David Sax’s most recent book is The Soul of an Entrepreneur: Work and Life Beyond the Startup.
Getting two young children dressed for school in winter never seems to get easier. It begins in chaos, and often leads to tears. “I can’t wait for the day they develop a vaccine for snowpants,” my friend Ben remarked recently. But once we start walking, things improve. There are landscaping features to jump off and endless pandemic puppies to pet, neighbours to greet from afar and an obligatory stop at Mia’s house, so she and my daughter can walk together for that last half block. Twelve minutes after leaving home, we don our masks and enter the schoolyard.
I never minded dropping my kids off at school. I work from home, so it was always a nice excuse to get some fresh air and exercise (often the only fresh air and exercise I’d get in a day). But this year, the ritual of school drop-off has evolved into the most important social space in my life.
I noticed it that first sunny morning in September, when our neighbourhood sidewalks swelled with families excitedly hustling their kids to school (real in-the-flesh school!) for the first time in seven months. In the past, drop-off was a chaotic rush, as parents and caregivers shoved their kids into the front doors seconds before the bell rang, before hustling off to work, or other duties. But not this year.
We had been warned of the new protocol in advance. There were checklists and signed forms and an app that didn’t work, but most importantly, all the children were now dropped off outside, in the school yard. What was once a chaotic shuffle in crowded hallways and different floors, suddenly became an open-air gathering, with all the bustle and casual social interaction of a village market.
The second we entered the schoolyard that first day, the kids dropped their backpacks and ran around in giddy circles with their friends, like dogs let off-leash. Since none of the parents was rushing off to an office or the airport, we were free to stand around, casually chatting with other adults for the first time in ages. We caught up on the hell of spring and the sweet abandon of summer, the rising case numbers and the chances that classes would be cancelled by Thanksgiving, along with the usual parental dithering about uneaten lunches, early wakeups and the finer cinematic points of Disney’s Descendants 2 versus Descendants 3.
In some ways, our children’s school had become a black box; a building we were forbidden to enter, and where the only inkling about what went on in the classroom came from sources who were less than reliable. (What did you learn about today? “Ninjas.” What books did they read? “Ninjas.” Why are your pants missing? “Ninjas.”) The schoolyard gave us unprecedented access to their progress. In the past, we would only have a chance to speak with their teachers a few times a year. Now, the teachers and the principal were out front every morning, and they were as happy as we were to talk. I learned that my daughter loved physics, and that my son was nicknamed “Pepperpot” for his spicy refusal to get dressed when asked.
Quickly and naturally, routines and relationships began to emerge. My wife preferred to stay home and get to work, so I became the designated drop-off parent. I’d enter the schoolyard from the same point, say hello to the four grandparents I’d come to recognize at the entrance. Then I would greet the principal, then the kids in my daughter’s class, before settling into a wide circle with the same three parents. I’d chat with Andrew about sweatpants, Eleni about the news and Ryan about the most recent croissant he’d hunted down. When the older kids went inside at 8:45, I’d shift over to the kindergarten drop-off with my son, and talk with the parents and teachers there.
What we were all doing was the invisible act of community building, at a time when the ties to our community have never been more important, and inaccessible. We have spent so much time alone in our homes, with just our nuclear families, that connecting with others face to face, and even forging new relationships, seemed impossible until this fall. For those of us who are extroverts (my wife calls me “our little Golden retriever”), we crave these random interactions like oxygen.
This past week, as my wife and I attempted the joyless digital juggling act of virtual school, trapped once again in our home, I realized just how much I missed my morning ritual. School was always more than information transferred from teacher to student. It’s the relationships that hold it together, including us parents, that make it a deeper part of our life in the community.
In past years, the only time you’d speak with other parents were fleeting moments in the hallway, the occasional birthday party, or at the annual holiday concert in the packed gym. But with each joke, question and daily greeting during drop-off, bonds began to form. These relationships are not necessarily friendships, at least not yet. Most are connections of “consequential strangers,” the meaningful everyday encounters that Karen Fingerman and Melinda Blau wrote about in their 2010 book by the same name.
Our school is small, and it exists in a rapidly changing neighbourhood. We have families who do not speak English and live in public housing speaking with families that own cottages and drive Mercedes. My daughter has been going to this school for four years, and I knew most of these people by glance, if that. Now, thanks to the pandemic, we lay another brick on the foundation of our community together each morning.
One morning in October, another parent named Myrocia asked if I was interested in helping her run the school council. “I don’t have a choice, do I?” I asked her. “Nope,” she replied. Now the schoolyard was a political playground, filled with constituents to meet and greet, power brokers to lobby, favours to ask and a hundred masked faces to harangue. Myrocia and I would stand there, plotting out newsletters and fundraising campaigns as our kids pulled at our sleeves, figuring out how to sell school clothing online. When we need help, we just grab the nearest parent standing there. One morning, we came up with a wine dinner fundraiser, after discussing the needs of food banks with a father who owns a restaurant. Sure, we still have official Zoom meetings, but the real sausage gets made in those precious minutes each morning.
Before we know it, the bell rings out and the kids line up. We stand there waving at them marching indoors, like little sailors heading out to sea. Suddenly, the schoolyard is quiet, and we break off, heading home again to face the world alone, at least until tomorrow morning.
I have no idea when my kids are returning to school. But I’ll definitely be the first one out the door that morning, leading the charge to the schoolyard and all it gives us.
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