The kinetics of education: a father's walk to school

I stand by the front door watching the neighborhood kids materialize out of thin air like droplets of dew, scores of them, racing toward school. One minute the street is empty, the next it's awash in color as children hurtle around corners, leap over hedges, and emerge from minivans dressed in reds, greens, yellows, and blues. Their book bags jangle, their sneakers are half laced, and traces of milk whiten their upper lips. They run singly and in mobs, waving to departing parents, the crossing guard, and the janitor. It's 8:30 a.m., and the school day is about to begin.

When we moved to this neighborhood in Scarsdale, N.Y., 16 years ago, few things gave me more pleasure than walking the kids to school. I was one of a few fathers who got to enjoy that daily ritual. Most of my neighbors were on the train or behind their desks by 8:30 - many of them relieved they didn't have to wrestle their kids into coats, wipe their faces, brush their hair, make sure that last week's library book was in the backpack along with that day's homework and lunch. But not only was that my favorite time of day, it was my favorite destination.

As much as I loved the morning walk - holding fast to my children's hands as they balanced along the curbstones - it was the kindergarten classroom itself that drew me from the house, its enchantments as palpable to me as they were to my kids. There, the young students were greeted by a 15-pound, floppy-eared rabbit, two canaries, a bucket of tadpoles, a tropical fish tank, and a teacher as benevolent as the atmosphere she inhabited. Against one wall was a cozy fireplace, a rocking chair, and a well-stocked bookcase. Another area offered crayons and paints for budding artists. Incipient architects and engineers could play with blocks; young botanists with Dixie cups that sprouted peas and beans.

It was hard to head home from such a fertile world - the sunlight streaming through tall windows, the chatter of curious children filling the air. In every corner something profound was being discovered. I wanted to sit on the floor and encounter life from that perspective, live as though the next minute would unlock secrets as transforming as the rules of reading. I wanted to return home exhilarated by the acquisition of new skills, new thoughts, and new feelings.

But finally the late bell would ring, and the teacher would call her students together. Parents tendered last-minute instructions, adjusted misbuttoned shirts, and melted away. But on some mornings, I would linger to watch the children's faces illumine with curiosity and perception as they discussed the weather and the world.

Reluctantly, I would tear myself from that room and return home to begin my own work. The neighborhood stood colorless and quiet. Behind me the brick schoolhouse teemed with the energy of 300 young minds. Periodically, as if to vent some of that energy, it released small clouds of children onto the playground for half an hour of supervised chaos. At my desk a block away, I paused to listen to the shouting and singing. The mingled voices reminded me of my own early days of wonder.

What is it about those years of elementary school that seemed so enviable in retrospect? Perhaps it's the seamlessness of a child's being and ambition. Set free on the playground, they launch themselves into small fulfillments. Very young children rarely speak of frustrated hopes and unfulfilled desires. They know only one way to be: boisterously or softly expressive of their basic nature, genuine. And they live wholly in the present, absorbed in the task at hand, convinced of its absolute rightness and necessity. From an adult vantage of gnawing doubt, constant reevaluation, and a hyperawareness of time, it seems a singularly blessed state.

At 3 p.m., the morning tide would reverse as all those noisy, colorful kids burst through the school's double doors and spilled across the sidewalk like flood waters seeking lower ground. Outside the kindergarten classrooms, I would watch the "upperclassmen" emerge. The fourth- and fifth-grade boys would shout, shove, and run. The girls would group together protectively, often holding hands. The older kids were an altogether different species from the little ones, still appearing so defenseless.

A moment later, the youngest students would appear, struggling to push open the wooden doors, their eyes searching for their guardians. I would think, awaiting the appearance of my firstborn: "She isn't that small, is she?" At home she was our "big girl," towering over her toddler brother and sister. But beside the rowdy "upperclassmen" she seemed heartbreakingly vulnerable. After seeing me, she would race into my arms. I would realize anew how small she still was, and why I loved this ritual of separation and return. It wasn't simply the inviting riches of the classroom but the yielding up of my most precious possession and the cheerful anticipation of her homecoming each afternoon. I thrilled to that moment of reunion, that brief explosion of relief and gratitude that animated her searching eyes, the grasp of her leaping arms.

And then almost as soon as that cordon of comfort had been established, she would break free, hand me her backpack and a crumpled announcement from her teacher, and ask if her friend Benedicte could come home to play. After a brief negotiation with Benedicte's mother, the two girls would clasp hands and skip away, the remainder of the afternoon stretching before them in a sweet haze of snacks and games and 5-year-old communion. I would hurry after them, borne along by the colorful tide of children, a whale among minnows, grateful for the gift of such exuberant company.

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