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Children / Humor / Motherhood / School

How to survive a school pickup line

From Kindergarten to Too Cool to be Seen On a Bus (November of sophomore year,) I rode the lumbering yellow limousine to school. The driver was fond of banging a small broom on the dashboard if it got too loud and she never let us open windows. It was a mostly-miserable experience, but we assumed a bus was the only way to get to and from school. Back in the day, parents enjoyed themselves. They waved goodbye while still pajama’d, clutching a coffee mug, smiling broadly, probably waiting to go back inside and dance to the Grease soundtrack and eat our sugary cereal all day. My mom only drove us if we missed the bus. As our seething mom sped to school, we wished we were with Mean Bus Driver Lady and her broom.

Now, fewer kids are bussed. Budget cuts, high bus fees, and the ability to choose our children’s schools have led to the rise of the school pickup line. My children have never ridden school buses to and from school. I have 11 years of school pickup line experience. I’ve seen it all: The polite, the rude, the dangerous, the clueless, the ambitious. I’ve learned lessons, tips, tricks, and basic survival. The twice-a-day trip is something I’m committed to doing because my kids’ school is worth the drive. Here are tips for surviving your years and years and years dropping off and picking up children. Many of these tips are common sense, but there are some things I wish I knew when I was just starting out as a cow in the school stampede.

1. Spiff up a bit before your drive: Wear your pajama bottoms only if certain nobody will approach your window. I learned this lesson when my oldest child was in second grade. It was after 3pm, and I had a very lazy day. I never changed out of my colorfully ratty pajama bottoms. I had a coat on top and figured nobody would know. My heart fell when I saw my daughter exiting the school with her teacher. They walked toward the minivan, smiling. Her teacher made the roll-down-the-window motion. She had papers for me to sign. I saw her eyes catch my bottom half. This isn’t a tragic situation. It was only mildly embarrassing, but I learned something that day: The car is not a planet unto itself. If you wouldn’t wear it at the grocery store, don’t wear it to pick up your children. Also, what if you are pulled over or have car trouble?

2. Give yourself plenty of time: On numerous mornings, we’ve encountered road construction, car accidents, icy roads, unexpected detours, forgotten lunch boxes. When you leave your house, you have no idea what lurks between you and the school. This is common sense, but remember that everyone else who is heading to your school (and others) are battling the same obstacles. It’s a domino effect. My trick: If it takes 10 minutes to get to school, I add another 10 on top. I leave, at the latest, 20 minutes before the first bell rings. When weather is bad, I add more drive time. Obviously, we have our mornings when shoes go missing and someone hates his hair, but that is the goal. Let your children know the goal time, too. Count down, aloud. I have a heading to the van time, a backing out of the driveway time, and a time when I want to be turning a certain corner. I could coordinate the Secret Service with my logistical skills, but if the President forgets his lunchbox, even he will get the stinkeye.

3. Obey the school’s rules: I am not a delicate snowflake. You and your kids are not special snowflakes. Your children will not melt or freeze to death if not dropped by the front doors. At our school, parents must pull forward in the line as much as possible before unleashing the eager horde. This means, sometimes, finding oneself far from the front doors. Kids must actually walk and carry and manage all by their lonesomes. They can do it. I’ve seen many parents coddle their kids and refuse, day after day, to abide by this rule (not so much at their current school, but in the past.) Another rule is to stay in the vehicle at all times. Do not keep backpacks and projects in the trunk. If you must, park elsewhere and walk, but don’t clog up the line by getting out to fetch junk from the trunk. And if your kid is too small or is unable to open the door and exit solo, maybe you should park and escort him until that ability is more developed? Practice at home. These rules are designed for safety and for efficiency. I’ve seen a well-run school line and it’s a beautiful thing—when everyone is on the same page.

4. Turn off your engines, please: If you anticipate being in a pickup line for longer than 5 minutes (which is 99% of the pickup lines I’ve ever joined), consider turning off your engine. It might be a favor to not only your pocketbook but to the environment and those around you. Idling for 20-30 minutes makes absolutely no sense, especially when those around you have shut off their engines and have their windows down. Breathing in your exhaust fumes is about as healthy and attractive as if you were blowing tobacco smoke in our faces. Think of your tailpipe as a big old cigar. Obviously, in extreme temperatures this is less of an issue. I’m all about staying comfy, too. But if it’s temperate outside, my van is off, my windows are down. I’m saving gasoline and not spewing emissions, needlessly. When you add up idling in a pickup line for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, 180 school days a year, you are spending 27,000 minutes not moving. This comes to 18.75 days! Would you start your car in your driveway and let it run for 19 days, non-stop, refueling as necessary? Never. So why do it immediately outside your children’s school?

5. Cultivate a hobby: I witnessed a mom exit her car, lift the hatchback of her SUV, rearrange all her stuff, and clean the carpet with a hand-held vacuum. She sprayed the windows, too. This was about 20 minutes before school ended, so she wasn’t holding up the line. She was trapped on all sides and got creative. One of these days, I expect someone to break out a little Weber grill and cook some brats. Reading, doing needlepoint, signing Christmas cards, tweeting about the horrors of the pickup line—all are valid and help the time fly by and give you a little more me time before it becomes we time again. The 18.75 days you spend waiting for kids to emerge from school this year could equal mastering a new skill, reading many books, and downing many German sausages.

There are hobbies to avoid in the pickup line: Ice carving, gunsmithing, archery, oil painting, floral arrangement, tattooing, zen gardening, pole-dancing, and sleeping.

Spending year after year in a line of vehicles seems daunting and annoying. It can be, but it can go smoothly when everyone uses common sense, thinks of others, obeys the rules, and keep spicy brown mustard in the glove box. If you are a fellow school-driving parent, my hat is off to you. We are a special brand of crazy for doing it willingly, over and over. It’s worth it.

Author: gretchen

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  1. I’m allllll about the Weber grill and Brats. And I’d probably be that mom who rearranges her car because I hate to sit there doing nothing.

    I lasted one day in the school pick-up line. Yep, just one day. My daughter’s new school doesn’t have bussing and I went so out of my mind sitting there waiting (15+ minutes) that I resolved I’d rather park a couple of blocks away, walk and then be able to leave promptly when I grab the kids.

    Am I a school pick-up dropout?

  2. It would be awesome if someone grilled brats in the pickup line. I don’t mind getting to school early and waiting for my kids most days. Sometimes the younger ones are a little whiny. We do have to keep the van running the first couple of weeks of school and the last couple of weeks–just too hot not to. The thing that bothers me the most is the parents who get in the line, but get out of their car and wait by the doors for their kid. Sometimes this holds up the line. If you’re going to get out and wait by the door, why not just park in the adjacent lot? Frustrating.

  3. So if I pull up next to you in the kiss & go line with a plain turkey sandwich I can ask you, “excuse me, do you have Grey Poupon?’ So fun. Moms in another group were just chatting about this yesterday. I will share! BTW, I clip coupons and tweet while waiting in the line.

  4. OMG I AM LMAO and crying now… thanks, Gretchen for the good cry from a laughter I needed… I actually did clean my car once but I was stuck on I-25… not kidding. STAND STILL – didn’t move for 35 mins. Not an inch. Of course, a bit more dangerous than a school parking lot. Wow. I love your suggestions – I guess I will not be able to drop off my kiddo in scrubs – well, unless I wear a bra that is. Then I can pass it off as a uniform for work- no one really knows what anyone does anyway, right?

  5. Oh. I guess I’ll bring my gunsmithing supplies back in from the car.

    LOVE this!!

    I am strategically arriving at school early to get the best parking spot for exiting the parking lot.

  6. What a great post! I’m new to the “true” Pick-Up Lane Realm, because my daughter had half-day Kindergarten last year where the pick-up lane involved the 14 parents parking and then chatting while waiting for the kiddos. Easy Peasy.

    This year, I arrived what I thought would be embarrassingly early to the Pick Up Lane for the all-day kids, and I was shocked to see that I was so far back in line! Now, I know!

    I actually, LOVE the Pick-Up Lane Routine. It’s organized. It’s smooth. I can sit for half and hour and READ MY BOOK WITHOUT ANY INTERRUPTIONS. It’s fantastic!

  7. Gretchen, you’ve ruined me! I was a happy, go with the flow drop-off lane driver until I read this and noticed all the obnoxious rule breakers in our line!! In the last week I have found myself ranting about the parked cars, parents blocking traffic to drop their kids at the closest spot to the sidewalk leading to the back of the school where they go in, and the number of pajama bottoms I observed walking to and from the school.
    I think I’ll have to practice turning inward with yogic breathing in drop-off lane to get back to my beginner’s mind of peaceful ignorance.
    Thanks for all the great advice and humor. You’re going to be managing that line for many years to come. 🙂

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