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It Takes a Neighborhood

One evening a couple of months ago, before the arrival of warm weather here in Maine, there was a knock at our door. It was well after dark. I'd been sitting at the kitchen table, helping my son with his homework, when we heard it. The caller's rapping was tentative at first, and then came with more heart.

I got up, turned on the porch light, opened the door, and looked down. It was one of my son's classmates. "I have no place to go," he said, his voice full of apology. "I was going to sleep down by the river, but it's so cold."

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I immediately threw the door wide open and ushered Jason (not his real name) into the kitchen. "Look who's here, Alyosha," I said to my son, who was still hovering over his math assignment.

"Hey, Jason," offered Alyosha, but with a hint of reservation. Jason returned the greeting with equal reserve.

Jason stopped just inside the threshold, kneading his baseball cap in his hands. He was a small and handsome sixth-grader, with a striking mask of freckles and a mop of brown hair tinged with red. He wouldn't sit down until I invited him to do so.

I have known Jason, the product of a home in constant upheaval, since he was 7. He's always alone, always on his own, always in the principal's office. I motioned to him to sit down at the table. I asked if he would like a bagel and cream cheese, knowing he wouldn't accept until the third offer, as was his polite habit. Alyosha was quietly studying him, mildly resentful of the intrusion, yet acknowledging the need to take him in.

Jason and my son were not close. Jason had a reputation in town as a mischiefmaker, and Alyosha had minimized his contact with him, as had most other children in their age group.

In the summer, when other kids were at the municipal pool, tramping through the streets as day campers, or listening to concerts in the park, Jason hovered on the periphery. He would just tool along on his bike, sit on a curb eating Ring Dings, or approach people he didn't know and ask them for work, offering to cut their grass or clip their hedges. In short, Jason wasn't a bad kid; he was simply alone.

"He's a troublemaker," my son told me. And I explained to him Jason's desperate need for attention.

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WHEN I was a child in urban New Jersey in the 1960s, we had our share of troublemakers. I think one was apportioned to every neighborhood. On my block, his name was Damian Winger. He was blond, wiry, and animated. It seemed that every family dedicated time to curbing Damian's bad habits, whether it was jumping on their garage roofs, chasing their cats, or raiding their gardens.

Damian could have been far worse - he certainly had the energy and creativity for it - but his misdemeanors always seemed within bounds; kept there, no doubt, by the vigilance of neighbors. He'd steal tomatoes and get caught by Mrs. Strenger, who would call Damian's mom. Mrs. Winger would make Damian return the tomatoes, with a fresh cucumber or two as interest, and watch from the sidewalk as her son stood at Mrs. Strenger's door, apologizing.

In Africa, it takes a village to raise a child; in the New Jersey of my youth, it took a neighborhood. All the parents on the block had an assumed responsibility to watch out for all the children in the extended neighborhood family.

I remember ringing Mrs. Briguglio's bell and hiding. I did this five or six times, until she finally caught me by coming out the side door, raving in Italian. She took me by the arm and dragged me home, where I pleaded for my father's allegiance. To no avail. I was sent to my room while Mrs. Briguglio was invited in for tea, where my parents thanked her for her concern. Thanked her! I was so angry that I never rang her doorbell again.

Times have changed. I almost can't imagine chastising someone else's child today, much less taking him by the arm and delivering him to his parents. Socially, emotionally, and politically, it is a different world. It is said that children are better protected today than ever before, but they seem so much worse off for what they are missing. When their families fail them, there is nothing else. No neighborhood, no concerned calls to parents, no Mrs. Briguglio.

AFTER Jason had finished his bagel and my son his homework, Alyosha took him up to his room. I could hear the two boys horsing around from down in the kitchen, and it occurred to me that it was the first time I had ever heard Jason laugh.

I called his mother and asked if he could spend the night, considering the hour. I braced myself for some backlash, some accusation that I was interfering or passing judgment. But there was only assent, for which I felt mixed emotions. "I'll make sure he gets to school in the morning," I said.

After I had tucked both boys into bed and was heading for the door, Jason stopped me. "Good night," he said. "And thanks."

"It's OK, Jason," I told him. "Anytime. I mean that."

Since then, Jason has made it a habit to check in with us from time to time. Sometimes he calls just to say hello. The other day, out of the blue, my son asked me, "Do you like Jason?"

Knowing this to be a delicate question, I proceeded with caution. "Yes, Alyosha," I said, "I like him." And then, "Don't you?"

My son shrugged. "Yeah," he said. "I guess I do. He's really not so bad."


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