Squinting into the distance, I search for my 10-year-old. With rolling backpack in tow, she’s walking ahead of me after school. The meandering pace of her little sibling was slowing us down, and big sister was eager to get homework started. “Mom, can I go home by myself?”
The leash lengthens as a child grows, and that day I let it out some more. So with plenty of daylight left, I handed her the keys.
My daughter is a different color, shape, and size than Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old in Florida who was fatally shot by a man on a neighborhood watch five weeks ago. But fear of harm done to your child can shorten the leash. And what parent in America has not rethought the distance between herself and her children since Trayvon’s tragedy?
What Trayvon looks like has been central to his story since his grieving parents first started their quest for more attention to their case and, ultimately, the prosecution of shooter George Zimmerman, who claims he used his gun in self-defense. To begin with, Trayvon was black, Zimmerman is not.
We were first introduced to Trayvon as a smiling, sweet-faced boy, a little younger than the six-foot, three-inch teen he was. His most widely disseminated photos are a few years old. It’s impossible not to be sympathetic to the victim, when his killer’s best-known photo is a sober police mugshot, taken when Zimmerman was arrested for assaulting an officer seven years ago.
But, since we know Trayvon wore a hoodie that night and covered his head in the rain, the image of Trayvon shifts slightly. Supporters of the teen’s family have worn hoodies – from the floor of the US Congress to cities across the country – to protest racial profiling and the assumptions we can make about young men of color wearing a hood. Zimmerman, in 911 calls he made on the night of the shooting, claimed that Trayvon looked suspicious.
African-American parents have blogged this past month about the rules of conduct they teach their children, rules meant to avoid appearing suspicious and keep trouble at a distance. School kids in Roxbury were quoted in the Boston Globe saying they deliberately walk in smaller groups, for example, lest they invite police attention.
Last week, Geraldo Rivera blamed Trayvon’s hoodie for his death, and then the TV commentator apologized for offending anyone. But even as we wrestle with the right for someone to dress a certain way, we can use the lesson of the hoodie to reinforce how important it is to avoid looking like a victim. How my daughter conducts herself is just as important for her protection as looking out for those who might do harm.
That first time I let C.P. walk alone, I was actually only a block or so behind her for less than ten minutes. Over several weeks she had asked a few times about her own test scenario, a solo walk to the corner market. “How old do I have to be, mom? When will I be ready?” We talked about traffic, how motorists don’t always stop at the red light, about awareness of other people as well as cars.
So, even on the day of that first “solo” walk, we used a few blocks of our journey to look at the people around us and formulate a response for each. Definitely a woman with children would be OK to approach for help if C.P. felt she were being bothered by someone. How about that couple, would they be OK? Yes, but better to avoid that man who was sitting alone. Walk quickly and confidently, keep your head up, and stay aware of what’s going on around you.
I hesitated to introduce some worst-case possibility and invite for C.P. the nightmares that she would ultimately experience if she got too upset. But I was a little surprised that she took it all in rather matter-of-factly, as if the business of making sure no one snatched you was a pretty natural lesson.
We practiced for awhile, and then she was off. When I arrived home a few minutes after she had let herself into the house, she said that people did seem to look at her a bit funny, the sight of a child alone is so uncommon these days. Just smile back and keep going, I said.
Winter is barely behind us and I know that I often wore my own hood against the cold, and my kids’ coats all have hoods as well. But I think it restricts your vision. Next winter I will search for a few extra hats. I owe it to people like Trayvon Martin’s family, who never meant for an innocent trip to the store to end with his never coming home.