it means to be a child.
I say this, ironically, as we have become politically almost child-obsessed (except when it comes to poor children who depend on public money to stay fed and housed, but that is a different column). From local school boards to presidential debates, policy decisions are being made with some variation of the statement, "We owe it to the children."
The politics of children
The national conventions played out as a choice of which candidate would do a better job of protecting our little ones from crime, TV violence, cigarettes, tainted hamburgers, pollution and the perils of the multi-income family. GOP keynote speaker Susan Molinari paraded her newborn; her Democratic counterpart, Evan Bayh, his twins. The president played with his brother's curly-topped toddler.
The reason is that we baby boomers, the most powerful voting bloc, are rearing our children and more concerned with their well-being than anything else. There is nothing shallow or false about our affection. Steve Kelly, a former Carroll County teacher and guidance counselor and Maryland's 1996 "Pupil Personnel Worker of the Year," says he finds no dearth of love for most of the children he works with. Understanding is what's in short supply.
We sentimentalize childhood too much, partly because time makes us forget how the pain of inexperience offsets the joy of freedom from responsibility; partly because we so desperately want to believe our children's lives are all innocence, wonder and promises that will find fulfillment; partly because we are alternately too busy or too afraid to probe deeply into the culture of the young to see what's going on there.
A few weeks ago, there was a minor flap in Howard County over a school calendar photo that inadvertently placed minority children in the shadows behind three cherubic white students. Someone said that all she saw in the picture were "sweet faces." The faces belie the reality that their world is not all sweetness and never has been.
"Childhood is not an easy place," Steve Kelly says, even for children lucky enough to be growing up with economic advantages and caring families in nice neighborhoods. "You have to find your place, where you fit in. You have to please adults. You have to be accepted by your peers. You have to achieve goals and start thinking about your future."
Childhood is being embarrassed because you don't have the right sneakers, dreading lunchtime because you have no one to eat with, having your bra strap snapped and your underwear yanked, suffering your first broken heart. Remember?
And today's children know a few troubles we didn't. Longing to come home to a house with someone waiting with cookies and milk. Obsessing about weight. Learning to trust a new baby sitter because the old one you liked so much went back to work somewhere else. Wondering why Daddy's girlfriend, who was so nice to you, doesn't come around any more.
Meanwhile, we parents run ourselves ragged arguing over what kind of textbooks our kids should read, saving money to send them to college, trying to decide which politician's fatherly promises are most likely to be kept.
In the long run, these things likely will be more important to them than making sure their shoes aren't laughable or properly nursing a thwarted crush. But right now, when they are too young to know that the time will come when it takes a certain early autumn something to make them remember, it's the little things that count.
Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 9/22/96