Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The View From the Car Line

            Something needs to be said about the car line. With as much time as it occupies in elementary parents’ lives on any given day, it’s strange to me that hardly anyone talks or writes about this model of democracy and cooperation. There is no other part of my life that illustrates quite as fully the principle that we’re all in this together.
            I am a regular in the car line at my son’s school, Rountree Elementary. I know its rhythms—how it is longer and slower on very cold days, how my son’s teacher will generously bend my ear with a progress report if he is that week’s traffic monitor, how some people lose track of where they are and let two, three, five car lengths open up before they jerk to attention and move forward.
            I am typically the mom with the book. Sometimes I’m the mom listening to NPR and staring into some middle distance. Lately I’ve been the mom playing Trivia Crack, which has also made me the mom of the five-car-lengths jerk.
            Our school is a lovely public school in a quiet neighborhood, and many of the people in front of and behind me are friends who didn’t have time to walk or who are taking cover in a 250 horsepower umbrella. We feel guilty, but there we are, united by our environmental guilt and our love of wearing pajamas all day. And there we are, too, all of us dreading the teacher who approaches the car and says, “Would you mind coming in for a moment?”
            My friends know two things about me for certain: my own “two things” are not stuffed into a bra unless I have a formal appointment, and I find pants cumbersome and optional. I know I’m an outlier in the car line, but I don’t think I’m alone—still in my pajamas at 3:45, or in a nightgown halfway tucked into some hastily donned sweat pants.
            I have a good but energetic son about whom there is much to be said. Last year’s teacher, Mrs. S, had a habit of running out of the building to wave me over and tell me what wild shenanigans he had gotten into that day. I got into the bra-and-pants habit then, I assure you; there are only so many conversations one can have with one’s arms crossed the entire time. This year’s teacher, Mr. W, is more merciful. Maybe one encounter with me in my invisible straitjacket got the message across. Or maybe he’s just as eager to get home as my son and I are. We stick to through-the-window conferences in a catch-as-catch-can sort of way.
Three years ago my son went to a private school that is nearly as close to home as our public school is. It was snooty as could be, or what passes for snooty here in the Ozarks, and while we were all in it together there, too, it didn’t feel that way. Most people were all in it several feet above our Honda Civic in their luxury SUVs. And there was the strange one-upmanship of parents who dressed to the nines to pick up their spawn—heels, jewelry, Estee Lauder, the whole shebang. One felt … well, sort of eyeballed in that private school car line. The fact that everyone was quite literally looking down at us (from a Cadillac Escalade) may have been a factor.
While I tried to be friendly and helpful at that school—and while I always wore a bra—my overtures were never successful. At the public school, on the other hand, if you volunteer once, you’re roped in for the duration, and you are expected and even needed at every event that follows. At the snooty school, I don’t know how many times I offered to do this or that, only to learn that it was covered, thankyouverymuch. And as hard as it was to be a parent there, the classroom experience was worse—bullying, bragging, with a first-grade caste system that assigned a permanent spot in the pecking order to every young scholar.
Needless to say, we got the heck out of there and into the public school system. Our beloved neighborhood school has provided a better environment for my son, a better education, and even a better place for my, er, girls, who can stay warm and dry in their nightgown, in their car, where all of the people around us are too busy and too pajama-clad themselves to notice.

It really is true: We are all in this together.


  1. Our kids' school is public, though an odd one. A lot of the families are very wealthy, and you can see that from what the kids are wearing, what the kids are coming to school with (the newest iPhone vs. hand-me-down from his mom old iPod...), etc. I wouldn't say they are (not all) snooty, but when we visit some of their houses (birthday party drop off, potluck party for parents, whatever...) I do sometimes feel like, wow! It's a very funny feeling. There were no really rich people around me when I was growing up, apparently. :)

    1. There's something very sad about that environment of one-upmanship -- and something uplifting about being part of a (pajama-clad) community.