MAXWELL:  The sacred age of innocence

12/31/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Except for a few dozen of the 2,450 residents of this textile community near the North Carolina border, probably no one has heard of 8-year-old Shawntell Taylor. I would not know her if I did not vacation here twice a year.

I am fortunate to know this little girl, the niece of one of my former colleagues. Short for her age and a little chubby, Shawntell is the classic tomboy, all of which account for some of her irresistible charm. Her big brown eyes twinkle with harmless mischief that needs no urging to erupt.

Each time I see her impish smile and hear her high-pitched giggle, I am reminded that we are born innocent and that we subsequently are corrupted by life’s hard knocks, by cruel experiences that devalue our worth as individuals.

Shawntell reminds me, too, that childhood should be a magical, carefree time that should last until nature determines that its season has ended. Too often, though, children endure experiences that force them to grow up too quickly, making them cynical adults who, in turn, rob their own children of their childhood.

On a recent visit, I watched Shawntell and two of her friends romp in a nearby field. Periodically, they would stop, kneel and pluck wildflowers. Then, Shawntell stopped and called me over.

“Look!” she said. “It’s a four-leaf clover.”

When was the last time I had thought of four-leaf clovers? Vaguely, I remembered a song I had learned about them during my own childhood. Unaccountably, I felt sad and happy at the same time.

“What are you going to do with it?” I asked.

“You’re supposed to put it between the pages of a Bible and when it gets flat, you make a wish,” she said.

She dashed toward me, her ponytail bobbing, and handed the clover to me. I put it in my shirt pocket. For the next hour or so, I helped the girls search for four-leaf clovers. We found dozens. When they tired of picking the clover, the girls ran to another field where the public works department had stored several huge concrete culverts. Here, they jumped from pipe to pipe.

And the object of this game? Trying not to slip and fall into the tall grasses and insects below. What struck me most were the game’s simplicity and its lack of competitiveness. They were doing what I see too little of in the inner-city neighborhoods where I grew up: Black kids playing innocent games and having wholesome fun without fear of being beat up or gunned down.

Shawntell and her closest friends _ April, Ashley, Eric, Rahfia, Shanna and Whitney _ have not become happy children by accident. All of them have loving parents and other relatives who clearly understand that childhood is sacred. As such, guardians do not blur the line between the world of children and that of adults.

Greta Taylor, Shawntell’s mother, for example, has set strict guidelines and has established high expectations for her daughter. “I don’t allow any tantrums,” Taylor says. “I tell Shawn: “Go away and get yourself together and cool off. Come back to me after you are calm, and I will talk to you.”‘

This strategy works every time, with neither mother nor daughter feeling bitter.

“As the adult, I set the rules for Shawn to go by, and she pretty much accepts them,” Taylor says. “I consciously think of what childhood is. I believe that kids want structure. Shawn is persistent and wants to have her way, but she also wants guidance from adults.”

Taylor, 35, an inspector and packer for a local medicine bottle manufacturer, nurtures Shawntell’s innocence by keeping her away from drugs, violence and other forms of destructive behavior that many inner-city children in this age group take for granted. Although she has heard about it and has watched television movies in which it plays a major role, Shawntell has never seen crack in real life.

When Shawntell is not with her mother or an aunt, she is with her grandmother, 67-year-old Grace Hatcher, a cafeteria worker at Chase City Elementary, where the child is a third-grader. Hatcher, too, keeps Shawntell out of harm’s way, takes her to Sunday school and generally dotes over her granddaughter while administering the family’s special brand of tough love.

Each time I see Shawntell, I marvel at her sweet disposition, her well-adjusted personality and her ability to thoroughly enjoy small things. If she and her friends are not outside romping, riding bikes, playing stickball, throwing a boomerang, playing hide-and-seek or “just hollering,” as Shawntell says, they entertain themselves inside by playing Nintendo and telling ghost stories.

In a few days, I will return to St. Petersburg, where the lives of many young children are more precarious, where innocence can be a liability. I will think of Shawntell and her friends in this small town, where finding four-leaf clovers is a thrill _ where play is the work of children.