JIM SHULTZ: The last ride to school

Jim Shultz

Today’s column is dedicated to the graduating class of 2021 and their parents.

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I have been driving, walking and busing my three children to school in one form or another, and in one country or another, for nearly 30 years. Last week I did that for the last time, driving my daughter Mariana to her last day of classes at Lockport High School.

This ritual of fatherhood began in San Francisco, back when my oldest children (both adults now) were still small. We lived on a steep hill a block above the corner where we met the public bus that carried us to their elementary school. We were almost always running late. This meant that we would spot the giant orange and white bus pulling up just as we were still too far away to make a successful run for it.

We passed our waits for the next bus playing with the “bus stop ball” that I always carried in my jacket pocket. My daughter Elly invented all kinds of games that involved bouncing it in some precise sequence that I always messed up. Some days I had to chase the ball down the hill when it escaped us. At the corner where we got off the bus there was a small store that sold red vine candy and I usually got talked into buying some.

Later, when we moved to Cochabamba, Bolivia, their school had a rickety old red and white bus that lumbered half way up our steep hillside to meet them each morning. Our dog Simone and I walked the two of them down to the appointed corner each morning and then would climb back up for a hike in the Andean foothills where we lived. On her happiest mornings, Simone would sneak behind my kids and jump on the bus with them. This made the kindergartners on the bus squeal with delight, but seemed to annoy the Bolivian driver. When I climbed aboard the bus to retrieve her, Elly and Miguel, middle schoolers by then, pretended they didn’t know me.

However, it has been with our youngest daughter, Mariana, that I have had the most variety in our many years of getting to school. In Cochabamba we took the No. 5 mini-bus that left from the corner by our house. These were dented up old vans, some of which had holes in the floor, and you could see the unpaved street zoom by underneath. We would hold hands and scream “bus running” together as we scrambled to get to one of the vans as it pulled out to leave. On the short walk to her school after we got off, there was a giant ant colony that we took time to study each day. Sometimes we brought the ants bread.

In the three decades that I have maneuvered my children to school, no version was more idyllic than our first year in rural Tiquipaya. Mariana went to kindergarten at an experimental school that was basically a collection of small buildings in a forest a five-minute walk from our small house. We usually stretched it out to 15, at least. With Simone and our other dog, Little Bear, walking with us, we found distraction in climbing the adobe walls along the path, discussing the movements of the cows, watching the birds that bathed in a small puddle, and picking wildflowers for her teacher. I could have lived in those moments forever.

Later, Mariana changed to another school a bit farther away. On the days that I drove her there in our little green beat-up car, we would occasionally get stuck behind a traffic jam of slow cows. One morning we came across an escaped horse en route to school and we took the morning off to find its owner and rescue it.

Moving to Lockport changed all this. There were no more dirt roads, no more adobe walls. For much of high school Mariana traveled there in a giant yellow school bus that picked her up a block away. I learned that high school students in the United States do not generally want their fathers walking them to the bus, even with a dog. However, on certain days in mid-winter my teenage daughter would rouse me from bed before dawn in a snow storm and ask if I would drive her. I always said yes.

This past year, Mariana’s last at Lockport High, I was given the chance to reclaim our lost ritual of going to school together in the morning. An aspiring veterinarian, she took a health professions course offered at the hospital. This meant that she had to be at school every morning at 7 a.m. So this has been our ritual since last September, heading out the door at an hour that seemed evil in its earliness, especially in winter when it meant setting out before dawn in bitter cold.

During these last rides to school I have listened to vast amounts of Taylor Swift and have been instructed not to talk so much so early in the morning. I have been told that I do not put my turn indicator on early enough. And I would not have traded away a single day of it. On that last morning last week I pulled out my phone and snuck a picture of Mariana walking her last steps into the doors of her high school.

In the end, it is these daily rituals of parenthood that mean the most. Appreciate them, because they do not last forever. But before you feel too sorry for me, there is this. My granddaughter Bella starts pre-kindergarten this fall and I hear her parents are looking for an experienced driver.

Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: JimShultz@democracyctr.org.

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