There was a boogeyman in the bushes outside my elementary school, back in the early ’80s.
He was just there for a short time, maybe a few weeks, but I’ve never forgotten because it was the first time I recall being forbidden to go somewhere.
There was a tiny treed area behind the ball diamond and before the community park, so small that maybe a few trees and bushes could fit.
As small as the little thicket was, the rumour was that a man was in there, living amongst the birds and squirrels. A man who, by way of being homeless and camping on school grounds, was automatically perceived to be a pervert.
And so going anywhere near those bushes was strictly verboten. This posed a problem on days we would walk to the park and the adjacent pool. We stuck to the far side of the path that skirted the thicket. And we whispered to each other. I must have been in Grade 3, judging by the conversations I remember.
“He’s flashing people,” one kid said.
“What do you think that means?” a brave soul asked.
We conjured up a few possibilities. He was either in there butt naked, ready to pounce on any child that dare walk within grabbing distance, or he was in a full trench coat and little else, primed to show the goods to anyone who approached him.
Either way, we were not to go near there. The area was off limits, and you’d be considered crazy to venture near the edges of that field.
The thing is, I never saw any actual proof that someone was living in those bushes. And yes, I eventually got close enough. Yes, I was a little daring. Yes, my mom would have grounded me until forever if she ever found out.
But there was nothing there.
Maybe he moved along. Maybe he heard us laughing. Maybe we hurt his feelings. I don’t know, I was only nine years old.
I found out many years later that this was also about the time Clifford Olsen was caught. This was the time of stranger danger, and perhaps the last era of children allowed to roam without their parents having their sanity questioned.
Today’s dangers are much different, much more intense. We know for a fact that there are homeless sleeping in the suburban bushes. There are people under park trees, against school fence lines, and in back alleys. There are areas where children must not go. There are needles and condoms to sidestep. And, as people have reported on social media, there are people with needles hanging out of their elbows. (I have yet to see that in Chilliwack, but that’s the popular rumour.)
And now that entire mess has bumped up against the school grounds, causing panic among parents. And yes, they have a right be panicked. I’m a parent. I’m concerned, too.
Needle pricks do put you at risk of Hepatitis B infection, among other illnesses.
I feel for the kids of Chilliwack, especially the elementary students who are being told to avoid the outskirts of their once-idyllic playgrounds; to be wary of unending fields created specifically for their enjoyment, lest there be a forgotten needle or condom hidden between the blades of grass.
But I’m no longer afraid of the homeless. I don’t see them as boogeymen anymore. I’ve got 30 years between me and that nine-year-old giggling, curious girl.
Still, we need to keep up the vigilance around schools, and face the issue head on, with the same vigour we are asking of our elected councillors and school trustees. We need to arm ourselves with knowledge instead of fear. There is ample information on the internet about health risks and prevention, and there are plenty of politicians who are willing to talk. And if one doesn’t want to talk, just try another.
This is after all, as school board chair Silvia Dyck said on Tuesday, everybody’s problem.
There truly is nowhere else to sweep it.