My kids walk home from school each day, plodding a well-worn path out the back of the school, down a track past the scout hall, across a local oval and playground and down our long, winding street. It’s about a 15-20 minute walk, depending on enthusiasm.
Max, my enigma, who was like a skittish horse at the gates of school each morning, baulking at the idea of leaving the nest, begged me to let him walk home by himself at the ripe old age of nine. I had to let him, of course. An anxious kid who isn’t anxious about things other kids are anxious about gets to do the things. That’s just the way it is.
When he first started walking by himself, I kitted him out with a mobile phone, which he promptly forgot 4 days out of 5. Left it at home, left it at school, left it anywhere but in his bag, ready to make the emergency phone call to his mother when the men in the white van offered him the lollies. After a while, he stopped taking it altogether. The white van did not come.
By then, I was comforted by the fact that there was a procession of kids tracking the same route he was on. He never wanted for company. Our street seemed suddenly full of kids treading the path that generations of kids have worn down before them. These days, Max chooses to walk even when I happen to be at the school in the afternoon. Memorably he insisted on walking home after getting off the bus from three nights away at Year 6 camp. He loves a walk, that Max.
The girls, on the other hand, would do anything to get out of walking home from school. As early as the night before they start talking about ‘sore feet’ and ‘worrying’ that they ‘won’t be up to’ the walk home the next day. Lottie has taken to limping up the stairs after brushing her teeth.
“What’s wrong with your leg?” I will ask.
“Oh, nothing,” she will sigh. “I’ll see how it feels in the morning… I might not be able to walk home from school tomorrow… sigh…”
When the weather is inclement (I do love that word, inclement and am happy to have included it here), we have a rule: if mum’s at the tree, I’m driving them home. If mum’s not at the tree, walk home. A simple, elegant rule, easily understood without a trace of wiggle room. Which is why I was very surprised to get a call from the school last week, when the weather was on-again-off-again with rain followed by sun. I’d made the call to keep working rather than head out to pick them up. A little light rain followed by sun never hurt a kid, surely.
“Your dear daughters are here at the office,” said our lovely office lady. “Apparently no one came to pick them up from school today?”
Oh the shame!
“They walk home from school,” I hastily informed the office lady.
“They said there was thunder rumbling,” said the office lady. “Can you please arrange someone to come and collect them?”
“It’s sunny out right now,” I protested. “I’m happy for them to walk.”
“Our policy is that if they have reported to the office as uncollected, a parent or guardian needs to come and sign them out.”
When she said ‘uncollected’, we both knew she meant unloved.
So, I had to front up to the office like the world’s most neglectful mother and sign my daughters out of school. I must have had a face on me like the non-existent thunder, because the girls looked suitably chastened. The office lady was not.
“It’s a long way for you to walk home,” she said mournfully to the girls.
“It’s not,” I snapped. “It’s just over a kilometre and it’s good for them.”
She made a little sad face at the girls anyway. I love the office lady, but not then.
“Do you even know where we live?” I asked her, in a tone that implied I was really saying I know where you live, lady. She made another little sad face at the girls.
Now the girls are even less excited to make the journey home each day. My claims that it is a privilege and a joy to get to walk home from school fall on deaf ears. “It’s so healthy!” I exclaim. “It’s exercise without even trying! Through our neighbourhood! A nice break between school and home! A good way to spend time together! Fresh air! So many of the world’s children will never get to experience the independence of walking home!”
Nup. “The office lady said it was a long way,” the girls protest.
“You walk,” I said. “It’s just what you do.”
I am so very, very tempted to make them walk to school as well.
Harsh or fair? Joy or Burden?