Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Latchkey Me

I was a latchkey kid.  My sister, also, was a latchkey kid.  We never knew any different. So when I read an article today about a mother being ticketed for "cruelty" for leaving her capable 14-year-old son home to care for a younger sibling, I about had to scrape my jaw off the floor.

Latchkey children, for those not "in the know," are kids who went from school to their unoccupied house, let themselves in, and entertained themselves until their parents arrived home.  In my case, I'd get out of school around 2:30pm, walk straight home as quickly as possible, and chill by myself or with my sister until Dad got home around 4:30pm.  A whole two hours of quiet freedom after the chaos of school.  Those were the good ol' days.

Mind you, I didn't get to be home by myself at all until I was probably eight or nine (for my parents to go grocery shopping or something like that), but by middle school I was riding the bus and letting myself in the house.  And there were rules I had to follow.  Before the days of caller ID, I had to wait through four agonizing rings of the telephone and let it go to voicemail so I could know who was calling before I picked up.  We didn't have a peep-hole in our front door, so if the doorbell rang, I could sneak up to a window and peek through the blinds and maybe recognize a car or the UPS man.  Unless it was a car I knew, I never opened the door.  Not for friends, not for neighbors, not at all.  I was not allowed to use the stove or oven, not allowed to use any appliances but the microwave, and certainly not allowed to play outside in the front yard.  I didn't try to sneak in some TV in the afternoon because I knew what was expected of me: go home, get a snack, get to my homework.  When the work was done, I could have fun.  Those time management skills have benefited me immensely as an adult.

By the time I was twelve or thirteen, my sister would join me after school.  If she got home first, she'd let herself in.  If I got home first, she better have her key.  Unless one of us sounded the secret-sister-I-forgot-my-key-knock, we didn't let each other in.

From the time I was twelve until I was nineteen, we spent every summer home together, just the two of us, for nine hours a day, five days a week.  That's seven summers we spent locked inside a house with no place to go.  Though I may have thought I was in charge, I was not.  We got through squabbles and tiffs, sat through hours of craft shows, read hundreds of books, and made up some of the dumbest games.  We didn't call Mom or Dad unless one of us was bleeding to death--and even then, a limb had to be severed off, not just hanging by the skin.  We couldn't get online.  We didn't dare call our friends.  And God help us if we left a mess or didn't pick up our toys before Mom got home, especially on the kitchen counter.

There were expectations, clearly outlined and enumerated.  We knew what we could and could not do.  No questioning, no fudging, no blurring the lines.  We learned obedience and a great deal of independence from those nearly 4,000 hours of unsupervised summer bliss.  We learned to rely on ourselves for entertainment.  We learned how to have a lot of fun with a deck of playing cards, some string, or a ream of paper.  We learned simple household repair, like how to cover up that dent in the hallway or how to get stains out of a couch without leaving a big smear right before a parent arrived home.  We learned what not to put in the microwave (a few times).  We also learned how to re-pot flowers that got knocked over, how to remove nail polish from counters, how to take Sharpie off the table, how to cover up food dye on our fingers, and what happens when you lie about what you've been up to all day.

To this day, I have an irrational fear of opening doors when I'm home alone.  Unless it's someone I know and am expecting, I won't do it.  Call me first, then come knocking.

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