From the editor I pulled up to the stop light the other night. It was a crisp summer night. I rubbed the side of my head. My finger rested in a small dent and my mind went back to a night many years ago.
I had pulled up to the same stop light and three boys, ages 10 or 11, called to me through the open windows. "Please, we need a ride. We don't know what to do. Our home is just a mile or two down the road."
I was in Oak Park. Just a mile or two down the road was Chicago's Austin neighborhood-not a safe place to be at 11 p.m. on a Friday.
But I looked at the boys-they looked much like my son when he wanted something, with those beautiful, big pleading eyes. What were they doing out so late? Where were the people in their lives who cared?
I invited them into the van, drove on and began chatting. "Tell me your names, boys. How old are you?"
Slowly, I coaxed their stories out. I was excited to hear about the books they liked, the teachers they didn't. I barely noticed where the car was heading.
"Boys, where are your folks? Where are we going?"
My questions were ignored. Red flags went up. But I hoped I was wrong. We arrived at the second address they gave me and the boys got out.
One boy stood near my door. He had a deep scar over his eye running down the side of his face and etched into his left temple. I stroked his close-cropped hair. "Boys, there has to be some adult somewhere where I can take you. We have to find someone who cares and I need to take you there. I have to go home to my boys."
The boy with the scar closed his eyes and leaned into my strokes. At this point, three other boys appeared. Then I knew it was too late. Both the car doors were open and one of the boys leaned into the driver's side. I had already locked my purse into my seat belt-something I do naturally when I get into the car. The boy tried to unlock the seat belt. I looked at him. "Don't do this boys. I know you're good people."
One of the boys looked at the third one in the car. "Don't do her," he said. "She was nice to us. Let her go."
The little boy with the scar reached in and punched the side of my head. It wasn't a hard punch. He looked at me and he looked confused. But with the second punch he forgot sentiment-he threw three more punches at my face. Another boy tried to grab the keys. "Get her car," another boy said. I had one thought: I'm going to die if I stay here.
My glasses were gone. I couldn't see, but I stepped on the gas and pulled away. The six boys tried to jump in the car but fell to either side of the street. I was horrified--not about what could have happened to me-but that one of the boys might have been hurt.
Yet the worst part of the evening was to come. I dialed 911 and tried to tell the dispatcher what had happened, only sobs came.
"It's over now," she said. "You're safe. Getting hysterical doesn't help."
"I think there is a child hurt and I don't know what to do. I don't even know where I was and I can't see," I said.
As I told my story, her tone changed, "How could you let those boys into your car? What were you thinking?"
I silently screamed, "I was thinking these are children, out late at night who needed an adult to help them."
The dispatcher said she would send a squad car. I pulled over and found my contacts. The world became a little clearer. I saw a squad car and approached the officer, still sobbing. Surrounded by people, the officer never stopped his conversation. He looked over at me twice before finally saying, "Yeah?"
"I just called 911 and ...." I said.
But when I told him about the boys, the officer started yelling, "What were you thinking? Do you know where you are? Besides, what do you want me to do?"
I looked at him. The tears stopped and outrage took over-not only did he not care about me, he cared less about the boys. "I taught my children if there is a problem, you go to the police. Am I wrong? Aren't I supposed to tell you if a crime was committed or a child is hurt?"
The police officer got angrier. "Yeah. But what do you want me to do? Are you hurt?"
"I got punched a few times. I just need ice but what if a little boy is hurt?" I said. "Shouldn't someone check?"
The police officer shifted his weight. "These guys are not going to call the police and report they were injured while trying to steal your car. They are animals. They get what they deserve. They were trying to hurt you."
"That's on their conscience," I said. "If one of them is hurt, that's on mine."
"Give me your number, if I hear something, I'll call."
I gave him my card, which identified me as a member of the news media and, surprise, the officer's tone changed. All of a sudden, I wasn't an idiot.
"You wanted to help people and I'm not saying everybody who lives in this neighborhood is bad but you can't take that chance. You really meant well."
It wasn't about me. I drove home. I never got a call. But I never got those boys out of my head, either.
Whether it is those boys in my van or that beautiful, haunting girl staring out at you from the cover of Chicago Parent, can we, as people or as parents, afford to throw away our children?
These are not just other people's kids. These are our children, our future. When I rub that spot on my temple, a permanent reminder of those boys, I remember what Jane Addams, a reformer and social advocate, once said:
"The child becomes largely what he is taught; hence we must watch what we teach, and how we live."