Every morning at 7:15 am, a line of cars begins to creep around the long curve of road behind my daughter’s elementary school. Traffic cones are placed in the street, and volunteers don day-glow vests to begin the half-hour-long process of helping students out of vans, cars, trucks and SUV’s while keeping the flow of vehicles moving. I volunteer one morning a week at this carpool, and I really like doing it. I stay in one place, and a parade of humanity drives slowly by, disgorging kids laden with bookbags and dioramas and band instruments.
I get to watch as families go about this brief morning routine, and although I certainly haven’t seen anything half as juicy as the typical hotel doorman, I’ve gotten to observe some of the peculiar habits and rituals of the early 21st century, suburban carpool participant. (It’s not as boring as it sounds – I think Malcolm Gladwell is writing his next book about this, something about how a child’s grades can be predicted by the radio station being played in the family car at morning carpool, tentatively titled, ‘Dropoff Dropouts: The Influence of Early Morning FM Radio on Scholastic Success.’)
Some things have stuck out to me in my brief sojourn as a carpool volunteer. I’ve seen well-dressed, professional men roll down their car windows to shout, ‘Love you, buddy!’ one last time to their sons. I’ve seen a woman behind the wheel of her sedan in a bathrobe and slippers. I’ve seen cars stuffed to bursting with children, a la clown car, with nary a seatbelt in use. I’ve heard all the typical parental send-offs: ‘Love you!’ and ‘Have a good day!’ and ‘See you after school!’ And I’ve also heard nothing – silence – as a kid climbs out. (That always makes me feel awkward.)
I have never seen a child reluctant to get out of a car, but I’ve seen many a parent do the slooooooow pull away, their eyes fixed on the retreating back of their kid. I’ve seen a punkish, tattooed young man drop off a small child at 7:30 am with a withdrawn look on his face that suggested he was seriously reevaluating his life choices. I’ve seen cars so neat and clean I could eat off the dashboard, and I’ve opened minivans so littered with the detritus of young children that the students have to wade their way out to the sidewalk.
I’ve seen parents who seem incredibly, improbably well put together for so early an hour – does no one sleep anymore? (For the record, I most identify with the bathrobe-sporting, trashed-minivan crowd, so to see someone in full-on office mode before the sun has fully risen is like catching sight of a Sasquatch.)
It’s fun to observe families in five-second intervals. The human variety of our suburban enclave is not what you may find elsewhere, but there’s still a range of cultures and nationalities. The people I open doors for have no idea that I’m seeing them. Maybe what I perceive to be ‘slice-of-life’ observations aren’t accurate indications of how certain families work in real life, but there has to be a big difference in the lives of those who send their kids off to school without a word, and those who can’t stop hollering encouragement to their spawn on their way out the door. The mother who can smile wisely at me while dropping off three of her five kids (while the youngest two share the front passenger seat) has surely tapped into a level of calm (or medication) I know nothing about. The mom who has taken the time to get herself together before 7 am is not operating from the same book as the mom who throws a fleece over her pajamas and a knit hat over her bed-head to get the kids to school. (And yes, that’s a description of what I wore to carpool yesterday.)
Is it wrong to make such assumptions? After all, I drop my son off at his preschool in my slippers and shout, ‘See you, Little Man!’ as he stumbles out of the back of our Sienna, kicking a weeks’ worth of toys, papers, and fast food wrappers to the pavement in his efforts. Can the people who open my car door know anything about who I really am? If they think I’m a little bit lazy, that I can’t manage to get dressed before 9:00 am in spite of the fact that I wake at 6:30, and that I never clean out my car, they would be entirely correct.