The Independent

Reflecting on a simpler childhood

SANTA ROSA — Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I grew up on them. They were the first thing I learned to make in the kitchen. That and a glass of milk. Microwaves hadn’t been invented yet.

Playing basketball on a dirt patch in our back yard. That’s where I learned to dribble and shoot with one hand.

And football in our front yard. When no one else was around, I’d take the hike from an imaginary center, drop back and throw to the trees, believing that I was the star quarterback for the Arkansas Razorbacks, the only college team that mattered in the universe I grew up in.

Those were simpler days, when television was three channels, phones hung on walls and were often shared as “party lines” among neighbors, and suppertime was family time. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, my father came home whistling, and my brothers sometimes picked on me, but that was OK, because sometimes I picked back.

Nowadays, it’s never so simple. Technology and violence have physically isolated a lot of kids, sticking them inside or outside only in highly organized group activities and team sports. Microwaves have replaced the PB&J sandwiches and video games have replaced the sandlots of yesteryear. Look up! I want to shout, the real world is a lot more interesting than the digital ones.

But nowadays the real world is digital, and the world I grew up in only looks wonderful from a prism of selective memories. As a white boy from a middle class household, I was insulated from other, harsher realities that other kids were going through.

I remember that shortly after elementary school, while in junior high (the middle school of our day), there was a boy who looked more like a girl. He had big hips and a feminine disposition. Other boys laughed at him, and I felt bad for him. He was taunted, snickered at, and he had no friends I was aware of. I remember being afraid I’d be laughed at too if I befriended him.

One day, a bully pushed him too far and he fought back in the hallway at our school. Blood everywhere, as the bully got the best of him. I stood there and did nothing. I’ve never really forgiven myself for that.

Maybe he was transgender; I don’t even know if that word existed back then in our little world. Nowadays, most kids—at least more than the old days—know better than to pick on people who are different. God, I hope so.

Then there were the racial upheavals of my day. I remember, a few years into integration, walking down a hallway lined with black students at my high school. One of them stepped in front of me and hit me so hard he almost knocked me unconscious.

I remember staggering up to laughter. I could only walk away, because if I’d done anything else, I was sure they would’ve ganged up on me and the blood on the floor would have been mine.

I also remember a cute little black girl in one of my classes who was friendly enough to me to capture my attention. But, somehow, I knew she was off limits for me. It was a simple and hostile truth of those times. You stuck with your own kind.

Those were conflicted times for a lot of us, but now, the world is even more complicated for young people. Sometimes they can’t play outside because it’s too dangerous. And the schools themselves have become targets for the very disturbed. Meanwhile, at home, children are often left to their own devices because stay-at-home parenting is now unaffordable. Many of the kids of today are hurting and confused; we were too, but at a different level somehow.

But this much is as true now as it was then: Children need grounding, structure, and a moral compass. They also need to understand that, while we all have the same basic needs, we’re also individually unique, in one way or another, and that’s what adds spice to all our lives.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich just isn’t enough anymore.

Tom McDonald is editor and founder of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and owns and operates The Communicator in Santa Rosa. He can be reached at tmcdonald.srnm@gmail.com or 575-472-3555.