She Walks Alone

Last week, my daughter scampered to school by herself for the first time. Here's how we kept ourselves free from hysterics.

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Like any successful campaign, it was sustained and relentless.

Back when the daffodils were sprouting from damp earth came the first tentative request. “Do you think I could maybe walk to school by myself?”

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As far as world-shattering questions go, this is low on the list. It falls far behind heart-stoppers like: “Where do babies come from?” or “Can I borrow the car keys?”

Still, it was a question I wasn’t ready to answer, so I fell back on the classic dad response: “We’ll see.” The door was left cracked, not slammed shut, and over the ensuing weeks and months, my daughter and her friends worked together to batter the door off its hinges.

The kids marched up to us on the playground like British Red Coats, chanting the question in unison. They launched guerilla attacks, sneaking the question into summer vacations. They hugged us at bedtime, whispering the dagger of a question into our ear holes. “Can I walk to school by myself?”

In other words: Can I step out of your shadow and into the world? Can I become more of myself? Can I leave you behind? Is that okay with you? Will you let me go?

Only if you don’t go alone.

And so it came to pass that our daughter scampered away from the house last week on her way to the fourth grade, shouting her goodbyes over her shoulder as she closed in on her friends, leaving her mother and me back at the homestead, only slightly fluttery and anxious.

Here are the steps we took to keep ourselves away from hysterics.

1. We Plotted A Safe Route

If you’re going to let your little bird flutter out of the nest, better check the surroundings first. The most direct route from home to school may not be the safest. This didn’t occur to my parents, who shoved me out the door, told me to turn left at the end of our driveway and walk until I got to the correct brick building.

That route was easy to remember, but it took me past a warehouse that exhaled a stream of rumbling tractor trailers and a creepy old house whose owners let their twin Dobermans roam the property to aggressively investigate grade school students. But that was the ’80s, back when children were still seen as replaceable widgets instead of unique angels. Parents are a little more hands on these days.

I advise you to find a route that sticks to quiet streets lined by sidewalks. Look for intersections with traffic lights when it’s time to cross arterial roads. Walk the route you have in mind on a weekday morning. Set your danger radar to “high,” and be ready to make adjustments as necessary. If it’s nothing but highways and eight-lane streets where you live, you’ll have to take the half-n-half approach — driving until the streets settle down near the school, then a curbside drop off, followed by a tear-blurred drive to the office.

2. We Located a Backup Route for Inevitable Detours

I know. We just picked a route. But the best-laid plans of mice and men do not account for a utility crew digging up the street, or for a terrified deer leaping around the intersection of Fifth and Main, or for a landscaping crew force-feeding an oak tree into a wood chipper.

At some point during the school year, your kid will likely have to leave the agreed-upon route. Things can go haywire in that situation. The houses look wrong, the yards are full of strange plants and none of the parked cars are familiar. If your child is cool and calm in unfamiliar circumstances, consider yourself lucky. If your child, like mine, wigs out when the plan falls apart, you need to prepare her ahead of time.

Teach her the streets that parallel the main route and how to snake back to the safe crossings. Remind her that it’s better to be late to school by a few minutes than to be out of school for months in traction because she left the route and lost a Frogger match with a commuter on a Vespa.

3. We Used “The Walking School Bus” Method

If a more gentle transition will keep your heart rate lower, sell your child on the idea of what I like to call “The walking school bus”. This is where a group of classmates meet at a designated spot and chatter their way toward school as a lone adult follows, playing the role of Sam the sheepdog. Frumpy, hair a mess, seemingly oblivious but actually ever vigilant.

The walking school bus requires a bit of cross-family logistics. Ideally, at least two or three other families can join up with yours, so the grown ups can share the burden of herding a group of fourth graders through rush hour traffic.

In my experience, you will shout things like, “Look both ways!” and “Wait for the walk sign!” and “No tap dancing on the curb!” while the children ignore you. But you’ll be on hand if a something terrifying happens, like Pennywise offering someone a sewer balloon.

4. We Had Her Form A “Voltron” With Her Friends

This is the radder cousin of the buddy system. The elite pilots who flew the roaring-lion space ships were a super force of specially trained fighters. But it was only when they worked together that they could create Voltron, Defender of the Universe

Your son may be a green belt in karate, and his buddy Kenny may be the leading goal scorer on their soccer team. Maybe their other friend Tommy is a chess champion and his cousin drains three-pointers like Steph Curry. Those are useful skills on their own, but add them together and you have an unstoppable force. Think of it as socialism that kicks ass.

Forming Voltron is the next step toward independence, after the walking school bus. It’s the stage our daughter is in now. She and my wife walk out the door, my daughter transforms into Voltron’s left arm, and my wife continues to the group. If they’ve left late, they hurry to catch the group. But if the group is too far ahead, our daughter is stuck with boring old mom.

Neither of us is ready for the kid to walk alone. There’s safety — or at least an opportunity for logic to interrupt daydreams — in numbers.

5. We Got to Know the People and Places Along the Route

If you’re lucky, the school system has hired a few crossing guards. Learn their names. Ask what their shifts are, and who might sub for them if they catch the sniffles. Explain that your kid will be walking to school without parental supervision. They’ll appreciate the heads up and know to pay a little closer attention.

If a crossing guard isn’t available, look around as you walk. Is there a church or a library? A fire station? A building with a Safe Place sign? Go in and introduce yourself and your kid. Make it clear that you’re not asking the adults there to take over your role as parent; you’re just ensuring your kid knows where to find help if something derails the walk to school.

It’s also good idea to let your kid’s teacher — and other school employees who are at the morning drop-off — know about the arrangement as well. That way, if a kid shows up crying or bleeding or missing his shoes, the school’s adults will know that something has gone horribly wrong.

Privately, and separately, you can ask these folks, and any neighbors you happen to know, to report back to you. Just a minute ago, I got an email from a mom in my daughter’s Voltron group detailing what neighborhood spies have told her. It seems these kids can do three-digit multiplication but can’t look both ways at the dang corner!

Told you they were ignoring me when I was driving the walking school bus. Maybe if I followed along in the car, real slow-like, shouting encouragement. “I saw you look both ways finally! I’m so proud of you, honey! What a big girl!” Nah, probably shouldn’t. She might link up with her friends and Voltron my creaky old bones to dust.

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