Hands down, my favorite thing about first grade is walking to school.
Although I love our car time, it’s really nice to not have to get in the car of a morning as we have for the past several years. Seeing the world through the car window is one thing, but being able to stop and examine a spider web or a willy worm or the perfect yellow leaf is a deeper richer experience that engages all of the senses and not just the eyes. And what I especially admire about Sean is that he always seems to be tapped into the sensory data. He has an acute awareness of that which is invisible to most. The other day as we walked under the trees that line the sidewalk, he turned to me and said, “Mom, I just love the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, don’t you?” Indeed, I do now.
Most days, AD will join Sean and me on our half-mile walk to school. There are a few other families in the neighborhood who walk to school occasionally, but for the most part we have the sidewalk to ourselves.
When I was growing up, I never had the sidewalk to myself. Everyone walked to school and there were plenty of us. No one’s mom drove them to school. No one’s mom or (gasp!) dad walked them to school. Mom kicked us out the door, sometimes before the sun was even up, rain or shine, sleet or snow, and we joined up with the passing human train of children heading south towards school. The older boys, who were too cool to walk, rode their bikes. They would blaze up behind us hollering something like, “Watch out! No breaks!” All the girls would scream and scramble off the sidewalk just before they slammed on their brakes leaving behind a screeching black skid mark three-feet long. Then they would ride off laughing and popping wheelies with smug satisfaction.
After the long, long, very long walk to the end of the street, about 200 yards, we would have to cross a busy two-lane road. Sometimes there was a crossing guard, but usually not. We were street-savvy Catholic school kids though, so if there wasn’t a car within 20-feet either direction, or if we didn’t think they were coming too fast, we’d bolt across.
Beyond the busy road lies a set of train tracks. About 85% of the time, a train would be sitting on the tracks. Just sitting. So then a decision had to be made: Would it be better to risk death by crawling under the train or risk the wrath of Sister Mary Somebody for being late. Always, we crawled under the train. If you got your shoe caught on the track and got your leg cut off, as legend had it had happened to some girl whose name no one ever knew, then at least you’d have a good excuse and you could be certain that even Sister probably wouldn’t whack the hands of an amputee.
Once you made it past the train tracks, then came real danger. Then you had to walk past a rat hole of a doughnut shop. And my oh my, the smell of fresh baked doughnuts on a cold Midwest morning could lead a girl into temptation. I never had the 20 cents it took to buy a doughnut and therefore never had any hope of getting a doughnut, but my saliva glands never gave up hope. To make matters more unjust, my brother Jim who always seemed to have money, would get one. I’d see his bike leaned up against the building and when I looked in the windows, sure enough there he’d be sitting at the counter eating a doughnut.
On the walk home from school, we’d go the reverse route; past the doughnut shop, across the busy road and under the train, but on the way back we’d traverse a fairly steep ditch just on the other side of the tracks. The ditch was home to unsavory creatures like chiggers and cockle burs that would stick to your socks and shoe laces. On the other side of the ditch was an old-timey garage that had a Dr. Pepper machine inside and one of those 10-2-4 signs. Sometimes four or five of us would manage to scrape up 15 cents among us and we’d go in and buy an Orange Nehi or a Dr. Pepper out of the soda machine. And when the cap was popped, oh the sound! ChhSsshAAAaaah! — the sound of impending pleasure. The bottle would come out of the machine so cold that it had frost on the outside and the soda was actually icy. We’d each take a swig and I have to tell you, to this day, it remains the coldest most refreshing thing I could ever hope to put to my lips.
So yes, at the root of my love of walking to school is my own nostalgia. I walked to school for eight years and have mostly fond memories. And I want that for Sean. Of course his memories will be quite different, safer and more sanitary hopefully, but they will be his own.
My hope is that the memory of the three of us walking to school will burrow somewhere deep into his brain and return to warm his heart long after my bones have returned to the earth. And maybe when he thinks back on these days of walking to school he will be reminded not just of the how the leaves crunched underfoot or of some silly or dangerous thing he did, but how much his mommy and daddy delighted in him.
* * * * *
Another walking home story, this one involving a pumpkin.