Guest post by Amy Rogers Nazarov
The other day, someone stole my kindergartner's backpack off our front stoop.
We'd walked home from school together, like we did every day. Upon arrival, Jake grabbed his crotch.
"I have to pee, Mama!" he yelled as he wriggled out of his backpack and tossed it onto the steps.
I unlocked the door fast, helped Jake throw off his coat, and cheered him down the hall to the potty. He made it in time, so we celebrated with a banana smoothie, sweetened with chocolate sauce, discreetly enhanced with wheat germ. I poured most of it in a glass for him but siphoned off a little for me.
I like these mundane after-school rituals and I hope Jake does, too. He's got big days at kindergarten: social interactions with peers to be negotiated, a tripod pencil grip to be practiced, numbers and rhymes to be learned. I think he benefits from chilling out at home with me, where the biggest decision we face is whether we'll make a skyscraper out of blocks or try to replicate a stop sign in chalk on the blackboard.
"Your backpack is still outside, honey," I suddenly remembered. "Let's get it."
We walked back up the hall, the door and looked at an empty stoop. The purple backpack – containing his lunch bag and homework folder – was not there.
We'd been inside all of 15 minutes.
"That's weird," I said out loud. Thinking it might have tumbled into the stairwell, where the trash cans live, I descended the steps and poked around. No backpack there, either.
We went back into the house. "Jake, did you bring it inside?" I asked, glancing around the living and dining rooms. He had not.
Only then did it dawn on me the bag had been stolen. Maybe someone had thought there'd be an iPad or wallet inside. It was an integral part of Jake's school day, and although it was not an expensive item, I was unsettled it was gone.
"Jake, I think someone took your backpack."
"Was it a loan?" he asked. (Lately we've been talking about the difference between loans and gifts.)
"Well, no," I replied. "I think the person who took it might not give it back. He wanted it for himself."
"Was it a bad man?"
It was with great reluctance two years ago that my husband Ari and I had made the decision to introduce to Jake the concept of the Bad Man. Our son was notorious for wandering off – from his babysitter at the park, from us in crowded stores, from his pre-K classroom on the second day of school – and we were desperate to make him understand that this behavior was unacceptable anywhere, particularly on busy city streets. In frustration one day I blurted out: "If you wander away, a bad man will get you." I didn't like playing the fear card, but I didn't know how else to make him stop doing it.
"I think it might have been, yes," I said.
"What he look like?"
"I don't know, honey. Maybe he really needed a backpack to put things in. But you know what? Tomorrow we'll get you a new backpack!"
I tried to gin up the excitement in my voice, but I was sad that Jake's first exposure to theft was at his expense.
I'm outgoing, and so is my son. We live in a close-knit neighborhood in D.C., a place where I – and lots of other folks – routinely wish strangers good morning or compliment them on their baby's knitted hat. I want Jake to believe that the vast majority of people are good. I try to encourage his natural curiosity about his surroundings, but it only takes a mugging somewhere on Capitol Hill to remind me all too well that we do live in a big city, and that not everyone's intentions are as honorable as I wish they were.
I tried to distract Jake from the loss by letting him stand on a stepladder to stir the spaghetti sauce I'd made for dinner and watch an episode of Curious George. After Ari got home and we ate, I bathed Jake and Ari read him a book.
He'd gone to sleep when Lance – our neighbor about eight houses to the west – called.
"Guys, somehow Jake's backpack landed on our steps," he said. "Do you want me to bring it over?"
The backpack was, well, back - minus its zippered lunch box with Jake's name on it. The folder was still there, and that seemed the most intimate part, for it was how his teachers and I passed back and forth Jake's homework, reading logs, report cards. We conjectured that someone moving down our street had spotted the bag, snatched it up, and finding no electronics, had tossed it onto Lance's porch and kept on going.
In the morning, I showed Jake the backpack and told him Mr. Lance had found it. He recoiled slightly, but a few minutes later slipped it over his shoulders and rode off to school on his bike, his dad not far behind.
"Alley!" I heard Ari say to Jake to remind him to stop and look before he crossed one of the little brick roads that dot the Hill, adding to its charm but forcing walkers and bikers to stay that much more vigilant, since cars suddenly emerge from those hidden alleys every so often.
I know there are bullies lurking behind the middle school and petty thieves making our kids – and us – feel just a bit more vulnerable. But there are also kind neighbors keeping tabs, and warm-headed babies, and little boys dreaming of yellow and green skyscrapers. I'll bet anything they collectively outweigh the impact of one bad man on the run, the backpack he's just discarded flying through the air.
Amy Rogers Nazarov is a freelance writer, an avid cook and a musician with Dead Men’s Hollow. She is at work on a memoir on depression after adoption, and is represented by the Fairbank Literary Agency.