I learned a lot about modern parenthood when I watched my brother's kids for a week while he and his wife went on vacation. I stayed at their house, cooked the meals, and got their kids to and from school -- the same my brothers and I went to. To claim the kids in the afternoon, I had to show a signed permission slip to a woman holding a clipboard at the door, who had a hard time letting go of her suspicions about me until the third day.
I got there early every afternoon and sat in the lobby with other people, waiting for the bell to ring. I noticed that when parents pick their kids up from school these days, they take apart backpacks immediately, before they even get to their cars, and this surprised me. It seems there's a lot riding on what's in that backpack. There are questions and there is meaningful pointing to papers.
I pictured me in the last half of the 1950s, right here in this lobby, holding my book bag, walking down these steps with my friends. After a half-hour meander home -- I'd say "hi" to my mother and eat a snack before going back outside to play. When she asked how school was I could say "Fine" without having to come up with any evidence.
There's something transcendent about being in your old school after this many years have passed, and mostly it's that the universal school smell hasn't changed one bit. Of course everything looks smaller than you remember it, but not as disappointingly puny as the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History turn out to be, especially after you've already told your kids, "You won't believe how huge they are!" As soon as I walked through those school doors, I could remember my teachers' faces and the way they walked, even when I couldn't remember all their names right away.
For the first few days of picking up my niece and nephew, none of the other mothers said anything to me as I sat down. Mostly they stared at me as if I had Danger tattooed on my forehead and just spoke among themselves.
Then on the fourth day, when it seemed they were running out of things to talk about, one of them looked up at the stately portrait that hung in the lobby. It was of the man for whom the school had been named in 1957, when I was in first grade. The painting might as well have been Abraham Lincoln. Or Abraham, for that matter.
One mother asked the others, "Who was Raymond J. Lockhart anyway?"
Before I could remember that no one was looking in my direction, or that Dr. Lockhart had been dead for about 30 years, I piped up, "He was superintendent of schools when I went here." Maybe it's just me, but I thought questions would follow. Maybe, "So, what were kids like in the 1950s?"
It didn't go that route. But that didn't mean I was without a great answer.
We were children who did what we were told, and now we're all a little embarrassed about that. Sticking a fork in a toaster would zip you across the room and result in instant death as you hit the wall. A pencil could (and would) poke your eye out no matter the speed or trajectory.
Oddly, along with all the household objects that could kill us, we were also swept up in the American Can Do spirit, and understood that somehow we could accomplish anything we set our minds to. This would turn out to be a handy way to think in our early 20s when we found out we were much smarter than our parents or than any humans previously born.
Lucky for me the school day was over and the bell rang, and soon backpacks were being unzipped and papers were careening slightly through the air. And no one looked at me for the rest of the week.