I pass a road called Rosa Parks Lane each morning on my way to work. It’s unpaved and does not look like much from the major north-south artery in Wilmington that serves it. Driving past it, were you to turn your head and glance, you’d see the characteristically flat, scrubby, sandy landscape that defines coastal North Carolina, offset by clumps of Loblolly pines with their tall, naked bodies and round, green noggins. You might also catch a glimpse of a modest ranch-style home or two.
On weekday mornings during the school year, I’ve observed a white sedan pulling out of Rosa Parks and then nosing gingerly into a paved pulloff on the big road, called Carolina Beach Road, where it idles. Its occupants are waiting for the bright yellow school bus that will arrive there directly. A time or two I’ve been behind the school bus in traffic, and so I slow my car to a stop when the lights flash and the familiar red sign pops out. On these occasions, all we scurrying commuters queued up behind the bus are treated to the happy spectacle of a short, round woman who emerges from the driver’s seat, and then pops open the sedan’s back door to reveal a tiny person she’ll escort onto the bus. The woman is usually in her bathrobe, awash in car headlights while she helps the child aboard. She stands and waits for him to find a seat, and then looks up into the glass windows and waves before returning to her idling car.
I have lost count of how many times I’ve witnessed this scene unfold, but find it an uplifting and restorative moment in the early mornings. It takes me way, way back to a couple of years during my own childhood when I attended an independent school in midtown Memphis that was a bit of a haul from my family’s suburban community. At the time, my mom was preoccupied with my younger brother, still an infant, and so dad hauled me to school on his way to work. I had no objections to this arrangement, which invariably included a stop at Krystal for breakfast near the University of Memphis campus. This was an old-style Krystal, a dying breed even then, with red upholstered booths and spinning stools at the counter, and the floor done up in black and white mosaic tile. The waitresses still wore aproned uniforms and scrawled down what you wanted onto a pad, while behind the counter you could see back into the kitchen where the short-order cooks yanked tickets down from clips and started preparing your waffles and grits. Unlike its modern-day spawn, those old Krystals were awash with stainless steel; it would be years before molded plastic replaced it, before you no longer stopped to see the cashier on your way out to settle up the tab, where she’d make change and your daddy would beseech you to run back to plunk it down on the table.
My dad’s strategy to keep me from lollygagging was a speed eating contest; probably didn’t do much to aid the digestion, but it kept us on time. Back inside the car, he drilled me endlessly, mainly on my times tables, but also on social studies facts, or spelling words; whatever was happening later on in my third- or fourth-grade classroom was also the topic of his behind-the-wheel tutorials. After learning basic math from early elementary school primers where bundles of logs illustrated the ones and tens and hundreds, my burgeoning right brain hemisphere started eclipsing the left, and so I threw up walls and dug in my heels. Dad always, always had an academic strategy that seemed to work, and if the soundtrack for reciting nine-times-eight-is-seventy-two on the way to school happened to be Sly and the Family Stone or Credence Clearwater Revival, all the better.
Taken as a whole, these elements added up to a fantastic morning routine. And many years later, it would be reciting the times tables to my adult self every morning to get me back into my left brain during a desperate life chapter that demanded staying rational and level-headed, without allowing emotions to cloud my thinking.
I imagine the woman in the white sedan reviewing math facts with her little peanut, or maybe the child is still eating breakfast while they chat about the day ahead and she’s urging him to finish-up-because-the-bus-will-be-here-soon, or maybe she’s imploring him not to leave his lunch box at school this time. I imagine her explaining the story of Rosa Parks, maybe. Or maybe their morning is nothing like that at all, but it obviously would not be a stretch for me to invent an entire narrative around this unknown child and the woman in the car.
Meanwhile, the narrative unfolding half a world away daily illuminates all kinds of fraught decisions parents must make on behalf of their children. You’ve seen the images played on continuous loop now for more than a month, of tearful fathers clutching their screaming wives and babies and kissing them goodbye and of mothers pushing strollers through the sidewalk rubble amidst shelled remains of apartment buildings and of tiny hands pressed against glass windows inside train cars pulling out of crowded stations. The normalcy of morning breakfast and times tables and school days is but an echo for these children and their parents. It is not the first nor the last time this narrative will unfold.
On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon Chef David and I are seated at a table in a busy Wilmington eatery waiting for our lunch of fried oysters and crabcake sandwich and spinach salad. The place is bustling with people—large groups, pairs of friends, and lots of young families. At one table is a family with a little girl, maybe age eight, about the same age I was back during those early morning car ride tutorials. She is all decked out in her princess outfit. It is a blue satin gown trailing two wide, flowing ribbons of chiffon behind it, and it is full of wrinkles. Underneath the gown she is wearing navy leggings printed with stars and moons and wizard caps; on her feet are a pair of spectacular Mary Jane flats in gold lamé. Her hair is a mess, swept back into a pony tail with unruly wisps that suggest she’s been at it, this Saturday princess fantasy, for hours already this morning. She’s skipped back and forth to the loo a couple of times, content in her own skin, happy to wear her blue satin-and-chiffon dress on this exquisite day.
It is how every sunny Saturday should be for every eight-year-old child on the planet.
My heart and my head—call it left brain and right if you wish—ache and rejoice for all the parents who really get it right. Their children are the beneficiaries of so much love and wisdom, even if they won’t realize it for another generation. Maybe it will bloom one sunny morning somewhere in a house where nothing (and everything) unfolds as usual, after they’ve come of age and have a family of their own, where breakfast is served and times tables are quoted and fairy princess gowns spill out of a toy box in a bright childhood bedroom down the hall. Maybe later on the third grader who lives there will wave from the school bus window to a mama or daddy standing below, not sorrowfully, but cheerfully, a routine gesture to welcome the start of another day of school. It is how the world order should be, routine and reliable, just like the times tables, with a healthy dose of hope thrown in for good measure. It is a world where the biggest worry in any childhood day is a lunch box left behind in a classroom, or a forgotten homework assignment, or finishing third place in the relay race instead of first, and not about whether they’ll ever see their daddy who loves them so much, who got parenting right, ever again.
Could I but wave my fairy wand, or click together my sparkly shoes, I would wish it so.