Every weekday morning, as I drive home from dropping my eldest daughter off at school, my minivan passes by a small boy walking along the busy, morning rush-hour road. He can't be more than 7 or 8 years old. He wears the same uniform that my younger children wear. Although he is a stranger, I know by that uniform that he attends the same school.
His walk is determined, his pace quick; he's got to make the mile and a half walk down that busy road to get to school on time. He walks alone, with just his book bag bouncing off his back as he takes his tiny strides.
On the occasion that my children, who attend his school, are in the car with me, I've asked them who the boy is. They know him, but only by reputation-- 'His name is Tom and he's a naughty boy,' one of the twins says.
'Why is he walking to school, by himself? On this busy road?' I ask my girls. They just shrug and we drive on.
I think about his mother. I try not to judge-- I don't walk in her shoes... but how could a little boy like that be allowed to walk to and from school each day, down such a fast-traveled street-- alone? I imagine if I were a single mom, in the same situation, wouldn't I try and get a job that didn't require me until after I could deliver my boy to school safely? Or get a neighbor to walk him to school, if I had to get to work early?
I don't know.
I really, really tried not to pass judgement on this story that I knew so little about, on this woman whom I knew so little of, but criticism hung thick in the air around me.
Last week, I went into the children's school to cook with one of the classes. I broke it down into groups of 5 children at a time. In the middle of working with the second group, I paid closer attention to the boy to my right. He knew so much about food and liked trying all different flavours. I looked at him for a second, and recognized him as the boy I pass in the car each morning. 'Tom, you're really good at cooking!' I said to him. 'Yeah, I like to cook.' he said, but didn't look up at me.
Later, I told his teacher about how well all the children did in cooking class, but especially how well this young lad did. I told her about how I see him walking alone to school each morning.
'Yes,' she said.
'Wish I could offer to drive him to school-- would his mother feel awkward about that?' I asked.
'He hasn't got a mother. She died. He lives with his dad, and his dad...' the teacher trailed off.
As hard as I fought it, tears welled up in my eyes, as I thought about this boy's mommy looking down on him, watching him walk to school day after day, on his own. I thought about how horrible I had been passing the boy on the street, as I passed judgement on his mother.
I thought about how quick I am to judge people. I say that I see the gray scale in life, not just the black and white-- maybe I'm wrong.
I asked the teacher to try and think of any way that I could help this kid out. It's complicated. There are tricky circumstances.
But I don't want to just pass this child by anymore.
Today, after school I was talking to the school secretary when I noticed Tom on the phone next to me. He hung up and looked glum. I said hi and he returned the greeting, but quietly.
'Do you need a ride home, Tom?' I asked.
'Well, my Dad isn't answering his phone, so I'm just going to walk.' He said.
'Nah, come on with me. I'll give you a lift.' I ran my palm across the top of his prickly buzz cut.
I stopped in front of his apartment building, got out and opened his car door. 'You know, in cooking the other week, you were really good, Tom. I mean it-- you should be a chef one day. Cooking can take you anywhere in the world.'
For the first time he looked at me and sort of smiled. He said thanks for the ride and fished his housekeys out of his backpack. Then he pushed the big door to his apartment house open and walked inside.