Since my 5-year-old started kindergarten back in August, I've become intimately acquainted with that circle of hell commonly known as the car-rider pickup line.
Despite the fact that I live just five minutes from school, it takes me a good 30 minutes of waiting in an endless line of cars each day before I can collect my daughter and chauffeur her home. I spend that time reading, listening to music, and imagining all sorts of highly improbable things about the other moms and dads around me. But it's getting old. Real old.
"Why don't you join a carpool?" my friend Barbara asked over coffee the other day as I complained bitterly. "I know Susan does one in Poplar Ridge. That's not far from you."
Woefully, I shook my head. Barbara didn't know it, but I'd already done the carpool thing long enough to realize my style probably wouldn't be appreciated by the other parents.
I learned this five years ago, when my eldest stepdaughter started high school. Eagerly, I signed up to ferry an SUV-load of sullen teens home from school a few days a week. I'd thought my extensive Beastie Boys CD collection would get me in with their crowd, but the eyerolls and grimaces that greeted me each time I pulled into the school parking lot told me otherwise.
Battling sinking self-esteem and newly visible crow's feet, I did what any reluctantly aging stepmom would do: I struck back.
The first time I found an opportunity was when I spotted one of my carpool riders, who we'll call Sam, smoking cigarettes with his friends in a strip mall parking lot beside the school. Sam wasn't riding that day, but I pulled up to the curb anyway and rolled down the passenger window.
"Sammy!" I shouted. His shoulders stiffened and he quickly dropped his cigarette on the sidewalk, but he didn't turn around. "Oh, Sammykins!"
Slowly, Sam turned around and spotted me. "Are you riding carpool today, Sammy? Does your mama need me to take you home?"
His friends snickered.
"No!" He croaked. "No! Please! No!"
"Okay then! Bye, Sammy! See you at church Wednesday night!" Smirking, I drove away.
Sam was careful to keep the cigarettes hidden after that, but when my second charge, Amanda, got herself a new boyfriend, she started causing carpool problems.
"Are you sure Amanda's riding today?" I asked my stepdaughter one day, after we'd been idling in the parking lot for 10 minutes.
"I'm sure," she said. "She was here and then she said she had to go back to get her cell phone."
After a few more minutes, Amanda and her boyfriend came ambling into the parking lot, arm in arm. As she lazily scanned the cars and focused in on my SUV, I made a big show of looking around, throwing up my hands and shrugging my shoulders. Then I drove away.
"What are you doing?!" my stepdaughter squealed.
"Just making sure she's not late again," I said.
I looked in the rearview mirror and noted with satisfaction that Amanda had broken into a run, trying to catch us before we left the parking lot. As I looped back around, she stopped and smiled wanly, realizing she'd been had. I drove up to where she was standing...and kept right on going.
"Lindsay!" my stepdaughter yelped. In the parking lot, a group of kids pointed and laughed. I circled back and passed her one more time before finally stopping to let her get in.
Amanda was never late for carpool again. I was pretty sure I could count on my teenage carpool riders to never rat me out to their parents, but with the elementary school set, I couldn't be so sure. Tears would almost certainly result from my old standby prank of locking the car doors every time the kids tried to get in. Then there was the matter of making sure everyone was buckled up.
After that, I'd be treated to multiple demands for McDonald's french fries and juice boxes. And while I had managed to accustom my own kids to an iPod playlist that was heavy on Radiohead and Imogen Heap, I could imagine that might not go over so well with the neighbors' kids.
"No," I told Barbara sadly, stirring my coffee. "I'm just too devoted for carpool."
And so, if you're looking for me, try the car-rider pickup line. It's only a matter of time before I've used up all my tricks and become a fixture in the driveway of my daughter's school, petrified from permanent boredom.
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