Choteau Notes | July 2013
I went to the pool today, the heat finally convincing me it was time to try out the lap swim. Toward the end of the hour, I noticed a group of kids gathering around the entrance. After we boring grown-ups were done swimming back-and-forth in straight lines, the pool would re-open at 7:00 for another two hours of all-ages mayhem. It was 6:53. Choteau's kids were swarming outside the fence, ready and waiting.
Something struck me as unusual about the scene, but I couldn't put my finger on it until I was outside, heading toward my bike. A blue minivan pulled up next to me. The sliding door opened, and children of various ages waited to jump out, starting with a snow-blonde four-year-old boy in jet blue trunks. "Go on," I heard the driver's voice, female, say, when he hesitated. He launched himself out of the vessel, followed by a posse of older siblings, and then the van drove away -- not down the street, to find a parking space, but away. Home, presumably, or maybe to the grocery store.
That's what was unusual about the assemblage of kids hovering by the door. They were just...kids. Dozens of them, toddlers to teens, and not a parent in sight. On my way out of the pool house, I had seen a man in his fifties and a few older teenagers stationed behind the entrance desk. And that was it. For this next two hours, the whole herd of pre-pubescent boys and girls now streaming into the pool would be almost totally unsupervised. Totally free, and totally fine. No parents required. (Presumably some of the teens inside were lifeguards, and would soon be sitting in the chairs designated for that purpose. I didn't stay to find out.)
I wasn't sure which was more strange, the fact of this freedom, or how surprising it was to me. Operating outside the watch of my parents was not unusual in my own small-town childhood. But that was decades ago, and my more recent experiences with crowds of kids has always included crowds of parents, too. As these children careened into the pool with the universal, timeless sounds of hot kids released into cool water -- shouts and splashes and happy screams -- something like a sense of rightness, of OK-ness, flooded up in me. The adults were off doing whatever it is adults do, and the kids were free to manage their own affairs here at the pool. Not abandoned, or ignored. Just trusted. This world was safe enough for that. It felt good.
As I walked my bicycle across the grass, heading for the sidewalk, I had to dodge a kaleidoscope of smaller rides, with names like Dynaback, Kazam, and Titan Flower Princess. From the number of bikes littering the ground, it appeared that most of the kids had arrived on their own power. After the racks had filled up, they had simply been dropped wherever their owners had happened to screech to a halt. No locks, of course. Like the kids themselves, bikes are unfettered here.
Absence of supervision is not the same thing as a lack of attention, though. If Choteau is anything like my hometown, there are plenty of people familiar with who should be where, doing what, keeping an eye out. It's the original social safety net; sometimes oppressive, sometimes helpful.
And it's not just adults who are on the watch for something, or someone, out of place. Just last week, for example, I was investigated by one of Choteau's observant young citizens. I was out for a sunset walk, an unidentified oddball, loose on the streets, when I heard a shout.
"Hey! Who are you?"
I looked around. "Me?"
"Yeah! Who are you?"
My interrogator looked to be about eleven. His friend, a smaller and more covert detective, concentrated on his skateboard. "My name is Amy, " I said, smiling and trying not to laugh. "What's yours?"
"Jonah. I haven't seen you around before," he explained.
He nodded, taking this in. "Do you know who lives in that house?" Jonah pointed. "They're new, too."
"Nope. I live on the other side of town." Having rarely encountered people he didn't know, he logically assumed that all of us new people, like migrating birds, must be of a flock. "Well, nice to meet you," I said lamely, and began to walk off.
"You too!" he hollered. And then he followed up with, "I'm teaching him to skateboard!" I looked back, feeling like he was offering me something with this declaration, like I had passed his test. Jonah's co-conspirator shook his head a little, grimaced.
"Cool!" I said, unable to keep from laughing, finally, and then they both laughed too. What was cracking us up? The weirdness of our conversation, maybe, and the surprise of a connection in it. It was delightful. These boys didn't see themselves as unsupervised. They saw themselves as supervising me. This was their playground, their neighborhood, and they were keeping their town safe out in the semi-darkness of the summer night.
I'm under no illusions that Choteau, or any place, is perfect, or that its children are perfectly free. I imagine if you're a gay or lesbian kid, or come from a non-Christian family, or exhibit other forms of being different here, things could feel very constricted, or even scary. As I get to know this place better, I'm sure I'll learn things that will disturb my first impressions, in the way that any relationship grows more complex over time. Knowing this, I'm trying to absorb as much as I can with the naiveté of the new-comer, and enjoy the short period I have to see through fresh eyes.
From that perspective, the freedom of the children here stands out. It's not just at the pool -- all over town, pods of kids tear around on their bikes, helmet-less and totally engrossed in their own worlds. Small herds of pre-teens walk and whisper and giggle. The other day a huge pick-up truck turned onto Main Street, driven by a young man so small I could see only his eyes and forehead over the steering wheel. He waved at me and drove confidently on.
Observing them, it strikes me that the numbers of unsupervised children and the types of activities they engage in could be a way to measure the overall wellness of a place. Any community could do it. Just as we count birds or test the water quality as a way to determine the health of our ecosystems, we could take note of how many kids are roaming semi-wild among us, free to make their own play, solve their own problems, do their own thing. I'm not sure what this study would tell us. Something about our own adult insecurities, perhaps? The fears, actual and imagined, that we are living with, and passing on?
I don't know. All I have is my gut feeling that if a community is safe enough for its children to play together, out-of-doors, without causing trouble and without much supervision, then there is something working about that place, in spite of its imperfections and limitations. It's a form of wealth, a gift to the next generation, to be able to trust that most people, most of the time, are decent, and everything will probably be alright if we just don't worry about it too much. In Choteau, I'm happy to see kids receiving that inheritance -- that is to say, playing. Together. Outside. Unharmed, unencumbered, unsupervised.