I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone else, and you were kin to most of them. In my childhood, it seemed like every adult I knew felt free to correct me.
Alvin Simmons lived up the road and worked for my mother. He took my brother and I with him while he did chores. I remember discovering if I yelled “help” loud enough, there was an echo off a dense bunch of trees. I yelled it over and over until Alvin told me to stop. He said, “Somebody might think you are really in trouble. Never yell ‘help’ unless the trouble is real.” Since that day, I have never yelled “help” unless I really needed it.
Bert Calder cleaned house and watched me while my mother worked in town. I had a little toy pistol, the kind with a roll of caps that made a noise when you pulled the trigger. For some reason, we didn’t have a roll of caps, but it didn’t matter. I would point the pistol at whatever I wanted to shoot and yell “Bang!” One day I made the mistake of pointing at Bert. “Bang” was barely out of my mouth when she snatched my pistol away from me and told me never to point a gun at anyone. I must have been 4 or 5, and even at that age I knew the difference between a real gun and a toy. I protested, “It’s just a toy.” Bert shook her finger in my face and said, “Toy or not, never point a gun at anyone.” Since that day, whenever my hand holds a gun, I hear Bert Calder’s voice, and I am mindful never to point it at a person.
My Aunt Iris kept my brother and I sometimes. Aunt Iris was close to 6 feet tall and solid. She wasn’t fat, mind you, but she had a no-nonsense way about her. When I was 7, she told me to sit still on the couch. In a fit of original sin, I said, “Make me.” She snatched me up and put me on the couch and sat on me. Aunt Iris brought a lot of gravity to bear on the situation. In this instance, I cried “help” because I needed it. My brother Steve was laughing at me. Aunt Iris stood up, and I gasped for air. “Are you going to do what I tell you?” she demanded. “Yes ma’am,” I gasped out. Since that day, when someone tells me to sit still, I do. Aunt Iris really made an impression on me.
Wayne Collier would take my brother and I cow hunting. I rode a one-eyed Shetland pony my Uncle Larry had procured for me and tried to keep up with the big people. I was riding behind the cows as we pushed them up to the pens, and one of the cows turned back and ran right out. I froze. Wayne yelled, “Don’t let her get by you, Clay.” She got by me. Wayne and Uncle Earl rode after the cow, and Wayne roped her. He dragged her back to the herd. I was a little bewildered. Wayne rode up beside me and said, “Son, I’m sorry I yelled at you, but when a cow starts to turn back on you, don’t freeze. You’ve got to put your horse broadside to her and turn her back.” Since that day, every time I worked cows and one made a break for it, I heard Wayne’s voice in my head. I might do the wrong thing, but I do something.
These people were not my parents. I suppose in some circles today, a parent might have said, “You have no right to talk to my child like that.” Back in those days, children were community property. Everybody in my community thought it was their job to look after children and teach them things they needed to know – like not to cry for help when it wasn’t needed or never point a gun at a person or sit still when you’re told or even don’t let a cow turn back on you.
American bison typically run when they sense danger, but when predators approach without warning, bison form a multilayer circle of protection. The females form a ring around the young, and the males form an outer ring surrounding the females. For a predator to get to the most vulnerable of the herd, they have to get through the whole herd.
There is something to learn from the bison. Our children need our protection. They need every adult to take ownership and teach them things they need to know. This is not a job we can leave to a smartphone or assume one teacher will take up the slack. Our children need all of us to protect them, advocate for them, support them and show them the way.
I think when you step in and teach a child something he or she needs to know, even if that child is not yours, you are doing God’s work. Every child deserves a circle of adults who care enough to correct.
The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.