Opinion: Life in the School Pick-Up Lane Keeps Kids From a 'Street Education'

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Start spreading the news: A gritty school commute provides a great education. Illustration by Dori Hartley

Each weekday, I hop into my crappy little car and drive 20 uninspiring highway miles to take my kid to and from school. I make this excursion four times a day: drop-off in the morning, pick-up in the afternoon.

The experience is quite different from the way I got to school growing up in New York City.

Instead of covering 80 miles of Florida interstate in Mom's Corolla, my friends and I traveled by dirty city bus (standing room only), rickety elevator train (shady characters aplenty) and graffiti-covered subway (bums galore). Literally, that was how we rolled.

But the commute inspired our imaginations. We became people-watchers. "What's that kid holding?" "Who's the guy with the weird mustache?" "Why is that lady talking to herself?"

Of course, getting a "street education" isn't restricted to city kids. In fact, a whole lot can be learned by just walking or riding a bike to school anywhere in the country on a beautiful spring day. But, these days, I don't see much of that going on.

For me, going to school was a learning experience. We derived incredible inspiration from the wildly diverse goings-on of our urban environment. And though people who live in suburban and rural areas do have to get their kids to school, I wonder if the whole door-to-door chauffeur service doesn't cut into the real life adventures of traveling to and from school on one's own.

Back in New York, we learned tolerance by having to stand too close to smelly, quirky strangers. We learned courage by getting on the wrong side of the platform and accidentally taking the train to the South Bronx where we recognized nothing but the stink of our own fear. And, between the aluminum framed Broadway posters that greeted us at each stop and the rat-kabob stands where New Yorkers consciously accepted and paid for some truly mysterious meats-on-sticks, we were getting an education even before we stepped into our homerooms.

Call it Imagination 101.

But, for my daughter, the rush of the New York morning commute has been replaced with an unspectacular drive on a Florida highway. Today's morning lesson: Exit ramps never change.

Six hours later, the other parents and I pull single file into the school's snaky driveway. It is now 3 p.m., and my people-watching skills are kicking in once again, as I get my own lesson in parent-types.

Jesus Fish is right in front of me. Behind me, there's a bright yellow, monster-sized Hummer with a miniscule blond woman behind the wheel. Midlife Crisis just pulled up in his low-ridin' red Ferrari, and he's revving his motor so we all know he's arrived.

The MonaVie/Herbalife twins are here in their advertisement-wrapped SUVs and, from what I can see, that mom with the huge collection of stuffed animals on display in her back window is about to break the car line golden rule: Stay in your car until the teacher brings your child to you.

Nope. No rules for Our Lady of the Stuffed Animals.

Because, despite the 6-inch heels that may impair her stride, she has spotted her fourth grader and has gone pedestrian.

Oh, no. I glance over at Midlife, who is also looking a little impatient. Hummer Woman is on the move, too.

The mom race has officially begun. And all I can think is this: Would it be so terrible to just let the kids come out and find their parents on their own? Do we have to abandon ship and run like maniacs, clogging the car lane with our desire to not let our kids do a single thing without us?

In New York, the kids would already be on their way home, slipping and sliding on the shiny red seats of the F train.

And there, instead of staring blankly at exit ramps, a young traveler might set his gaze on an intricate subway system map, something that could make him dream of becoming an engineer. A slickly put together fashion campaign might make another kid want to become an ad exec. One student might ponder a foreign phrase spray-painted on a subway wall, and -- boom -- future novelist. That artistic Broadway poster covered in old wads of gum? Some kid might find beauty in that and strive for a degree in fine arts.

With all that inspiration, I can't help but think the pick-up lane kids are missing out on something.

As Alicia Keys sings in the Jay-Z song, "The streets will make you feel brand new. Big lights will inspire you."

But, maybe I'm not seeing the big picture here. Maybe it's not about where you are, but how you perceive the ups and downs of your environment. Maybe what I really need to do is change my own biased vision.

If the white lines and exit ramps have no stories to tell my daughter, then it's up to this displaced New York mom to repeat the lessons I learned from my own school commute.

The streets of New York taught me that everything in life is art, and a well-oiled imagination can turn the dullest environment into an Emerald City.

Anything can inspire the imaginations of children. They really don't need a subway or a smelly stranger. All they need is a mind and an education. Interstates be damned.

So, gather up your book bag, kid, 'cause we have to get you to school.


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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.