There are a lot of different ways you can discover the true heart of a school – what makes it tick, what its students are like, how well the learning process is played out, etc. Most would argue that the classroom itself is the best way to judge a school – how the teacher delivers the day’s lesson, the attentiveness and engagement of the students, the positive atmosphere in the room – and none of these would be wrong. For others, it may be in the hallways or on the playing fields, where the tone, school spirit, and lessons of sportsmanship and teamwork are played out every day.
While it would be hard to argue with any of these perspectives, I’ve always felt there was another place and time in the school that reveals the true nature of the school’s mission, the personalities of its students and parents, and where a school’s ability to cope with both the planned and unplanned all come together. For now, forget the classrooms, the assemblies, and the playing fields. Instead, concentrate on the one place where the day both begins and ends – drop-off and pick-up time in the school’s parking lots . . .
Where else but at morning drop-off can you see students and parents in their purest forms? As you open the car doors and greet each student, you open the door to unseen worlds and vistas for the average faculty member and administrator. For it is here – if only for a few seconds – that you see the moods, the interactions, and the behaviors between parent and child that so often set the tone for their day, and may have a huge influence on the course of that particular child’s learning.
Putting aside the always welcome and appreciated bright, chipper and ready to go child and family – there are a few, but their numbers seem to diminish a bit more each year – there are plenty of examples of families barely able to pull it together for one reason or another. These are the families whose children are still eating breakfast as they exit the car – tossing back inside half-full drink cups and barely eaten bagels as they unbuckle their seat belts and bound out. At times, I have wished I were a trained anthropologist, able to study the food debris left behind in some cars for seemingly weeks at a time – thank goodness I rarely opened doors during summer sessions . . . For others, there were daily competitions between parents and children as to who could finish dressing/make-up application first – even as the car pulled up to the curb. Often is the time the child emerged from the seemingly darkened nether regions of the back seat with only one arm in a jacket or one or fewer shoes tied . . .
Moods as well can often be picked up in an instant after the door is opened. Of course, it helps to be alerted ahead of time when you can hear raised voices from several cars away – despite the closed windows – as they line up to disgorge their riders. I will never forget the argument between child and parent that had obviously begun at home over breakfast and was still raging in the car as I opened the door. Clearly, it made no difference that I was now privy to the entire row going on. Instead, guided instinctively and robotically to the carpool line and drop-off point, neither party seemed willing to end their side of the story. As curious as I was to listen, and despite the pleading look in the eyes of the parent – a look I took to mean “please help straighten out my unruly child” – I opted for the more forlorn look of the five year old and rapidly plucked her from the jaws of an almost certain rhetorical defeat.
Of course, where else but in a carpool line can you see the slightly aberrant behavior of the child played out for all to see by the parent? As educators, we sometimes wonder why a child habitually fails to follow directions or allows their concentration to wander. No need to debate nature or nurture here. Time after time, the parent whose child frequently “goes their own way” is the same one dangerously passing others in the carpool lane or jumping out and opening the doors on the wrong side of the car – despite repeated instructions, pleadings, and sometimes confrontations to the contrary. One of my personal favorites is always the parent on the phone as they pull up, too busy to say goodbye to the child or even notice their departure. I frequently resisted the urge to replace the child in the car with myself and see how many miles it would take for the parent to notice – perhaps enjoying the remains of a half-eaten bagel while I waited . . .
Multi-student carpools also provide a microcosm of school life for all to observe. In most instances, everyone in the car was friends and got along well. Once in awhile, however, it was obvious that the carpooling arrangements were made between parents, and without the child’s input. The best way to test this theory was usually by the speed with which the “clown car” emptied. Fast and easy exits upon arrival meant everyone working together in a friendly fashion to get out and get on with the day. Slow and laborious leavings, occasionally punctuated by tussles over backpacks or lost lunches, frequently signaled forced “friendships” and temporary automobile incarcerations.
Safety is just as important in the operation of a good carpool line as efficiency. With the huge amount of traffic flowing through the school at compressed times, moving students quickly and safely from their cars to their classrooms is paramount. At a time when everyone has to pay attention to each car and student, the rogue driver failing to follow directions or errant student running back to the car after forgetting something can create real and potentially dangerous problems. Over the years we have all plucked dozens of students from potentially bad situations. Once, after grabbing a particularly active four-year-old only inches away from a moving bumper, I lifted him high in the air to signify to all who witnessed the incident that all was well. The child, happily oblivious to his near-death experience and obviously inspired by Disney’s “Lion King,” turned to me after I put him down and said “Thanks, Rafiki”. From that day forward, as part of our own inside joke, I called him Simba, and he called me Mr. Rafiki. Even he knew it was a jungle out there . . .
Morning or afternoon, rain or shine – though rain can speed up the car exiting/entering process a great deal – the events each day at drop-off and pick-up help us see students and parents in a different light, understand some of the stresses and tensions each may feel, and help lead to new and stronger levels of communication. Though sometimes tedious, “carpool duty” is a valuable part of the school experience for everyone – especially those whose classroom exposure to students is limited. For me, it has proven to be invaluable as an observational and participatory view of the school. Helping with the daily traffic, with all of its drama, moodiness, and safety issues – and most importantly, greeting the overwhelming numbers of smiling faces that cannot wait to start a new day – has definitely helped me see the school’s entire “circle of life.”