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Can you pinpoint the exact moment that you lost your childhood innocence? I recently read this wonderful Blog post by Annie Z about her own loss of innocence If you have a moment please take the time to read her beautiful post which featured recently on WordPress as Freshly Pressed.
Her lovely words and recounting of the Challenger disaster gave me chills. In a classroom a million miles away from suburban Melbourne she was watching a tragedy unfold like kids in my neighbourhood were. She was struggling to comprehend the enormity of the disaster as much as our parents on the other side of the world were struggling to explain this to us. Unlike her we were not at school watching as a collective group as it happened. We were still on school holidays and home with our parents. Parents who were raising us in an era that wanted to shield children and protect them from all of life’s evil and tragedy. We all existed in a cocoon of safety back then, in suburban Melbourne in the mid 1980’s. The constant news coverage of the exploding space shuttle was unavoidable and vision that made no sense. We lived in a time where the violent movies were shown late at night, well past our bedtimes and the most agressive video game we owned was Donkey Kong. To learn that people had perished, were blown up, in that firey explosion, was surreal. There was no frame of reference for it.
This event in the summer of 1986 happened almost a year after another event that was much closer to home and one that had already begun to erode the innocence of the children in our local community. I know for myself it was the moment that I lost my own childhood innocence and remember feeling that way for a long time. As a 10 year old child I found it hard to reconcile the feelings I had of loss and despondence because I had no idea what was wrong. It is only now when I look back I realise I was mourning my innocence.
It was a beautiful early March day in 1985 with the heat of summer still lingering. It was a Friday morning and I was home from school, which was rare but I had conjunctivitis and due to the highly contagious nature I had been off the entire week. That morning my mother had a doctor’s appointment so my Dad was home with my brother and I. This was an even more rare occurrence, my father worked all day every day through the week. His only time off was the annual family holiday. He never took sick days or annual leave. Perhaps this anomaly within the fabric of the universe created a ripple effect that led to other unique events that were not supposed to happen. I guess we will never know. My mother didn’t drive and the doctor’s office was a ten minute walk. She ambled there and back, commenting to us when she returned what a beautiful day it was.
I can’t remember if my mother received a phone call or someone came to the door. I do remember the chill I felt, sitting in my room playing innocently when I heard her exclamation of shock. I knew instinctively that something had happened.
What unfolded next was almost out of a movie, except it had happened in my suburb, my safe haven, my tiny little piece of the world where the sun rose and set in calm serenity and all that existed was endless hours of play time.
A woman, a mother of a girl at my school who was in the year above me, was brutally attacked in her home. At the other end of my street. Two doors down from a friend of mine. She was followed into her home by a masked intruder as she carried groceries from her car and assaulted.
I remember walking around in a state of anxiety after hearing snippets of whispered conversations. My parents were talking about it in hushed tones when my brother and I were watching television. Our small community had never known crime such as this before. That night a photo fit of the attacker appeared on the nightly news, cementing the story from whispered gossip to reality. The woman that this happened to was a respected, well liked friend of my mother’s, a friend of most of the parents at our local school. This was the first notion I had ever had that I was not safe.
I couldn’t sleep that night and my mother came in and found me crying. In her effort to shield me from the facts, I had taken on board the news reports and loose strands of her phone conversations and things I heard her tell my father. I was confused and anxious, I knew there was more going on that I was being told. So she told me what happened. I cried more and said I wanted to move to Queensland, the place where we had our annual holidays, a place that seemed the safest place on earth at that moment because it wasn’t HERE, where the awful thing had happened at the end of our street. My mother then told me that these things can happen anywhere. There it was. The truth, the cold hard reality. There are no safe places, these things can happen anywhere to anyone. I could have quite happily lived without that bit of information but I had come too far and was too old not to learn this lesson.
Our community handled this event in a collective state of reserved panic. Self defence classes were offered for local women at the school. My father was so concerned for my mother’s safety that her friend who did drive would pick us up and take us to school and return my mother home. Local mothers began traveling in packs, believing that safety was in numbers. It was this time that I learned the practice that I still adhere to today of waiting to make sure someone is safely in their home before driving away when I drop them off. My friends from that era do the same.
We became a hypervigilant community, existing in fear. Fathers and children feared for our mothers. Mothers feared for themselves. There were no more late evening strolls around the neighbourhood unless the fathers went as well. I remember picking up on this current of anxiety and feeling sad. Feeling like I had lost my connection to my town. My safe haven had betrayed me by allowing such a crime to occur. I resented being transported to and from school, I resented all my choices being governed by parental fear. I can appreciate why my parents reacted the way they did. They had never known anything like this before. Many of the parents in the town reacted the same way. How do you balance a child’s sense of invincibility with the parental fear that there is possibly a vicious attacker lurking in the area?
As a child who was eager to grow up and eager for independence, I really had no idea that meant. I thought growing up meant that I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. That I could break free from the rules and confines of being a kid with parents who never let me do anything that I wanted. I didn’t realise until that day that growing up meant learning things about the world that would scare me and make me feel anxious instead of alive and invincible. When I catch up with my friends from that long ago time and we touch on this subject we collectively speak in somber tones. Six of us in our group lived on that street. One of them lived two doors down and it was her mother who so faithfully drove us to school every day to ensure we were safe and that my mother was safe. The event is etched on our brains as the moment we stopped being children and started growing up.
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