For many years, I volunteered as a reading mentor to a diverse and eclectic group of elementary students. In the past two years, I took a hiatus. This was mainly due to the fact that kidnapping is illegal.

When a six year old knows more about the criminal justice system, parole and conditional release than you do; when a seven year old sleeps at the foot of his mother’s bed with a bat because he wants to protect her from the abusive boyfriend; when an eight year old is plucked from a foster home where she was fed and clothed and loved, and placed back in the care of a mother who only wants the extra subsidy money that her body will bring, you’ll see why I wanted to take these kids.

I’m continually stunned by the amount of people who shouldn’t have kids and do, and the amount of people who would make great parents yet remain childless.

Anyway, I’ve headed back to the elementary school. I miss the kids. I miss the smell of tuna fish and photocopied papers; gaped-tooth smiles and high-pitched shrieks. I miss the crazy twists of logic that only kids can have, and the unexpected moments where I think all the wisdom of the universe has been channeled into a pint-sized remark.

Two years is a long time to be gone, and all the kids I used to know have moved on to junior high school. Some of my original gang are in high school.

I was saddened to hear that many of “my kids” have self-imploded. A few have turned self destructive (cutting themselves), most have turned their self destruction on others and now have court orders restricting their movements.

I know we’re all responsible for the decisions we make and the paths we choose, but my heart hurts when I think of these guys. Society will brand them as bad children and want them locked up, but these aren’t the kids I knew. The ones I knew were lost, sensitive. They had squeaky voices and got excited about Transformers and trucks. They had funny senses of humor and deep insight.

They’re gone from me, now and from the teachers who loved and tried to help them. They’re in a bigger, more impersonal pond. And all I can do is wish and pray and hope that someone will cross their path and help them to see their worth more than they give themselves credit for, that acting out is a coward’s path and victory lies in knowing ones-self.

What are the chances? I have no idea.

Statistics say that they’ll fall between the cracks, that the next time I see them chances are, it’ll be because of a criminal charge, but I hope not. I hope that the next time they cross my path, they’re advocates for other children in high risk homes, that they’re mentors for children who don’t know if they’ll be fed or loved.

And I hope that my society will open its eyes and see that keeping a family together just because they share DNA is an evil reason; that the best way to drop the crime rate, drug use and increase literacy and life standards is to get to these kids before they believe the circumstances they live in will define them for the rest of their lives.