It’s 2:25 and I am sitting in my car plucking away at my laptop. Beside me is the home of Vern and Gail White, who have a cottagey sign at the end of their driveway that cheerfully says, “The Whites, Vern and Gail.” Just before 3, the people with the faded, plastic jungle gym in their front lawn will get into their car and head to work, as they do every day. Right around then it will be time to pack up the laptop and listen to the rest of the drivers turn on their engines. Then I’ll do the same.
I know all of this and plenty more mundane minutia on Walnut Hill Lane because I am here nearly every afternoon waiting in the Science Hill School pickup line.
I was first introduced to this line in January after I started working from home. Initially unfamiliar with the process, I asked my husband William of the protocol.
“I just park and tell the receptionist I’m there to get Gabrielle and they page her and she comes out,” he answered.
So I parked my little car, went to the receptionist desk and immediately understood I was breaking some very important, though unwritten, rule. Upon requesting Gabrielle be called, the receptionist looked me up and down, flashed her annoyance, and paged the kid.
On the third day of that uncomfortable exchange, I quietly asked the receptionist if she preferred I handle the pickup in another way.
“Well, we prefer parents wait in their cars in the pickup line,” she said in a tone reserved especially for stepmothers. “That’s why everyone else is waiting outside.”
So, now thoroughly terrified of the school receptionist, that’s where I’ve been ever since: in this line.
It’s an interesting place to be because, though from the outside it looks like an orderly, placid queue, it’s actually quite cut throat. The gunners start circling the parking lot like hungry sharks at 1:55 before they line up at 2, which is the earliest possible time to take a position. Us middle-of-the-roaders take our place about half an hour later, which usually puts me in front of the Whites’ house — a good half mile from the start of the line. Then the poor losers at the back take their place around 3 — which is still, keep in mind, when school actually lets out. By the time they pull in, Science Hill School is but a tiny speck on their Tom-Toms.
I used to be part of this renegade pack until I realized I was wasting about 40 minutes of my day inching painfully forward as the line advanced toward the school. Now I spend those 40 minutes, true, still waiting but at least in one spot and so able to get some work done.
When we line up, there is one crucial rule to follow: When the line starts moving, you better be good and ready. Turn on your car, get your seat in position and nearly kiss the bumper of the driver in front of you. Though we’ve just spent the last 40 minutes waiting in the middle of a perfectly good workday, this is no time to dawdle.
I learned this hard way when, while deep in writing about hail damage, I didn’t notice the cars move forward. Within 20 seconds, I heard this blaring HONK, and when I looked behind me it was from this old, kind-looking papaw wearing a puffy engineer’s cap.
Indeed, since the beginning of this school year, I have a new appreciation for retirees. On Aug. 9, I left the house at my usual time, which had previously put me in a pretty respectable position. But after that first day of school, I instantly realized there were some new players in this game, ones that had upped the ante on who gets first place. Most of these newbies were retired grandparents, and with the whole afternoon to while away, they were playing to win. Suddenly, rather than arriving in front of the Whites’, I was way back at the Robertsons’, whose lawn sculpture of two baby raccoons is, yes, cute, but not cute enough.
So I started leaving earlier, then earlier, and now finally it’s about an hour before the whole thing is said and done.
But when that little girl comes bouncing out of the school, completely oblivious to all the tension that’s lined up behind her, it’s all worth it. She gets in the car, tells me her day was “good!” and we’re off, the afternoon ours.