School car lines are out of control

Jun 2, 2014 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Image: LWA/Dann Tardif/Blend Images/Getty Images

Elegant, smooth and focused participation in her son's school drop-off and pickup lines is something this author has not yet mastered. She admits this freely. And she feels only slightly chagrined to pull together this round up of the most egregious behavior. (Mostly because she's sure this means someone is stalking her — which is just wrong, right?)

When the lone sedan swung around the corner of the school and stopped haphazardly, blocking the lane, my palms got clammy.

School buses chugged down the road, the line of cars spilled onto the main road and the weather was just brisk enough that no one wanted to emerge from their cars.

Except "That Guy." (You know him. He's the same guy who screams at his kids' umpires and referees.)

He approached the side of the errant car like a cop approaching a traffic stop: eyeing the front and back seats, hand on his holster (OK, not really, but it totally felt like it). I couldn't hear his words, but I noted the cock of his head and the frustrated gesture of the one hand not stuffed in a pocket against the wind. He said his piece and began walking away... but then he glanced back.

The car hadn't moved. And getting that car to move clearly had become his goal in life.

Uh oh. This time, he walked right up to the driver's window and rapped on the glass. Both hands flew out of his pockets. His gestures were fast and angry. I could see the woman in the driver's seat shaking her head.

Later, I learned she didn't speak English. She had no idea what the man was yelling about. Surely, he had to have realized that. Surely, she tried to tell him. But he had no interest in seeing the situation for its innocence. He screamed. He yelled. As he walked away, he kicked her car.

He kicked her car!

Hurry up, I'm more important than you

I know what you're thinking. No, I wasn't in the parking lot of a local dive bar at 2 a.m. watching drunk and belligerent patrons. I was at my toddler's preschool, waiting in line to pick him up. I was surrounded by parents waiting for their children. Parents who were raising their children. Parents whose behavior would help determine their children's behavior.

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These days, with funding slashed and fewer school buses on the roads, more parents are driving their children to school, which means a regimented shuffle among SUVs, minivans and cars who sometimes appear to merely roll to a stop as the child is deposited on the run.

As a society, we're in a rush. We have meetings to get to, other schools' bells to beat and everyone is oversleeping because we're all more tired than ever.

And that's just in the morning.

Hurry up and wait

By afternoon, parents have one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a smartphone, continuing a work discussion while waiting in line, returning emails, editing proposals and — please don't interrupt this person whatever you do — beating high scores at Candy Crush.

I've fallen victim to the harried mentality, too, and I'm a stay-at-home mom who writes to fill my soul, not my bank account. I may not have an office to zip to, but I have two tiny colleagues who don't hesitate to whine and scream if their older brother isn't at the curb in seconds upon arrival (which, of course, never happens).

As the baby wails and my daughter whines, I feel my shoulders tense and I inch just a bit closer to the car in front of us. I'm in the routine now. I know how to play this game. Hurry up, people. I have important waiting to do.

Breaking written and unwritten rules

Of course, with my oldest merely in preschool, I'm a newbie to the world of school drop-off and pickup lines, which probably was evident to the herd of minivans surrounding me during my child's first week of school, when I basically broke all the (written and unwritten) rules.

  • I blocked "The Corner," which gives school buses just enough space to squeeze by (unless someone like me is blocking it). Oops! So sorry... Totally thought that random car waiting back there by the curb was just enjoying some shade.
  • I forgot to put our numbered placard in the window then misunderstood the teacher's frantic gestures for a friendly greeting obviously punctuated by excessive caffeine. "Hi there. Yes, I see you. Hi to you, too. Wait, what? Oh… oops! Sorry."
  • I jumped out of the car and greeted my son with a smile, a hug and a kiss (and possibly some high fives), oblivious to the line of glaring parents who remained stoutly buckled in as they followed the rules and let a teacher do the car seat buckling. (Did I mention my big boy is in school? Eeeek!) 
  • I asked my son if he had fun at school that day. While standing beside his open door. But, see, if I wait to ask him when we're free and clear of the school, well, he'll be zonked out. Mama wants to know now.
  • I passed a lemonade juice box back to the minivan's third row occupant, my daughter, who then played keep-away as she tried to figure out how to grab it without squeezing lemonade on her head. "Take it." I finally yelled as the pickup line (unarmed?) guard strode toward us.
  • I asked the teacher how her day went. Yes. I made small talk while in the line. For all that is good and true, aren't we allowed to be polite anymore?

Some of these slights remain in my afternoon repertoire. The difference now is that I am fully aware I am irritating a line of parents. But on the days when I stay in my car, somehow the car seat is never buckled properly, so I'll take the hit (hopefully a non-threatening bumper kick from "That Guy") because in that moment, it's all about my kids. (OK, and me.)

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Veterans sound off

Gretchen from Mile High Mamas points out how we're basically ruining the planet while waiting in pickup lines for our highly educated offspring. "Think of your tailpipe as a big old cigar," she writes. "When you add up idling in a pickup line for 30 minutes a day, five 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, nonstop, refueling as necessary? Never. So why do it immediately outside your children’s school?"

Quit spying on me, Kludgy

Gigi Ross of Kludgy Mom has basically been spying on me with this summation of, as she puts it, "How To Be A Total Jackhole in the School Parking Lot or Pickup Line." "Show up for pickup 75 minutes prior to the end of school to get the prime spot. This will create a chain reaction of people being forced to leave earlier and earlier to get a decent spot in the pickup line. Eventually, this will result in people dropping off their kids in the morning and just staying all day to protect their spot." (Oops! Sorry, Kludgy.)

Snark while you park

Still not quite getting it? Snarky in the Suburbs summarizes her expectations: "[T]he perfect drop off scenario should be as follows: Kids are dressed, backpacks are at the ready. You approach the drop off zone in full alert, hands on steering wheel, preferably in the 10 & 2 position, and eyes forward. One of your child's teacher[s] is doing drop off duty [and] you fight your desire to speak to her about the book report due next week or comment on her 'super cute skirt.'"

"When it's your turn for car unloading you initiate the 'bye bye, have a great day' sequence, as children unload swiftly and with all of their belongings. You then ease away from the curb and drive away from the school secure in the knowledge that you are a master of the drop off. Take pride in that fact. It's not an accomplishment a majority of parents can claim."

Well, it is my first year in "The Line." I'm sure I'll be much more conscientious next year. You know, when my daughter attends that other preschool across town and has to be there right now.

More on getting the kids to and from school:

17 Things you can do in the school pickup line
Carpool and car seats: Do you know the law?
How to start a carpool with other families