Dear Readers: School has begun, which means that at least one group of sixth graders is about to undergo an enormous, transformative experience. Hint: It does not involve filling in any bubbles with a #2 pencil.
It involves getting out into the world. As I’ve mentioned here before, every year, Joanna Drusin, an English teacher at a magnet school in Manhattan, has her students, age 11, do a “Free-Range Kids” project. That is, they can pick one thing that they think they are ready to do (that’s legal!) that, for some reason, they haven’t done till now.
Once they get their parents’ permission — and some kids can’t, which is why this project is extra credit and not a requirement — off they go to do the kinds of activities that might sound simple or scary, depending on how much local news you watch. Some walk the dog — alone. Some walk to school — alone. One made toast — alone. Here are some excerpts from the kids’ essays. This first is from a girl named Audrey:
“Going home by myself gave me many different feelings. I found it fun, because I was finally able to take the bus all by myself! Also, when I got off, I walked to my building — eight blocks in total. My fear of going home alone disappeared. I am so happy I forced myself (and I also forced my parents) to go home alone. Now I am allowed to do it every day!”
See? Transformative. Here’s one from a boy named Andrew, whose mom allowed him to get a snack on his own:
“After the eternity of waiting, the school day is over. I think to myself: ‘Where to start? So many things to see!’ I figure that if I was going to be a new and independent me, I should try new things. So I go to the falafel place and order falafel with sour cream and salad. I have never eaten sour cream before. I feel nervous and I hate that. It is all because my parents always keep a really close eye on me. I’m so accustomed to them watching me that not being watched is abnormal. The pita sandwich finally comes. I have one bite of the sloppy mess and think, ‘OH. MY. GOD. FANTAAAAABULOUS!!’ It was one of the best meals I ever had. I eat until I notice my plate is empty.”
And now from a boy named Dan, who’s exaggerating his fears…I hope:
“Being 11, I feel more independent than ever. I have decided to risk my life and make an egg sandwich, all by myself, and eat it too. This task is harder than it may seem. I am going to use a flame to cook eggs, all independently…. I transfer the eggs to the pan. I am a little nervous now, since I can easily touch the flame right then and there.”
He manages to make the eggs, as well as the toast, even though, “in the process I could easily burn myself.”
He survives and eats the sandwich: “Yum.”
Last story, from a girl named Jane. See Jane go!
“Everyone says that when you’re on an adventure, you’ll travel far. I don’t believe this to be true. In fact, today my adventure led me to a neighborhood cafe, Cosi. I have been begging my parents to let me go somewhere on my own. Today, they finally caved. They send me off, cell phone in hand, and told me to have fun. I felt as if I was a bird who had broken free of her cage.”
Naturally she has to call her parents the second she arrives safely. But, it’s a start. All these adventures are. Maybe they seem small, even silly, but in a culture that has created mountains of fear around every childhood experience, these kids have started their climb. Pretty soon, they’ll be ready to fly. – L