Bare-armed and loaded down with backpacks, the boys were crossing the park when I saw them. Behind them their dark tracks were pressed deeply in grass still glistening with frost. Almost every morning, I see them. The three brothers leave the house next door, cross into the street outside my front window. And then I see them again, passing by while driving my own kids to school. This particular morning in early April, though, the cold had not yet relinquished its hold on the spring. When I drove by them, crossing through the neighborhood park, they had the look of a small band of wanderers left alone to find their way on the path to somewhere – or something. Unprepared. Unaware of the dangers. I started to make a judgment on their parents for letting them leave the house sleeveless on such a cold day, but before that happened, I had another thought: Was I really any more prepared for my life?
The oldest among them, John, is 12, and he was leading the group into the wind gusts. They were moving slowly, but I had a feeling that had less to do with the bitter cold and their pink skin than it did a reluctance to reach where they were going. Over the last two years, I’ve talked to John more times than I have his parents. I’ve learned he is not only the oldest child and mentor to his younger brothers, but also the head of household – the most responsible person who lives in their house. Usually dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt, his hair is shaggy, and not in a stylish way. His hair is the sort of shaggy that shows a boy whose parents aren’t concerned about his looks – the ends jagged and hanging, wild, at angles just above his shoulder. His parents work alternating shifts at our town’s Wal-Mart. The mother, days. The father, nights. That leaves John as the father and mother, of sorts, to two boys. To my surprise, there have been moments when he’s displayed intellect and kindness beyond his years. One night, for example, I gave the younger boys some leftover pork to feed to their dogs. They brought the plate back to me a few minutes later, clean, and told me John had washed it. For a boy whose parents haven’t focused much attention on him and haven’t schooled him in the art of manners, his courtesy was surprising.
The youngest boy is Matthew and in the two years I have known him, he hasn’t grown more than two inches. He’s still a kindergarten size and he slurs his words sometimes, turning “ls” into “w”s. When he calls my son by name, he says “Chari-wie,” not Charlie. I’ve wondered at times if the school speech therapist is working with him, and if so, how good he or she is at their job. Matthew has dark, short-cropped hair, which might be cut at home. His skin is olive and when I first moved into the neighborhood, he was outside in the front yard every time I pulled into the driveway or went outside. He was there, playing alone, mostly, unless the middle brother, Michael, was there. Matthew would come ring my doorbell at 7 a.m., as soon as he had run out of the house and into the sunshine for the first time each day. Every time, he would ask “Is Char-wie hear-wuh?” and usually, my son was not. Inevitably, Matthew would follow that question with this: “Can I play in your back-yod?” And I would let him. A kid who spent that kind of time outside needed a change of scenery in my book. Over the last 8-10 months, Matthew has become more of an inside kid. My son has told their father plays video games all day, when he is awake. When I see Matthew now, he’s still a sweet boy, but the vibrant part of him has been overcome by something. Maybe boredom. Maybe by what he’s seeing at home.
Michael is the most troubled of the three boys. He looks like John, but has certain features of Matthew in him too. His hair is short but brown like John’s. His body is lanky and loose, like his older brother too. But his language is slurred like Matthew’s and he has trouble speaking. He will start and stop a sentence 3-4 times before he can get it to come out correctly. Through the reports of Matthew, it seems Michael’s teacher put him out in the hall a half-dozen times by mid-year during his first grade year. I don’t have the ability to see into the future, but if he doesn’t happen to be born with the same levelheadedness that his older brother was, Michael is going to find himself leading a rough life. That is, unless an influence comes into their world from the outside.
That morning I saw them walking to school and began to measure myself against them, the weather was especially raw for a sunny day. The temperatures were in the upper-30s but the wind was cutting. Strong gusts were bending the trees and sending their blossoms raining down into flowerbeds full with the season’s first color. I had just turned the corner to take my daughter to school and looked out from the driver’s side window and felt cold for them. How could their parents have let them leave the house without jackets? I’m showing my age now, but even me – a parent who is not always concerned that my kids wear a coat outside to play – knew better that day. Then I realized – they left home without their mother ever setting her eyes on them. She was likely working late. I thought about it and it occurred to me that her car wasn’t in the driveway when we left. John was leading the small tribe across the park, down through the woods and out the trail to Madison Street, where they would walk a quarter-mile to a side street, Cherry, and cross over for another quarter-mile walk to the middle school. Then John would peel off and the two younger boys would have to walk to the elementary building on the far side of the middle school. An 8 year-old and a five year-old, no coats, cold and alone.
My daughter and I drove by. I’ve seen the boys walking to school before and thought about stopping. I’ve even told them I’d give them a ride: “If you’re about to leave for school on a cold day and you don’t have a ride, come to my house and I’ll take you to school.” I was going to stop and holler at them to hop in with me, but I didn’t. Friendly adults unfortunately can be misconstrued in the society we live in. And I realized in the slowness of their walk, there were unaware of the conditions around them. Hardened to it, in a way. To give them a ride to school would have done nothing more than save their legs. And I know them … they wouldn’t have accepted.
This “roughing over” of the self and of the spirit does not have to be a detriment. Children are resilient, as are the three Biblically-named boys who live next door to me. In our walk with God, we can come to him on our own, sleeveless and without a jacket (unprepared,) moving slowly and oblivious to how much danger we might actually be in at the time. What matters, though, are the footsteps in the dew-covered grass and whether or not the tracks are on a path toward Him.