‘Don’t accept sweets from strange men outside the school gates,’ my parents intoned. It seemed like they were always bossing me around, but this order made no sense to me. Why would anyone give away sweets?
Back in the 50’s children as young as four wandered to and from school unsupervised, and I suppose, in that prudish era, parents wanted to protect their children without mentioning sexual predators.
If the warning is meaningless to the child, however, it’s just a waste of breath.
I asked myself what a strange man was, and why would he want to give me sweets? Supermarkets were a new invention back then. The aisles of the supermarkets sometimes boasted men in white dustcoats and ridiculous white fedoras, clutching clipboards and offering free samples to housewives. Perhaps, I reasoned, they were the strange men. They certainly looked strange in their dustcoats. I decided that if they were to set up trestle tables outside the school and offer boiled lollies, I’d decline, but chocolate was too good to refuse. I’d definitely sneak a chocolate bar or two, without telling my parents.
Aside from one dirty old flasher, I survived childhood brushes with paedophilia unscathed.
Years later I transformed myself into a fairly successful primary school teacher.
It finally occurred to the authorities that we needed to provide children with the knowledge to protect themselves, especially if their parents couldn’t deal with the topic of child molesters. It was decided to impart information on ‘stranger danger’ and ‘friend-of-the-family danger’ to our pupils at a rate of thirty minutes a week over Term Two.
I plunged in, describing these creatures as mentally ill kidnappers who liked to hurt kids and photograph them crying. ‘They might be men or women, working alone or in pairs. They might ask you to load their groceries in their van for $10, or claim that they’re store detectives or policemen and order you to go with them immediately. Some pretend to be simple minded and ask you to help them look for their lost kitty in the bushes of a public park. It’s possible that some man you know might start giving you small presents and chat with you over a long period of time, before striking.’ My kids stared at me in goggle-eyed stupefaction. This was a complete digression from addition and subtraction. ‘The bottom line is: Don’t get within grabbing distance. Trust your instincts. If they seem creepy or scary, don’t hesitate to run away screaming for help.’ That was the theme I presented each week, followed by question time.
Toward the end of Term Two, Mrs Camilleri; a parent, rang me.
‘I’m so sorry to ring you at home,’ she started hesitantly. ‘But I can’t thank you enough,’ she said in an emotional tone. ‘Monica came home from a birthday party today at about four. She said she’d taken the short-cut through Wilkins Park and saw a man in a pink shirt. She thought that was strange, because she believed pink was a girls’ colour. Well, just three blocks from home, there was a very similar man in a pink shirt. Monica found it hard to believe that it was the same man who’d somehow run ahead of her. After all, she reasoned, why would he want to cross her path? Anyway, the man talked like he was a dummy, as she put it, and seemed to be on the verge of tears. He said he was lost and frightened, because he couldn’t find his way home. He asked Monica, ‘Is this the way to Milton Street, cutie?’ Of course Milton Street was just minutes away, but Monica was shocked that a strange man would call her cutie. Monica told me that the man seemed harmless, but still she was uneasy. She didn’t like this strange man calling her cutie, and she was starting to believe that he was indeed the same man she’d seen in the park. So she did as you’d instructed. She jumped out of his reach and ran the whole way home screaming.’
‘Oh, uhmm…’ Thinking how this scenario could’ve gone tragically wrong, I was at a loss for what to say.
‘I told Monica that she’d done exactly the right thing,’ Mrs Camilleri continued. ‘We’d protect other girls from this bad man by telling the police everything she could remember. The police would find this man, I said, and make him stop.’
‘Well done, both of you!’
‘Yes. We just got home from the police station. Monica gave her statement to a very patient, gentle female Senior Constable. She was quite impressed by Monica’s thorough description and unperturbed demeanour. And she was quite confident that they’d find this animal and get him off the streets.’
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