By Elizabeth Neumann Fuller
Every other week, an early morning bell sends me racing from my classroom out to the elementary school parking lot, donning my whistle and zipping up my reflective vest en route. I stride boldly into the white stripes of a crosswalk to face three lanes of cars that stretch the hundred yards of the lot and snake out to block traffic on the road beyond. I shiver, or sweat, depending on the season. And I squint into the sun, not daring to shade my eyes with a hand that is needed to either wave a car on, or make it stop.
Often, I nod and smile in return to a parent’s friendly wave or good morning greeting. But just as often I have to wag a finger at parents for cutting another car off, or for driving over pylons to change lanes illegally. No doubt they justify these behaviors because they are in a hurry—to get to work, to go grocery shopping, to get an older sibling to middle school.
I can see them drumming the steering wheel with impatience while they wait in the approach to the drop-off zone. Their hands fly up in frustration when the little girl in the vehicle in front of them struggles to open the back door of an SUV. She pushes her slight weight against it, and it pushes back, like a reverse tug-of-war, until her mom has to take the time to unbuckle, and get out and walk around to assist. I can lip read parents’ curses through their windshields when a little boy hustles out of the car in the drop-off zone, only to lose his grasp on his lunch bag and have his grapes scatter as if hit by a cue ball, and his water bottle roll and then rest under the exact center of his family’s car, where everyone behind them in line must wait while it is retrieved.
Oddly though, for all this impatience, this rush, this PG rated road rage, there is—more often than not—a period in the coveted drop-off zone where time is suspended.
After the urgency to get to the front of the line, to drop their charge and get on with their day, parents will wait for the slam of the car door, and then pause. They will rest a foot heavy on the brake, and swivel in the driver’s seat to watch their child walking away.
They are suddenly reluctant to separate. They crane their necks to keep their child in sight.
They slide the passenger-side window down and lean towards it, waving or blowing a kiss, or yelling a final “Have a good day” or “Remember to eat your snack” or “I love you.” I can see them willing their child to look back before disappearing into the school’s inner sanctum.
I confess that as the teacher on duty, this delay in the drop-off zone has always annoyed me. For twenty years, I have had to do parking lot duty, and I have been in a hurry just like everyone else. I have started my day rushing, to get my own children dressed, to pack their lunches, to grade a few more papers. I have been antsy to get back to my classroom before the final bell rings and the onslaught begins. Before my students burst into the room and jockey for position to tell me that they forgot their homework, or their cat had kittens, or they ran out of lunch money but can they still buy a corndog? So in the parking lot, I wave with extra vigor and a hint of irritation at the drivers causing delay in the drop-off zone. I beckon them to move forward faster. “Keep the line moving,” I mutter. “They’ll be back out here again at 2:30.”
But then this fall, I myself was the parent in a different drop-off lane. I drove my youngest child to college. We got up in the wee hours, and loaded her school backpack, along with Hefty trash bags full of clothes into my Subaru. We drove six hours down the I-5 to a cinder block dorm set back behind a well-manicured lawn. We found her room, put sheets on her bunk bed, laid a shag rug on the floor, and hung her clothes in the closet. We attended an orientation where we sat apart, then went out to dinner where I asked about her classes. She had registered for a Kafka class, and linear algebra, and there wasn’t much I knew or could say about those subjects.
When we pulled back up in front of the dorm after dinner, dusk was settling over the front lawn, tingeing it a grayish-green. I kept the engine running at the curb, and we leaned awkwardly into a hug between our bucket seats. As she climbed out of the car and walked away, my foot was like lead on the brake. I thought about how she wouldn’t be waiting outside the Taco Bell for my ride home from high school the next afternoon. How I wouldn’t be studying her face as I drove toward her, discerning how her day had gone from her expression. How I wouldn’t ask, “How was school?” and she wouldn’t shrug and answer, “Fine.” I craned my neck to watch her walk across the grass, squinting to keep sight of her in the deepening dusk. She turned slightly, and I’m pretty sure she blew me a kiss, before she pulled her key card out of her back pocket and disappeared through the dorm door.
The next Monday morning, my house was quiet, allowing me plenty of time to read the paper and drink my coffee before work. Back on parking lot duty, I wore my whistle and my neon vest, and waved my hands and wagged my finger. But when parents paused in the drop-off zone to watch their children, I turned to watch them too. I saw the little girls with hair tightly braided and the boys with defiant cowlicks headed into classrooms where they would learn about action verbs, and explorers, and Harriet Tubman, and the planet Mars. They would collaborate with classmates to solve 2-part story problems, and swap celery sticks for Doritos at lunch. And they would emerge at the end of the school day with hair tousled and sweaty from the effort of learning. They would know the product of 9×9, or how to tie their shoes, or how to read a compass rose, or the meaning of the vocabulary word chasm.
They would be that much closer to making their own way in the world.
Because it happens that fast, under the watch of a teacher, or a lunchroom supervisor, from 8:00-2:30. I can see that now. So I decided that for the time it takes for a child to walk, under the weight of a backpack, from the parking lot to the inside of the school, I will lower my hands and I will let the parents linger.
Elizabeth Fuller is a teacher and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The Denver Post, The San Francisco Examiner, and other publications. She loves a good coffee shop, and hiking in the East Bay hills.