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.