I drove the girls to school on Thursday, a late-summer, light-filled morning. It was just the third week of school, day thirteen if we’re keeping count, which might not be a good idea.
The conversation en route was cheerful. Chatter about driver’s ed, gladness that it was already Thursday, and the painted parking spots in the senior lot. Would they vie for a spot when they are seniors, and Katherine’s someday first car being a motor home. They did not talk about classmates, about other students, although the conversation sometimes goes this way. Because what is high school–around coursework and extracurricular everything– but a time in close proximity to people who are and are not like you, the joys and challenges this brings?
The girls’ school sits in a beautiful block of our city, one whose approach is filled with small and charming houses, sidewalks, tall trees. The school itself is a sprawling, seven-building affair, lined with trees but leaving little room for lawn, except in front of the middle school. On Thursday morning, I saw and heard something I’d never noticed before: that lawn filled with students literally at play.
I was, of course, driving. The car-line and commuter traffic is considerable here. I couldn’t pay close attention to these middle-schoolers on the lawn. But Katherine explained that this was a privilege granted to students who maintained grades to a certain standard, and by evidence of their apparent enjoyment, this seemed a worthwhile reward.
I tried to watch them–impossible–as I drove past. What they were busy at, if everyone was included. Who was engaged, how they were playing. And if anyone–isn’t there always someone who does?–stood or sat alone.
If I look for the source of this impulse, probable causes assert themselves one after the other. When I taught school–so recently, so long ago–I made it my business to like every one of my students. Because we learn better, don’t we?, from the people who earnestly like us for who we are. When I think of my own children at school–long ago or now–and the pain I feel at their potential isolation. When I think of seventh grade and how I hoped to have someone to sit with at lunch. Or when I hear (rare, once?) the story from my father, brilliant but not athletic as a child, who stood against the brick wall of his school during gym class, enduring.
I tried to get a clear look at the middle schoolers, but they moved like leaves blown over the lawn, and I didn’t know any of them.
Thursday morning was beautiful. The morning light slanted in its warm way through the buildings and the trees. I pulled up to the drop-off point, and like a fool I said to the girls as they got out of the car that every one of them is precious. All the students in the school are precious, I said, even the one who makes you cry in math. Because on the second day of school this year a boy in someone’s math class made her cry. We are not naming names.
The girls are not sure they agree with me when it comes to who is precious and who isn’t, and they said so as they hurried out of the car, pulling their backpacks behind them, slamming the doors.
I proceeded, slowly, through the line.
It was September. It is still September, and it’s not fall yet, not quite autumn if you’re going by the calendar that marks the solstice and equinox. When I was teaching and the school calendar all too soon eclipsed what was left of summer, I insisted on the equinox, if only to myself, and that fall didn’t arrive until September 21st.
It goes too fast: this life, these days. Unless you are in high school. Or middle school, which may be worse.
It was still summer on that warm Thursday morning, as I proceeded in the burnished morning light through the car lines. The trees were still green: the decorative pear by the high school’s front entrance, the crepe myrtle in bloom.
Then I drove under the live oaks. A wind gusted, and leaves like amber blades spun down and cut the air. Emma and Katherine were out of the car; they had gone their separate ways, but for a few moments still in the car line, I was driving next to Emma and watching her in my way. She did not look at me, already focused on the day ahead, already at school. But I watched her as I slowly pulled past, saw her beautiful blonde hair and watched as she was enveloped into the school.