The Burden Of Freedom This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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   When I entered the sixth grade, a change took place that left its scar in my memory from that day on. I had lived a sheltered life, but realized as I grew older that ignorance was sometimes better than the harsh truth of reality. As a third grader, I remember looking up to the older kids, the sixth graders who towered over me and dominated the school. While we were playing rhyming games and Miss Mary Mac, slapping our small hands together in time and chanting aloud, the older kids, having outgrown Barbies and Miss Mary Mac, were walking to the general store three long blocks from the school grounds during recess. They would go in one big, rambunctious group: girls and boys with their arms linked walking from school, crossing the street without the help of a crossing guard, jaywalking, and free. We, in the lower grades, would lean against the metal fence and stare after them with envy.

"Where do you think they're going?" some miniature second grader would ask.

"Oh, they're going to the general store. And maybe they'll go hang out by the train tracks after," some knowledgeable third grader would answer with an air of superiority knowing that her older brother was among that group of sixth graders.

We were impressed each time and would turn back to peer out from behind the metal fence once more to watch the retreating figures walk away. Only when they were gone did we resume jumping rope and hand games.

When I became a sixth grader, I remember those first six weeks filled with glorious feelings as it was my turn to walk the streets during recess and turn to see twenty little faces peering at me through the holes of the metal fence.

But, in the streets the scene was not so pleasant. I saw drunk people asleep under last week's New York Post, quarreling husbands and wives with enraged faces, crying babies in antique carriages with squeaky wheels wobbling past the feet of the homeless. I remember wishing more than once that I was back at school again, safe and at ease in the midst of busy hopscotch games.

One cloudy day, as I ventured into town with a group of friends, following our usual route to the general store, I noticed a wizened old man dressed in rags sitting in front of the store. Motionless and silent, his thin legs stretched before him, his head down, his arms hanging limply at his sides. His unshaven chin emerged from underneath his faded Mets baseball cap. In the dusky afternoon, he seemed to blend in with his gray surroundings. His eyes glanced up from his lap when he heard the oncoming chattering voices. My group began to file into the store. I was the last to enter and as I reached to hold the door, the old man began to cough violently. I stopped and looked down at him.

"Are you OK, sir?" I asked.

His coughing eased and he slowly turned to look up at me. "Why do you care?" he asked sharply. "You kids laugh all the way from school to buy your comics and candy. I did that once too. I had my health and family then, just like you do now. But, unfortunately, I have learned a lot about life since then. What do you know?"

I wanted to tell him of my observations during my two months of six grade: the hunger, the neglect, and the pain I had witnessed in the streets. But as I looked into his face and those time-hardened, piercing eyes, I was silent and only wished I knew absolutely nothing.

Today, I think that those days I spent in the third grade were the happiest ones, even though my freedom was limited. I never went back to the general store after that day and I eventually moved to another town. The memory of those days faded and I never walked those streets again. As I grew older, I became more aware of the enmity in our society. Sometimes I can still envision myself leaning against that metal fence as I watched the older kids walk away from their secure places at school and I find myself wishing that I had stayed that innocent child. n


This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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