Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | March 7, 2016

Where the Sidewalk Ends

In 1974, Shel Silverstein published a poem called, “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”  It was very popular and quickly became known as a classic.  I don’t have permission to reprint it here but it speaks of an almost magical place between “where the sidewalk ends and the street begins.”  Literary analysts say it suggests the fact that children have great imagination and can find beauty and adventure in places that old fogies like me are too stodgy to appreciate.  It’s about playing instead of working, and subtly suggests that adults should consider the importance of play.

Though I didn’t know the poem by heart, it’s a famous enough title (it’s also the title of his book which is still in print) that I knew it as a phrase.  When they were installing a sidewalk on a major road near my home, it popped into my mind.  They had poured some cement for the sidewalks but had not finished and though I had a nice path to tread upon as I came home from shul, I got to one point where there was a large, muddy block.  I looked for the drier spots, and managed to get to the street without getting dirty.

As I did, I thought of something.  I’m older, experienced, and aware of the mud and the various signs of dryness or moistness.  I knew how to navigate the empty spaces.  What would happen, though, to little children who wouldn’t know the warning signs?  How would they know what to do, “Where the sidewalk ends”?

Of course, I wasn’t just concerned with the square of mud in front of me.  I was thinking of the more global fact that in life, sometimes there isn’t a clear trail.  We get thrown into situations for which we were not prepared.  How do we know how to navigate?

Yes, you might say that it’s something that comes with age, but I also think that it’s something that must be taught.  If not, until a person learns, they’re going to get stuck in the mud quite often.  I thought about the fact that when we educate our kids, we tell them, “Don’t go there,” or “Stay away from that bully.”  But do we train them what to do when they somehow end up, Dorothy-like, in that place we warned them about?  Do we teach them what to do when the bully is next to them on the bus?

Someone sent me a letter that a school sent home.  It said that on a particular Motsai Shabbos, during specific hours, teachers from the school would be at two restaurant locations to take the place of parents and then the students were permitted to visit those establishments.  Any other night or times was prohibited.

Not knowing the school or the restaurants, I’d assume that these were places in which teenagers congregate and “hang out” so the schools didn’t want them going there.  On this particular night, though, it would be OK because the teachers would be there to ensure that no “un-kosher” activity took place.  They were also hinting that parents should really be chaperoning their own kids.

While I admire their self-sacrifice, I wonder if this will be enough “training” to help the students make the right decisions when the teachers are not there.  I once went to a store where I saw some young ladies acting appropriately, but when they faced a challenging situation, they handled it incorrectly.  I called the head of their school who told me that if they were at that store, they weren’t “good girls.”  I argued that they seemed to be very good girls, they just hadn’t been taught how to behave in this situation and it was a great teachable moment.  She thanked me and assured me she’d address it.

I found out that the way she addressed it was by gathering all the girls in the school and reiterating what a terrible thing it was to go to this place and they made a chillul HaShem by going there.  Strike three!  You’ve just set these girls up to stumble when they get to a place where there is no clear-cut path or they wander in despite the warnings.

In my humble opinion, we need to teach our children how to blaze their own trails when they get to uncharted territory.  They need the tools and the lessons to know what to watch out for so they don’t get stuck in the mud and covered in muck when there are no adults there to guide them and they can’t “avoid the area.”

As the literary types would tell you, sometimes the world off the beaten path seems magical and attractive.  If we just leave it to the children’s imaginations they might follow that adventure and stumble off the edge.  So, I think we’d all be wise to pay attention to how we prepare our young people for that day down the road when we’re not there to tell them what to do; when they need to find their own way.

As the poem says, “the children know… where the sidewalk ends.”where_the_sidewalk_ends


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