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Childhood's rule No. 1: Suspect the stranger

The insistent ringing of the doorbell on a golden afternoon shattered the early autumn calm. Before I could respond, it rang again.

The insistent ringing of the doorbell on a golden afternoon shattered the early autumn calm. Before I could respond, it rang again.

I flung open the door and for a split second, I saw no one. Only when I looked down — way down — did I see my visitor.

It was a sobbing little girl.

Even though I had never seen this child before, my first instinct, unguarded and primal, was to reach down and hug her. I was on my way to doing that when I stopped myself. I could see that even in her distress, there was a shrinking back, a wary guardedness that went beyond shyness.

And I suddenly remembered that I was the dreaded "stranger" in a world in which children can no longer automatically trust grown-ups.

When the child could finally talk — when the shoulder-shaking sobs had diminished that much — I asked her name. She recited it meticulously, as if this scene had been carefully rehearsed. And I recognized that it probably had been, that some good and caring parent had trained this little tyke, who couldn't be more than 5 or 6, to learn her name and to state it clearly when asked.

I didn't dare question yet what was wrong. I didn't even dare to invite this terribly upset child to step into the house. Not in today's upside-down universe in which it sometimes seems that every adult is suspect and every child is taught to be wary.

So there we stood.

And her story came tumbling out soon.

She had ventured around the corner, giddy with delight that she'd been invited to play with big girls — really big girls. Maybe fourth graders.

And first they were nice to her. Then they weren't. They were mean. "Super mean." They even twisted her arm.

She had begged them to stop, but they wouldn't. And when she began to cry, they called her a stupid crybaby. The words seemed to sting her throat as she repeated them, humiliated to the core and sobbing again.

The endless cycle of childhood bullying was being played out at my door with this sweet-faced little girl who might have been my own children, my own little innocents, a lifetime ago.

Even as we talked, my small visitor looked over her shoulder. Could they get to her here? Would they be out there waiting for her?

All the pain and fury and sense of injustice that ever existed in the world of childhood were etched on that little girl's face. Every shred of 5-year-old dignity had been snatched away.

Worst of all, I couldn't rescue her, remove her from the danger she felt, by simply inviting her in. Not when the rules have changed so drastically, and stepping inside might have meant breaking inviolate commands about grown-up strangers.

So I did what I thought I could. I brought a glass of water to the door. And a graham cracker. And some tissues.

Finally, when I was assured that, of course, she knew her phone number, that she'd learned it in nursery school, I suggested that we call her mother.

Thankfully, the woman answered the phone on the second ring. And in an instant, we mothers were sisters, understanding that an injured little bird badly needed her nest — and a long hug.

Moments later, we met in my driveway. As she bent down to deliver that hug, our eyes met and sent a wordless mother message over the tousled head of this shaken little girl.

"I would do the same for your child," her eyes told me.

"I hope it never happens again," mine telegraphed to her.

And a crazy and dangerous world suddenly felt just a little better.

Sally Friedman writes from Moorestown.