The Safe Haven of Childhood

I’m writing an article for AARP: The Magazine about the Simms Elementary School sixth-grade class of 1968 reunion and what I keep hearing from alumni is that reconnecting with childhood friends freed them to be themselves.

When I was a student at Forest Elementary School in Farmington Hills, I walked up a slow hill from my house to get to school. Fifth-graders, the kings of the school, wore bright-orange sashes and lifted their arms to a T when cars passed. Safety squad.

Only one tomboy joined the boys outside – most girls joined the service squad inside the building, ensuring kids walked instead of ran down the halls.

I don’t remember elementary school as a safe haven. What stands out for me is the torment of fifth-grade, when my frizzy hair and rolled-up jeans (not Gloria Vanderbilt or Jordache) were the subject of peer taunting. I’d walk down the hall to Mrs. Von Soosten’s third-grade and ask to speak to my sister.

When Jody emerged from the classroom, Idissolved into tears and my little sister with the cute pigtails and silly grin hugged me. What I come back to all these years later is not the two girls, Alicia Love and Erica Feuer, who stood by me during my loser-year, but my sister, who comforted me, and my brother, who carried my flute case home from school.

I was terrible at playing flute. And I was bossy. (Two things that haven’t changed!) But the rest is a swirling mirage of memories – sex ed in the form of a Disney movie where women had points for feet and were warned not to take too-hot showers and field day where we collected dandelions and made a salad of the greens.

My parents considered sending me to Detroit Country Day School – I was smart, and I welcomed the notion of escape to a new school, where I could start fresh. Instead, I enrolled at Warner Middle School and joined the sixth-grade, where I found friends and acceptance.

We played ghost in the graveyard with neighborhood kids and jumped on the Castlemans’ trampoline after school. My childhood was less free than the Simms kids who are 15 years my senior, but more free than today. I let my kids play in the backyard because I fool myself into thinking the fence protects them from predators. I punch the numbers of my house alarm before I go to sleep, thinking it protects me from my fears.

Is life that much scarier today than it was in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s? Or are we more fearful?

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