Parking at a school, watching children through my van’s windshield is not as creepy as it sounds. Even though it is part of my daily routine.
Most school-aged children at our day care center ride a bus to and fro, but that is not an option for either the sixth grade boy I pick up after school or the five Kindergarteners I pick up at noon. Watching either the Middle School or Kindergarten groups dismiss can be entertaining, and both are great opportunities to observe human nature.
The Kindergarteners were carefully tagged and trained the first two weeks of school until they and the teachers knew what line each belonged in, how they were to exit the building, and how to safely approach and enter the vehicle for their trip home. Months later, they are still monitored, with teachers at the front of the line and strategically placed within the line to herd these children quickly, safely to those of us waiting in three lanes to transport them. It is an impressively organized routine.
Even so, this line of seventy children is no orderly line of ducklings following their mama.
Sure, some are a study in concentration as they keep their eyes straight ahead, maintaining an even pace and a careful distance from the child they follow. These concentrators take their new role as Kindergartener seriously, leaning forward slightly to balance the big backpack they are wearing. Some concentrators even maintain their composure while the child behind them repeatedly bumps into them, shoves them, or swings a back pack at their head. When these more “interactive” kids tire of pestering the child ahead of them, they try the funny-every-time trick of stopping suddenly, causing a collision and mini pile-up of children behind. Many are nonchalant line-walkers by now, looking around for distractions without intentionally bothering others. They check out the cars, find people to wave at, or spot friends and call repeated goodbyes. This inattention may cause them to run into another walker, to wander out of line, or to occasionally trip and fall. As long as they get back up, no one seems concerned. The line keeps moving.
Teachers position themselves by rain puddles, urging the children to go around. The concentrators proudly obey. The distracted “nonchalants” wander through the puddle while staring at the teacher who is talking so animatedly. The “interactives” stomp gleefully through the middle and look for more puddles.
No one in the Kindergarten line seems self conscious of others watching them, or self aware as to how they compare, though they differ greatly in size and shape, and styles of clothing. These Kindergarteners all seem happy or at least content, to be walking in line together, part of a group.
Despite varied walking styles, any of them, at any time, might suddenly begin to skip. Even the most serious minded concentrator spontaneously skips a few steps. Even the little boy with the skull on his black t-shirt that says “Too Cool For School”, skips. Little girls wearing Disney princess shirts and pigtails, and the ones dressed like mini-teens, skipping together. It always makes me smile.
When do we stop skipping? Why?
Six years older, the middle school kids burst out of the building like popcorn. Many doors, no organized parking lines, no teachers visible, they pop out one or two at a time, then in great bunches overflowing into the streets, then a few last stragglers.
Six years older than my Kindergarteners, so much has changed.
Most seem self-conscious, sure everyone is watching, judging. They are hugely aware of each other, ignoring any random adults. Like the Kindergarteners, they vary greatly in size, shape and style of clothing. Some of them are laughing and happy, some look desperately unhappy as they hurry away. Some still roughhouse, shoving a friend off the sidewalk or into someone else. Some talking on a cell phone – that shield against apparent loneliness. Running, yelling, shoving, riding bikes, walking along. No one is skipping. Ever.
Those walking alone interest me the most, worry me a little. I am glad to see someone speak to them or wave, to know that they have not been completely alone that day.
The boy I pick up just turned twelve. He still waves each day when he spots me. He has introduced me to friends and a girlfriend when they have been walking near him. But he usually walks out alone. He chatters to me about his good days and bad days, and is peculiarly happy with his lot in life, which has not been easy. Not much easy in sight for the future, either.
I pray for him. Childhood skips away too quickly.