It is easy to spot Smitty on the streets of Annapolis. His huge, loping strides. His arms making their exaggerated swing, forward and back. A smile frozen on his face. And the plastic garbage bag that he always carries with him.
Rain or snow, heat or hail, Smitty can be seen striding, smiling and picking up litter. He often cleans the parking lot of the convenience store where we go for after-school treats, but you can find him working anywhere. He lives dangerously, stepping off the curb to pick up litter in the main streets as the cars rush by.
Smitty wears not much more than rags. And my guess is that he lives on what shopkeepers give him for his efforts. But he is never not smiling, and he always says, "Howyadoin." He will take my daughter's Popsicle wrapper from her hand, thank her and put it in his garbage bag. My children and I don't know much about Smitty, except his name, but he is a benevolent figure in our lives.
One afternoon, a car full of teen-age boys stops beside Smitty, and they throw their fast-food trash out the window at him. Smitty never stops smiling as he steps into traffic to pick up their insult and stuff it in his garbage bag. We can see the boys rocking with laughter as they speed away.
My 10-year-old son is stunned silent for a moment. This doesn't make any sense to him. His eyes flick around, looking for something in this scene that will explain it or put it into context -- when there is nothing, he flies into a rage.
My maternal mind lights quickly on the fact that this terrible unkindness has registered with Joe. Good, I think. He knows how wrong those kids are. But then I hear what he is saying.
"If I ever see those kids again, I'm going to moon them," he is saying. "I'm going to stick both my middle fingers up at them."
"Moon them?" I say, quickly shifting gears. "Moon them? Joe, why would you think that was the right way to respond to those guys?
"MOON THEM?" my voice is rising now. "Have you ever seen your mom and dad moon anybody? What makes you think mooning is the right way to handle things?"
Penelope Leach, in her new book "Children First," advises parents of children ages 7 to 10 to keep those children close so they might see us in the world and learn from us how to handle its many twists and shocks.
Obviously, if Joe thinks the way to respond to injustice is to hang his rear end out a car window or flip someone the finger, I am way short of the mark.
Like many parents, I have been tempted to take a break during this time in my children's lives. They are no longer in danger of falling down the steps, and they don't yet have hormone surges or a driver's license. So, as they push for little bits of independence -- walking from school alone, spending hours in the woods with friends -- I am tempted to let them go while I catch my breath. But if Ms. Leach is right, I should be pulling them closer before they push me away.
A child this age still thinks his parents are wonderful. He has not yet shifted his allegiance to those rude and ill-formed friends you are certain he will gravitate to in junior high school. Ms. Leach explains that this age in a child's life is filled with teachable moments.
Children see what we do, and they wonder why we do it. They hear what we say even when we think they are not listening, and they want to know why we think what we do, she says.
We cannot lecture them -- children this age would rather hear themselves talk than just about anything -- but if we are clever and we keep them close, we can force-feed them the kinds of things we want them to know, to believe, to value.
Maybe all that means is that we let them hang around us to watch and listen. But that is scary. We gossip, we are unkind, we have grown-up secrets, we want to shield them. Our gut reactions are not pretty. We would like it better if we could compose our responses to the world before we present them to our children.
On another afternoon, we stop at a friend's house after school. The boys run off to play, but my 8-year-old pulls up a kitchen stool beside my friend and me and says she, too, would like a cup of tea. She adds sugar in great, heaping spoonfuls, takes a cautious, slurping sip. Then she puts her mug down and looks up at us, grinning. "What shall we talk about?" her expectant face asks us.
And I let her stay.