Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I Can See the Headlines Now: Five-Year Old Does Hard Time for Swiping a Candy Bar

February 8, 2011

It's amazing that my siblings and I managed to turn out (relatively) normal, given some of the experiences we had in our childhood. Take, for example, the virtual Russian Roulette my parents played with the caregivers we had over the years. Dad was working long hard hours in his job at the Small Business Administration, and Mom was working various jobs while finishing up her teaching credential at school. That left four little ones at home (and later, five) to be cared for. We had a string of babysitters, mostly ones who lived with us--for room and board and some extra money, they were charged with our care while our parents were away.

Some of these babysitters were excellent--bonding with us, giving us the kind of love and care and attention our own parents did. Some of them, however, were a little less able to rise up to the challenge of being a good role model and nanny-figure to us. One of our sitters, one of the younger ones, was a good example of how not to earn a reference when moving on to greener pastures.

She was one of the ones who was not a live-in sitter. She probably still lived at home; I'm guessing she was a college girl looking to pick up a little pocket-money. She was ill-prepared for four rambunctious kids. (Truth be told, it was mostly one rambunctious kid and three fairly mellow ones, but Gary could make it seem like there were far more of us than there actually were. He actually made it a game to see how quickly he could get our sitters to quit--his record was one day.) Anyway, she liked Gary and me, because we were a lot more verbal and self-sufficient than Lisa and Scott were. We were somewhere in the neighborhood of 7, 5, 3, and infant at the time. It was summer time, so we were all at home all day long.

Every afternoon, after lunch, it was naptime for the two youngest. Lisa would be put down for a nap in a bedroom just off the front porch, and Scott would be put down for a nap in his crib in Mom and Dad's room. That just left Gary and me to be entertained. Our sitter began to get a little stir crazy being stuck inside all day, so she decided to start taking walks with us during that hour or so that the little ones were napping. As soon as she felt Lisa was completely out, we'd quietly sneak out the front door and wander down the street.

It's shocking, now, to think that our babysitter made a habit of leaving those two tiny children to their own devices for an hour at a time. In today's world, terms like 'child endangerment' and 'neglect' and 'abandonment' would be thrown out fiercely. Heck, if it were my own kids I'd be issuing those accusations. Back then, though, I guess she just figured the kids would be fine sleeping safely in their beds for a bit. Who knows if she ever considered how scared they might be if they woke up and no one answered their cries.

Gary and I also didn't worry about consequences. We were kids, after all, and adults knew best. If she said it was safe to leave them alone, then she must be right. We were happy to get out of the house, too, especially when she lured us with the promise of treats. We lived a couple of blocks away from a convenience store and a little hamburger place called Jo Jo's Hamburgers. That's where our walks took us every afternoon. We'd head into the mini-market and she'd pick out a candy for us, and then she'd treat us to an ice cream or soda at Jo Jo's. Sometimes, she'd even let us get a burger, if we hadn't had a big lunch.

How long this went on, I'm not sure. I know there were several trips, though. After the first few, we really began to look forward to them, knowing we were getting treats that the others weren't big enough to have 'earned' yet. We were big, we were mature, we were responsible. We were old enough, she said, to be able to keep it a secret from everyone else, because she didn't want our parents to think she was playing favorites, and she didn't want to hurt Lisa's feelings because she was too young. We completely bought it.

One day when we were in the mini-mart, she gave me a candy bar. "Put this in your pocket, will you? I'm going to pay for it, but I don't have any more hands to hold on to it." So I did. We wandered around a bit longer, she went up to the cash register to pay, and then we left. On our way home I asked her if she had remembered to tell the cashier that I had the candy bar. She laughed. "I didn't forget, but I didn't tell him. They make so much money that a little candy bar won't make any difference!" I was shocked, but didn't really know what to say. I felt a little guilty eating the candy, but I did it anyway.

On return trips, she continued to either hand stuff to us or simply drop items into our pockets. She was paying for less and less, and using us to carry out more. I was starting to get scared, so I told her I was worried I was going to get caught and the clerk would accuse me of stealing. She leaned her face down close to mine and said, "If you tell anyone--the clerk or your parents--I'll tell them it was your idea to steal, and they'll send you away to prision for a long, long time. And I'll never bring you back to Jo Jo's again, either." I believed her, and I certainly didn't want to go to prision, so I kept quiet and kept taking the treats she was having us walk out the door with.

Finally, after a few weeks, we were making our daily trip back home, still licking ice cream cones from Jo Jo's as we walked the steps up to our front porch. We were always told to be extremely quiet opening the front door, so that we didn't wake the kids who were soundly sleeping at home. On this day, though, there was no need for silence. Mounting the steps, we saw Lisa in the parted drapes, eyes red and swollen with tears, standing on her bed by the window. There was an instant of relief when she saw us, and then indignant anger. She'd woken up early from her nap only to find herself alone with the baby, and she'd been scared. But then we came walking up with ice cream in our hands! She'd had to take a nap and we got ice cream? It seemed so unfair!

That evening, when our babysitter felt like she had gotten the situation diffused and had gone home for the evening, Mom came in to find me practicing my piano lessons, a small pile of candy on the bench beside me. "Where did all that candy come from?" she asked. I told her the babysitter had given it to me because I had been good. As instructed, I had left out the part about us going to the store to get it. Lisa heard and fell to crying again. "She gets candy and ice cream too? I want candy! I want ice cream!" My mom only had to dig a little before both Gary and I were ready to confess. Even though I was terrified of going to prison, I was too tired of sneaking and pretending. We were scared to stand up to our babysitter, but maybe Mom could. I was scared she'd be really mad at us and call the police, but she said she was only angry at herself, for trusting that woman with her babies. We had a long talk about stealing and why it was wrong, even if an adult tells you it's okay. She hugged us and apologized to Lisa for leaving her with someone who would leave her alone, and told her she'd always do whatever she could to make sure all of her kids were safe.. Then she told us we'd never see that babysitter again--and we never did.

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