August 5, 2003

The End of the Line

In two more weeks my life will change forever. My oldest, just about to enter the 2nd grade at the end of this month, will be joined by my youngest as she enters kindergarten. Their school is close to home and my commuting with children days will end. What a big step for all of us and I am sad excited sad… Ok, I can’t wait!

For the past four years I have dutifully accompanied one or both of my girls to preschool downtown. This has meant I have risen every workday at 5:15 and left the house with one or both daughters at 6:45 for our subway trip into DC. Once deposited safely at school, I walked 20 minutes to my office, rain, snow, or shine, finally arriving by eight.

For one entire year, when both girls were in the same daycare, I dropped off #1 at her classroom, then walk an additional 15 minutes to my youngest’s class before proceeding to my office. We bought a tandum double stroller called a Sit N’ Stand which allowed my oldest to stand (or sit) in the back while my youngest was nicely cloistered in the front. I learned to navigate that thing adroitly through subway doors and crowds, depositing us at the end of a car and away from rushing travelers.

When both children sat their heads were back-to-back and my youngest would take great delight in butting the back of her head against her sister’s. This was always excellent entertainment for early morning commuters (although my oldest would surely disagree). But the gargantuan task of transporting these two was always evident to others and I could always feel their awe/admiration/thank-God-it’s-not-me thoughts vibrate throughout the car.

Having them sequestered in the relatively safe containment field of a stroller allowed me to concentrate on getting them safely from Point A to Point B. Despite my desire to keep them contained forever, I realized they finally had outgrown the stroller when their weight actually made the stroller go in all sorts of uncontrollable directions. Walking side-by-side in crowded Metro stops presented new challenges.

At the other end of the day I made the identical return trip in reverse. I picked up my tired but energized sweet’ems and navigated the underground with millions of hot (or cold), tired, and grumpy commuters. We’d arrive home exactly 12 hours after we first left. This was a very long day for all of us. And, I have to give my girls credit. They were champs and good sports in this daily grind.

• • •

Traveling with children allows you to experience human nature in special ways, not just my youngsters’ but the adults around us. As I’ve mentioned before, knowing smiles and impromptu conversations often connected me to strangers.

But I also had to scratch my head when no one on a crowded train offered my four year old a seat. When one did, it was the exception, not the rule. And, surprisingly, 90% of those who did were men.

Once a woman pushed herself through a pile of waiting commuters to catch a packed train. The rest of us had decided it was safer to wait for the next one. As she pushed her way through, yelling “I’ve got to get on that train!” she knocked my daughter’s stroller into the space between the platform and the car. As the door closed between us it was the only time I silently mouthed an unseemly word underground. Rhyming with “itch,” I made sure she was looking right at me as I delivered it.

A couple months ago, while waiting at the same platform, a man tried to cut right between my daughter and I as we both walked on board. We had recently seen a little boy rush onto a train and leave his mother behind as the door closed. This affected my young daughter deeply and she couldn’t stop talking about this incident for days. So when our hands were temporarily separated I immediately tensed up.

When both of us were safely aboard, I said loud and clear “I have a four year old child here!” for both he and the rest of the car to hear. He replied “Well, if I had known you had a child I would have given you a break.” I and the other passengers took note: no child, no break. Yes, you meet many interesting characters underground.

Bob Levey, noted columnist for the Washington Post, once devoted part of a column on us after two interesting encounters down under. As I reread it now, my shock at these interactions with fellow commuters was so evident. I was so green. Creating a buffer between your children and “the world” requires some thought and finesse. You want to protect them. But you also want to teach your kids how to make distinctions between safe and unsafe situations. No wonder I was often exhausted when I walked through our front door.

While those experiences stood out, we’ve actually made friends with a small group of workers whose schedules always matched our own. Seeing them on the way in or out of town provided us with a community deep down. Today I announced to a crowded elevator that we would be coming to our last “meeting” next week. I will miss them.

• • •

As my children and I walked in the front door each evening at least one of us was either:

  • Ready for a timeout (dad often marched right into his bedroom without protest)
  • Hungry
  • Ready to pack it in for the night
  • Excited to see mom to tell her all about our school/bureaucratic day

Given the long days and hard commutes, you must wonder why we subjected ourselves to this for these four years. We had preschool choices but this one weighed in as the best. Both my daughters attended the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center and the museums of the Smithsonian were their classrooms and playground. When your 4 year old came home and nonchalantly announced that Frank Stella was her favorite artist, you knew it was worth it. Last year my eldest daughter made a musical instrument out of trash and then played hers accompanied by Yo Yo Ma (I have now instructed her that, should this ever happen again, make sure you have said virtuoso autograph your trash).

I have chronicled many of our adventures to and from school. It was a time to be close to my daughters whether we were taking a nap, “baking” pretend cookies, reading, playing the staring game (to see who could make the other laugh first), making up stories, or using onboard ads to teach the alphabet. And, I will miss that closeness (probably more than I realize at the moment).

But both my wife and I are a bit relieved that now both girls will be closer to home. Given the events of 9/11 (when I had to rush to the Center to retrieve my younger daughter after hearing news reports of fires on the National Mall) and of anthrax scares (when we kept her home for two weeks), we’d like to think she is more protected from the realities of our new world order in our own neighborhood (if only for a few more years). For a while we were making daily decisions whether to take her downtown: an incredible preschool program verses her safety. Constantly making that decision was exhausting. Of course, the DC sniper showed us that we can be vulnerable even in our own backyard.

But looking forward, I am so excited about my anticipated free time bonus I don’t know what to do with myself. What will I do with my extra time? I will be able to sleep later and I will arrive home at least 1/2 hour earlier each evening. My wife is praying for a refreshed and revitalized me when I walk through that door: someone who isn’t so exhausted by office politics and commuting home with a tired child that I will actually be able to cook a dinner once in a while.

But what will I do on the subway? I could continue making phantom cookies and play the staring game, but without my daughters I won’t get the knowing smiles from those around me as I am used to. In preparation I’ve been watching others to reacquaint myself with the joys of commuting solitude.

In anticipation I’ve been beefing up my new iPod with music—do you have any recommendations for leisurely sojourns to and fro? And I’ve been paying closer attention to my suggested reading list on Amazon. I’ve got a few goodies lined up. Hmmm, perhaps a recipe book would be a good place to start.

• • •

Later: On the commute home this evening I noticed a young woman sitting across from us. She appeared to be in her early 20s but with her hair in pigtails and her Mary Jane shoes she was dressed more like an 11 year old. I watched her as she pulled out a piece of paper and began to write. All the while my daughter was fidgeting, her dress above her knees prominently displaying her underwear. She loves to wear dresses but constantly struggles to remember this bit of modesty.

As the woman rose to exit, she handed me her note. I was simply tired and wanted no intrusions. I politely declined but she dropped it in my lap and whispered “it’s a tip” as she walked away.

What will I do without the kindness of strangers and outside the glare of my daughter’s spotlight? Gracefully fade into a commuter’s anonymity.

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