This fall, as Virginia children start back to school, many ride school buses. Essayist Kay Slaughter remembers a time when most children walked to school and parents gave them very specific rules about what to do and not do.
When I started school, my mother’s number one safety rule was “never talk to strangers or take rides with them.” I knew only that strangers were people you don’t know. I also knew that if you talked to strangers or rode with them, you might be kidnapped. I didn’t understand exactly what happened once you were kidnapped, but I knew I didn’t want to find out.
I walked about seven blocks from Stuart Gardens, the apartments where we lived in Newport News, Va. to Magruder School where I was a first grader. Luckily, there were lots of children in my project to walk with. One who was in my grade was my favorite. His name was Danny.
One fall day, I am walking with Danny and two other girls and we are only about a block from home when a black car stops.
“Anybody want a ride?” asks the driver, rolling down his window. He was wearing a broad brimmed brown felt hat – just like my father’s.
I just look at the other kids. In the meantime, the man next to the driver gets out of the car; he’s wearing a raincoat and a hat like my father’s. He looks a little like a detective I’ve seen in the moving pictures. He smiles and pushes forward his seat so someone can get in the back where a third man sits.
Frozen to the spot, all I can do is shake my head no. One of the other girls says “No thank you.”
But Danny – Danny, our friend, looks at us, smiles, looks at the men and then runs – not walks – to get in the car. After letting him in back, the man pushes his seat back, gets in and closes the door with a thunk.
“Are you sure no one else wants a ride?” the driver asks again with his arm out the window.
This time I say “No” and the others chime in:
And they drive off.
“Oh, no, “I say. “Danny’s been kidnapped”
Sure enough about two blocks down the road, we see the car turning left rather than going straight to get to the school.
We reach the school a little later. No Danny in sight.
He’s been kidnapped, I think. He got in the car with strangers. He broke the rule. Danny’s gone for good.
I see my first grade teacher, Mrs. Hatcher, on the girls’ side of the playground. I go up to her and say in my most matter-of-fact voice, “Mrs. Hatcher, Danny won’t be here today; he’s been kidnapped.”
She laughs and says she doubts that he has been kidnapped. I don’t say anything more but I have a sinking feeling in my stomach. Well, where is he then?
The bell rings. We start up the steps to our classroom.
Lo and behold, there is Danny.
“Danny, “I say, “thank goodness you’re okay. I thought you’d been kidnapped by the strangers.”
“Oh, no, “he replies, “they aren’t strangers.”
He pauses: “That was my father’s carpool.”
Surprised, I mentally revise my mother’s rule:
Never talk to strangers. But remember first to find out if that stranger is your friend’s father.
(Read on WVTF Radio)